This essay originally ran October 30, 2013. We are republishing it for Halloween weekend.
I am 28 years and 5 months old, and I went exactly that long without ever seeing an entire horror movie. On Monday, my streak ended, after my editor forced me to watch the original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre at home, at night, with the sound up and the lights out. This was a terrible idea.
Before I get to this nightmarish evening, quick answers to the FAQ that inevitably follows me telling people I have never seen a horror movie.
You’re lying, right?
Come on, you must have seen Jaws or Silence of the Lambs.
No, I haven’t.
If you’ve never seen one, how do you know you wouldn’t like them?
First, because I’ve been subjected to enough unavoidable trailers for horror movies, which Hollywood feels the need to play in front of any and every movie. (Before we start Les Miz, why don’t you watch two minutes of the scariest parts of Mama rapidly edited together?) Second, even the scary scenes of non-horror movies freak me out. (Excuse me, Independence Day alien, stop telling me to “die.” I’m here for the Fresh Prince.) And third, I have inadvertently been exposed to some isolated horror scenes, just as a consumer of popular culture and a person who interacts with other human beings. I saw some of I Still Know What You Did Last Summer because it starred Jennifer Love Hewitt and I was an American tween, but cut out when things took a turn for the worse. My college girlfriend tried to make me watch The Ring with her roommates, so I pretended to fall asleep until I actually did fall asleep. (A self-hypnotic trick I also performed a few years back when friends put on Evil Dead II.) I haven’t seen The Birds, but I did watch the playground scene in a film class. Also, I read the Wikipedia page for The Human Centipede because three years ago there was a three-month span when every stand-up had a joke about it and I wanted to laugh. My aversion transfers across platforms: I never watched Twilight Zone, Tales From the Crypt, or Are You Afraid of the Dark? I didn’t read Goosebumps, and in high school I read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein almost exclusively through SparkNotes (don’t tell Mr. Bruzzo, please). The closest I have come to enjoying horror is comedy horror: I have seen two Scary Movies, Young Frankenstein, This Is the End, and every single “Treehouse of Horrors” episode of The Simpsons.
“But whyyyyy?” as I’m often asked in the Halloween season, when movie channels aplenty are running horror marathons. My simplest response is that both comedy (which I love) and horror (which I hate) are built around set pieces meant to maximize a certain involuntary response — laughter and fright, respectively. I like to maximize laughter in my everyday life, and not being terrified. However, I’m aware that my fear goes beyond that. Purdue professor Dr. Glenn Sparks, who has studied how we react to frightening mass media, says that about 10 percent of the population is wired to really enjoy the heightened state of physiological arousal. (They are also the type that enjoys roller coasters — which might be the only thing I like less than scary movies. At least horror movies sometimes have artistic value; a roller coaster is just socially acceptable minor BDSM.) I am not in that 10 percent. However, considering how well horror movies do at the box office, it is clear that many in my 90 percent aren’t as fully abstinent.
My extreme, visceral dislike of this genre likely has deeper psychological roots. I’m an anxious person, especially about mortality; it’s been entrenched in me since my mother passed away when I was 7 years old. Dr. Jeffrey Goldstein, from the Netherlands’ University of Utretcht, writes on Access Science, “Violent entertainment is less appealing when one is under genuine threat or experiences fear or anxiety prior to viewing.” For the last twenty years of my life or so, I’ve gone into all movies experiencing anxiety, just as I do most things in life. To spend time exacerbating that anxiety by watching people getting stalked and killed in gruesome ways holds no appeal whatsoever. California State University psychology professor Stuart Fischoff told the Daily Beast that horror movies historically appeal more to the young than the old, who “have stimulation fatigue” as “life’s [real] horrors scare them.” I’ve been an old dude at heart since before I learned long division.
Looking through David Edelstein and Bilge Ebiri’s list of the 25 Best Horror Movies Since The Shining on Vulture, I had mixed feelings: In reading their enthusiastic kvelling, I felt true joy in not ever having sat through those terrifying movies — but also a twinge of FOMO, and some regret that not seeing them makes me bad at my job blogging about pop culture. It was time: I needed to watch a horror movie to remain truly well-rounded and informed.
But which? I left that decision completely up to Vulture’s deputy editor Gilbert Cruz, who loves horror so much that he still buys them on DVDs. Seriously, DVDs. Years spent devouring these films provided Cruz with an instinct for torture, and he informed me that I was to watch the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre. He added the rules that I must watch it at night, in the dark, by myself, and without my phone on.
That’s exactly what I did Monday night. And I truly hated it. Texas Chain Saw Massacre is not my least favorite movie ever, but it is my second least. Not even horrific murders could displace the tedium of Waking Life for the top spot — though, interestingly, much of the first half of Chain Saw is taken up by hippies driving in a van and talking, which isn’t so different from Waking Life, except they weren’t animated. But after the endless discussions of Saturn in retrograde finally ended … oh, the horror, the horror. Hands down, the hardest part for me was the opening pre-road-trip scene, which included the scrolling text explaining that this was all a true story (I didn’t learn till later that it wasn’t) and shots of complete darkness occasionally broken by a camera flash that revealed some melty corpses. I shook. I cringed. I tightened up. I tried to “accidentally” block my view of the screen with my notebook, but that actually made the uncertainty worse. I had my thumb on my laptop’s spacebar, ready to pause, until this opening salvo finally ended. I think being a horror newbie made it especially terrifying, as I had no idea what to expect, no reflexive anticipation of the usual horror beats, no history that told me the scares would be coming right away. I kept on thinking of those early aughts websites that made you focus on something mundane only to have something frightening jump out and scream at the screen.
The second, all-murder-all-the-time half of the movie was painful. I could aesthetically recognize Hooper’s impressive ability to maintain tension through POV shots and flickering light. That begrudging appreciation doesn’t mean I liked it. Just because I note Hooper’s skill in making me literally jump back when Leatherface pops out and chainsaws the guy in the wheelchair doesn’t mean I liked it. I hated it.
Eventually, the final girl got away and, out of disappointment, Leatherface danced around with his chainsaw in a style reminiscent of Will Ferrell’s Old School ribbon dance. And the movie was over. The Excitement-transfer theory is something used to explain the enjoyment of seeing scary movies; according to psychology professor Susan Burggraf, “Fear causes arousal, which is transferred into positive arousal once the fear is gone.” That is not what happened to me. I had no positive feelings, just the negative ones that Sparks cites. So, like a dumb baby, I had trouble falling asleep. I double locked my apartment door and my bedroom door, but that only made me think more about how I was afraid. I lay in my bed for two hours thinking — not about the movie per se, but rather wrestling with the notion, inconceivable to me, that there were (a) people who enjoyed this kind of thing, and (b) other people who made this kind of thing, whose brains thought of these atrocities and deemed them something they should share. Luckily, unlike the average dumb baby, I had enough agency to wage a counterattack of bourbon, melatonin, and one of those YouTube ASMR videos where people whisper nice things.
I finally fell into a fortuitously dreamless sleep and woke up five hours later. Like blood-soaked last-girl Sally sitting in the back of a pickup truck at the end of Chain Saw, I was in the clear from my tormenter, though what I’ve seen will surely haunt me. I didn’t feel proud that I’d faced my fears or more confident in any way — other than confident that yes, I hate scary movies.