What makes a scary movie scary? Is it the threat of violence and death? That’s pretty scary, but the scariest movies for me are the ones that involve more than just death. Everyone’s going to die; I’m more scared by becoming something I don’t want to be. I think this is a fear common to real life, too. What are the diseases and health problems people fear most? Usually the ones that change who we are: Alzheimer’s, ALS, brain injury. This fear is reflected in our literary history; Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, they used to be human. More modern stories involve robotics and cyborgs, or being changed into another species, mutants, etc.
I asked a woman who sits near me at work whether or not she likes scary movies; she said she was traumatized at the age of 11 by The Exorcist, that the fear that there could be that kind of evil was the issue. Personally, I saw that movie as an adult and I kept waiting for it to get scary. But I’m not Catholic, although I read The Omen a lot as a child. I’m not even kidding. I think I read it 3 times before I turned 12. I loved that book.
On the other hand, the guy who sits on my left at work seems bothered primarily by themes involving a chase, like Friday the 13th. Another co-worker is bothered by evil children although it wasn’t an issue before she had her own children. Back then she was bothered by evil reaching her via the medium of water or inanimate objects, which seems oddly specific to me.
The first movie that scared me was Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark–the original tv version. The way I remember it, and I acknowledge I may remember it entirely incorrectly, a young family inherits a house from an eccentric uncle. The will stipulates that no one ever reopen the bricked up fireplace in the basement. Of course, they figure the uncle was just crazy, and it’s a beautiful fireplace, so let’s unblock it. We won’t have a movie otherwise. Things start to happen, then happen more, and eventually the mom gets dragged into the fireplace by the tiny, crunchy, black, hominid-type creatures the uncle had blockaded when he bricked up the opening in the first place. I always wondered how he got away. The implication was that the mom, and anyone who got dragged in there, would be converted into one of the creatures. Essentially, the monsters reproduce by modifying their victims into a version of themselves. Awww, they adopt!
A movie with similar themes that a lot of people don’t think of as horror is Ridley Scott’s Alien. It’s sci fi, it takes place in the future, but it’s still horror. A few people, isolated, being stalked and apparently killed by a monster. The tension is spectacular but the reveal of what’s happening to the victims is the truly disturbing part of the story. It’s essentially the classic cabin in the woods story, but with the added twist that people are not being killed but used for off-label purposes. When Aliens comes along, the horror is front loaded because the audience already knows what’s going on; it’s the tension of waiting for the same fate to befall the Marines. It says something about the horror of their situation that the Marines’ deaths, sometimes by suicide, is a relief.
Movies involving demons can create the same feelings, especially when it involves possession. The guy who sits on my right has a thing against demons. Straight up demons coming from another dimension, or something similar, don’t bother me but when a pre-existing person is controlled by another being, that bothers me. We see this kind of thing in Paranormal Activity or The Blair Witch Project, as examples. The ‘found footage’ format of the film, while annoying, enhances fear by implying the possibility of demonic possession is more likely, because it’s happening to real people, because evidently people have lower production values.
In the TV show, Dominion, we see former humans, now called 8-balls, who are possessed by lower angels in the civil war between the archangels Gabriel and Michael, where Gabriel wants to take over the earth now that God has left. The angels feel the loss of their father (the Christian God) acutely and act out in different ways; Gabriel wants all the humans gone, to have the Earth for angels, and Michael wants to save humanity, as his father’s favourite creation. The 8-balls act in Gabriel’s interests but in ways we normally view as demonic: mindlessly chasing and harming humanity. Possibly the show means to imply that the ‘lower’ angels are demons. We already know that Satan used to be an angel; perhaps their lower status indicates they are no longer what we think of as ‘good’ angels. Of course, where God is concerned, what is ‘evil’ is what is opposition to God’s will, but without God, both angels and humans resort to more traditional, human views, although it’s possible Gabriel feels that what is against his will is evil. It’s certainly how he behaves.
