What is it about being terrified that we find so attractive? John Bailey takes a deep breath and unpicks our love of horror films.
"The skin becomes pale, sweat breaks out, and the hair bristles ... The breathing is hurried. The heart beats more quickly, wildly, and violently ..." It might read like lurid ad copy for the latest multiplex slasher flick, but it's Charles Darwin in 1872 writing of the physical effects of terror. Would he have been surprised that, more than a century later, we'd be lining up to actually pay for the experience?
We all have them - those childhood movie memories that send us scurrying under the covers just thinking about them. For me, it was a scene from 1982 horror Poltergeist in which a child is terrorised by a clown doll with telescopic, strangling arms. I hadn't even seen the film. I was just told about the sequence. But I did have a clown doll with long arms and spent a good portion of my nights waiting for its inevitable attack.
But for many people there is something strangely attractive about a good horror flick - the prospect of being terrified or appalled is not the deterrent it logically should be. And "good" horror flicks gain cult status - think Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street and The Exorcist. So big is the genre that the Melbourne International Film Festival, which starts this week, has a dedicated horror program, with fear brought to you from all around the world.
Just as many horror watchers have had their own Poltergeist experience, so too have many of the films' creators. When he was a kid, US director Sam Raimi's older sister snuck him under her coat into a screening of George Romero's seminal zombie film, Night of the Living Dead. "It was a crime that was committed against me, watching that film," he laughs. "I was too young. And it blew my mind, the terror. I could not believe it. I was so terrified watching that film."
The terrified little boy grew up to create the Evil Dead series, a trilogy of low-budget horror-comedies that have deservedly achieved cult status. Later on he made Hollywood's A-list with films such as the Spider-Man franchise. But he's back to his roots with a newie released this week, Drag Me to Hell.
His sensitivity to horror is why he always injects his monster movies with a heavy dose of humour. "I think it's because I'm a coward at heart. When I see things, I can't even approach them without looking at the funny side of it. Maybe it's a defence mechanism. And for some reason, that's how I present my horror."
While many forms of entertainment allow us to work through our anxieties or hidden desires in a safe way, horror - even horror-comedies such as Raimi's - puts a chainsaw to that notion of safety.
So why do so many adults actively seek out ways to recreate that thrill of fear? "I like to feel something when I see a movie, whether it's love or emotion or sheer terror," says Richard Moore, MIFF's executive director. "I see a lot of movies in the job and I see a lot of movies that are rather flat in the emotional realm. I think people want to feel, whether they want to laugh or cry or scream in terror."
Film critic and cinephile Cerise Howard doesn't describe herself as a die-hard horror fanatic. "I dislike more than I like. Some of those that I like, however, I love. Because a good horror film, be it of whatever subgenre, can affect me profoundly. It's not an anodyne experience, like so much cinema."
Clown dolls notwithstanding, I enjoy a good horror film. Sometimes I enjoy a bad one even more. The distinction is a little grey. "Some horror films are clearly moronic," says Howard, "yet might still be possessed of something that gives someone somewhere the heebie-jeebies. In which event, they're due some respect for having achieved that much. Some horrors are much more 'psychological' than they are a Grand Guignol procession of torture-porn vignettes, and some are both at once. Is one more intelligent than the other, though? I dunno."
MIFF's Night Shift program, designed to scare the bewillickers out of you, this year ranges from the truly brutal French shocker Martyrs and Dead Snow to a ridiculous Norwegian number pitting ski-bunnies against a horde of Nazi zombies. But horror refuses to be confined, and there are genuine chillers to be found across this year's MIFF catalogue, including Korean vampire priests and murderous English bogans. You might think Moore would be somewhat jaded by the volume of horror he has to watch, but he denies the charge. "I get terrified in horror movies but that's part of the fun."
For Moore, the social aspect is what lends big-screen horror viewing such a charge. "You're sharing something together with people. You're allowed to scream and to let it out; I think there's a cathartic element to horror. I don't think in general life that people get that opportunity to express their fears or terrors. You see people at the footy screaming their heads off, but where else do you get the opportunity?"
