Horror movies are rarely genuinely scary. They can be funny, or stylish, or gory, or even utterly horrific, without actually being properly scary in any way.
It's easy enough to shock or surprise an audience – a cat jumping in from off-screen with a harsh musical sting is enough for that – but getting an audience to really feel The Fear is a lot harder than it looks.
But it does happen. And it can happen at the mall, in the woods, outside cheap restaurants, and out in dull suburbia.
Despite things like a morbid fear of the 1970s, I don't really scare easy. I was a horror film fiend for years, and watched everything I could get my hands on, no matter how rubbish they looked, and never got that scared.
Because some of them were hilariously awful, and some of them were just beautiful and moving, and some of them were bloody smart. Only a couple of them snatch the right mood, and were actually scary.
And I always felt a bit stupid at getting scared by a movie, tempered by the fact that I was incredibly impressed that anything can get a reaction like that out of the viewer. It takes something special to do that.
The first Dawn Of The Dead film was certainly special enough. It's a smart and funny movie, with the distinct palette of that terrifying and washed-out seventies. It's ridiculously thrilling, with one of the great soundtracks of all time.
But when I first saw the trailer for it at the end of the Jewel Of The Nile video tape we'd rented when I was 11, I was fucking petrified. There was something there, in the mindless stares of the undead, and that deep, throbbing score from Goblin, that triggered something in my head.
I had nightmares about zombies for months after that, and my hands would shake when I looked at the video cover in the local store. I didn't actually see the film for years – partly because it freaked me out so much, and partly because I wasn’t even a teenager yet, and it was a total R18. I didn’t end up seeing it until I was 15, and then it turned out to be two hours of sheer fear. That gloomy, doomed world, overrun with dead people who couldn’t be reasoned with, or argued with. They just kept coming with their rotting faces and dead stares, and would never, ever stop.
I’ve had a totally non-ironic plan to deal with the zombie apocalypse ever since. And a good zombie film always gives me nightmares, and the green faces and bulging eyes of the ghouls in Dawn Of The Dead still haunt me.
The first time a movie actually made my heart skip a beat in fear, it was the Blair Witch Project.
It was actually a few hours after I'd seen the film in the very late nineties, and I was lying in bed on a cold Tuesday night, and thinking about the part in the film when something is tapping on the tent, and there was something in the way the only thing between us and unspeakable things is this thin fabric of a tent, and right as I'm considering this beastliness, the wind picks up and scrapes a tree branch up outside my window, a metre from my head, and I swear, I felt my heart stop for a beat.
I had to sleep on the couch for the rest of the night, with the BBC World Service on all night, to fill the quiet darkness.
The only other time I thought I was about to totally shit my pants in fear in a movie theatre, it was all David Lynch’s fault.
Well, it was also partly my own fault. I watched Mulholland Drive at a cinema late on a Sunday night, at the end of a long, strange, sexy and druggy weekend, which is the perfect state of mind to see something like Mulholland Drive, with its long, strange, sexy and druggy story. I was right into the movie and its twists and turns, and then there was the part where the two guys go out behind the chain restaurant and there’s SOMETHING THERE.
The best horror films always give me nightmares, but this was the first movie that really felt like one of those dreams. The way it takes place in a boring part of Los Angeles, in an ordinary world, but then the noises of that real world fade away to be replaced by an ominous drone. And then an irrational fear turns out to be painfully real, and the victim just shuts down in pure shock, and I know how the dude feels, because that’s the worst kind of nightmare, up there, on the screen, shared with the wider world.
Because sometimes, the fear is just in your head, and sometimes, it's real, and the thing that can't possibly be there lunges at you out of the dream world, and all you can do is collapse.
It’s the dullness of that setting that makes it so bad – it’s the sort of place we all wander past without a second look. One that means nothing to anybody, until it reveals that the Worst Thing In The World is waiting there.
That recognisability is a key to tapping the fear, and one I’ve felt since the 1980s, when the suburbs suddenly became a place of slashing maniacs and sudden death. Michael Myers was suddenly stalking your big sister in a boring small town suburbia that is painfully familiar, coming into the homes of the kind of people who watch this kind of thing, in the dark, when the parents have gone to bed.
All those wide, empty streets in the middle of the day, that vague figure three blocks away, the only sound a sudden wind whispering through the trees that line the road. There is horror here, and it's not just in the maddening unpredictability of the spree killer, but in the bland world they stalk through.
That tradition of unspeakable horror living in the dull darkness of suburbia triggered another blast of pure fear at a new movie I saw, only just last week.
It Follows is a terrific little independent horror film, written and directed by David Robert Mitchell. It's the story of a sexually-transmitted curse, where the victim is followed by some kind of supernatural thing that can take on any human form, but will always be walking straight towards you, at a steady pace, and if it catches you, you're dead. You can outrun it, but it will always be following.
And it's a creepy movie, with that Carpenter mix of synthesiser nightmares in teenage girls' rooms. And there was one part, where the hero opens the door to her friends - who can't see the monster - and it's just them, but then OH JESUS IT'S RIGHT FUCKING THERE, and she freaks the fuck out, and I don't fuckin' blame her.
The film is loaded with metaphor for the teenage condition, and is beautifully unpredictable. But I'm always going to hate it a bit, because that horrible figure, looming up out of the darkness, scared the living shit out of me.
Any film that can get to that point, and can achieve that level of terror, is to be commended. I hate being scared – it is, by definition, an unpleasant experience – but anything that gets inside the head of the passive viewer and provokes that kind of reaction is something worth seeking out.
Sitting and watching a good scary movie is all well and good, but actually feeling some kind of primal flight-or-fight reaction is even better.