In the recently released movie, Dracula Untold, we see a mix of these themes. Vampires are those rare literary creatures that evoke both positive and negative feelings. They cannot be exposed to the sun and a small selection of rare and/or violent techniques are the only things that can kill them. These techniques (stake through the heart, fire, direct sunlight) can also kill ordinary people, although exposure to sunlight takes longer. Being unable to see daylight or feel natural warmth alarms non-vampires. Other things that disturbs us about being a vampire: being unable to eat normal food, being nourished only by human blood. On the plus side of the vampire ledger we see being able to change into animals and never aging or dying, unless by one of the aforementioned specific techniques. Vampires are like rock stars; they live at night, they do what they want, and, in the case of a certain cadre of stars who died young, never age. Some of them don’t seem to eat either.
Vampires are fascinating to us because of the tension between the good and bad elements inherent in their condition. We want to live forever and remain young, but we also want to eat good food and go to the beach. What are we willing to trade to achieve this eternal youth? Even among actual humans, if we want to live longer we have to at least moderate what we eat. If we drink a bottle of wine every day and have sugary desserts with every meal, we will almost certainly shorten our lives. If we go into the sun too much, we risk skin cancer, which can shorten our lives. Of course, even if we watch our weight and take care of our bodies, anything can still happen to make us sick or cause our deaths. Vampires’ deaths are caused by such a small number of options that they can easily watch out for it. Given the choice, though, of becoming a vampire, how many of us would make that choice? A vampire’s life is unfulfilling by some standards (no family, no sunlight, no chocolate) but someone who values knowledge more than children might find that kind of life’ something very interesting. You could read all the books. You could see all the places. You could visit all the people. Of course, you could only do these things when it’s, at best, seriously overcast.
We’ve seen a lot of different vampires, too. Dracula is the first ‘modern’ literary vampire (archaeology shows us the fear of vampires goes back centuries), but more recently we’ve seen others, with varying personalities: on Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Angel (mostly bad guys), Vampire Diaries (ambivalent), Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (rather Dracula-like), Twilight (free will ambivalent), Daybreakers (metaphors for wasteful humans), and Nosferatu (bad and ugly), Underworld (at least one vampire fighting the good fight), Lost Boys (unequivocally bad). Dracula has seen all of these cycles. He’s seen as evil because he kills humans to remain ‘alive’ but he NEEDS to kill; he’s a predator and no one faults a predator for doing what comes naturally. He’s softened by his love for his wife and for her reincarnation, Mina. He’s charming, intelligent, some might say wise, and sometimes he changes a person into a vampire instead of making a meal of them. Besides his particular nutritional requirements, he’s got a lot going for him, in terms of personality. Still, people are horrified at the idea of being changed into a vampire; maybe it would be better to say they’re ‘horrified” at being changed.
Anyway, in Dracula Untold, we see a take that people don’t normally think of when they think of Dracula but a quick search reveals that it’s in keeping with Bram Stoker’s story. Dracula doesn’t start life as a vampire, of course, and likely does some decent things with his life before he changes. It’s that he starts out as a human being that scares us. The difference between Dracula and other vampires, which I find interesting, is that he takes on these powers and disabilities but his personality doesn’t change. Anne Rice’s vampires are the same, and in the Buffyverse, vampires are essentially empty vessels inhabited by demons (at least that’s the story — a close reading of the personalities of vampires reveals a vastly different reality). Other vampire stories basically follow the ‘power corrupts’ narrative; if you’re a good person before you’re turned, you’re a good person after.
So why is Dracula scary? He fulfills our fantasies of eternal life and youth while removing almost everything that makes us human; he literally makes us inhuman. He changes us from who we are and makes us something else. I suppose if you’re not happy with who you are, having eternity to work out your issues would be appealing. I wouldn’t be a fan of the no chocolate part, but I’ve got a lot of reading to catch up on. I don’t know if I’m even going to be able to read all the books I have in ONE lifetime, and my roommate suggested blood would probably be like chocolate for vampires, so there’s that. Maybe it’s our desire, the idea that we might actually want to make that change, to be charming and charismatic, to live forever and never age, that scares us most; we’re really scared of ourselves.