Hair-raising experiences are no stranger to the stage, either. Melbourne-based performer Moira Finucane has earned a massive following for her live shows, which frequently play around with horror imagery and themes to great effect. One of her most effective set-pieces sees her standing in a silky white gown which gradually becomes soaked with blood.
"I always wanted to be a human blood fountain," she says. "I don't know why. I was brought up a Catholic, but hey, a lot of people were brought up Catholic and don't end up doing that."
She may seem a fierce and fearless presence when she's in the spotlight but, like Raimi, Finucane confesses to being easily frightened. "When I was a kid, I was really, really horrified by horror. I'm still very sensitive to horror, both real and filmic."
She was in her 20s when she began to develop an interest in the genre. "I'd never watched horror movies, always walked out of them, even the '70s horror on television. So I guess I'm really aware of the potency of it."
While much of Finucane's work toys with horror and gothic imagery, she says that it's "only exciting when it's disruptive". Horror can simply serve to reinforce the status quo - fear is a great incentive not to step out of line - but it also offers ways of unsettling our most entrenched beliefs.
"Horror is reflective of our deepest beliefs and fears. A lot of what you see in horror movies is what our culture thinks, at its worst. It struck me that if you play around with that imagery, it can be quite liberating."
The effect of Finucane's live performances can be as powerful as a celluloid nightmare, tapping into fears we may not know we have. In one of her early works, she dressed in a 1950s-style white waitress' outfit and squeezed a four-litre bottle of tomato sauce to death. "That piece provoked the most incredible reactions in people. You can see it's just tomato sauce and smell it. But the image of it is quite disturbing."
For Finucane, horror works by sidestepping the ordinary, rational thought processes we like to think order our lives. Like fairytales, they push buttons on both a personal and a cultural level. And as Moore says, the adrenalin rush is strongest when it's shared.
It's the appeal of the childhood ghost story, says Raimi. "As a kid, I liked sitting around the campfire or some dark room at night and having friends tell scary stories. There's a collective energy that goes through the people that are listening and a great sense of anticipation if you've got a good storyteller. There's a giddiness you feel, like you want to scream, but you really shouldn't. Then there's a great release moment where the tension breaks and you, as a listener, scream in terror."
It's hard to draw a line around horror. The gruesome images of your average CSI episode can be as nasty as a B-grade slasher film; the submerged eroticism of the Twilight vampire novels isn't lost on a legion of teen fans. Even the Harry Potter series, Moore points out, edge strangely close to horror. So check the locks, stay away from the basement door and leave a light on when you go to bed. You never know where your next scare might come from. M
The Night Shift spotlight in the MIFF program runs from July 24 to August 9, melbournefilmfestival.com.au.
MELBOURNE FORECAST: HEAVY CHILLS
You don't need to look far for local scares. Melbourne hosts semi-regular zombie shuffles in which thousands deck themselves out in entrails and fake blood to lurch through the CBD. It's a loosely organised affair (appropriately enough), so there's no knowing when the next will take place, but you can find a group on Facebook with a little searching.
More consistent are the Haunted Melbourne Ghost Tours, which take thrill-seekers on a creepy exploration of the city's dark past. They're hosted by Drew Sinton, who also runs the Haunted Bookshop in McKillop Street in the city. You can make a booking on 9670 2585. Another walk with more than a hint of the afterlife is the Melbourne Cemetery Tour. Guides Helen D. Harris and Jan Davidson have been conducting the tours for 25 years and have a wealth of knowledge on who's lying where and why. Inquiries 9890 9288.
If you can wait until November 15 (and have $70 spare), you could take your chances at the Hub of Horror, a horror convention promising collectables, workshops and guest appearances from cult actors. Check out thehubproductions.com. And Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth) is currently in town filming his latest horror flick Don't Be Afraid of the Dark with Katie Holmes, a remake of a 1973 film in which a young girl's new home is infested with terrifying demons.