One of the most common questions horror fans get asked involves the question “Why?”
It’s easy to explain the mechanics of horror movies. It really is. It’s very easy to explain what has to happen for people to get scared. Mechanics, after all, can be broken down into a grid.
It can be sliced and diced into different factors, and you can then analyze the relationships between these factors. This gives you a certain level of comfort because you can then start making predictions.
You can see where everything fits, you can see whether something is sticking close to some sort of formula or something is experimental in nature. You can make certain predictions based on the familiar patterns. And this makes it so much easier to deal with certain types of movies because you can see what’s around the corner.
Let’s look at it this way, if you’ve ever been to Six Flags Magic Mountain in California, you know that they have the Colossus roller coaster. Everybody knows what the Colossus is in Southern California.
They know that it’s a roller coaster and when you reach a certain point, you will drop like a rock. And then you will go back up again, and then after several hundred feet, you will drop like a rock again.
Now, everybody knows this coming in. They can see the architecture of the roller coaster. They can see how fast it goes. They can see the reaction of the people on the ride. In other words, you know everything that is going to happen and then some.
Still, the moment they strap you in and you start seeing the metal brackets ratchet up and it makes this scary sound before it clicks and then you drop off a cliff at a very high rate of speed, you become scared.
It doesn’t matter that you’ve seen this play out many times before. It doesn’t matter that you know exactly the sequence of the actions about to take place. It doesn’t matter that you’ve seen the reactions of people. You get scared. This is actual terror.
This is how people respond to great horror movies. You know that they’re supposed to be scary. You know that they’re supposed to disturb you and haunt you, but you watch them again and again.
And this is what makes them so awesome because the sense of surprise is not lost. In fact, I could watch Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining again and again and still be scared because it really all boils down to believability.
That’s what makes great horror films so awesome and not so great horror films so horrible. It really all boils down to how the director plays with your ability to believe.
You have to remember that when you watch a movie, regardless of what kind of movie it is, you sit back and you turn off your skepticism. In other words, you enter this mental state of suspended disbelief.
Normally speaking, your mind is very skeptical. You’re always weighing information. You’re always tying it into what you know. You’re always assessing the information that you’re getting in terms of believability, credibility, accuracy and other factors.
Now, when you watch a great film, your suspended disbelief is richly rewarded. It is not stretched. It is not taxed.
You know that you’re watching really crappy movies when the director goes beyond your natural state of disbelief. The director is basically saying to you, “I suck as a film maker so I need you to even lower your state of disbelief. You need to basically trust me at my word.”
That’s too much for a lot of people, and that’s why certain movies just plain out suck because they stretch the audience’s suspension of disbelief to the limit. Horror films, good horror films at least, make full use of that state of disbelief and that’s why they are so awesome.