Movies are not as frightening as they use to be.
When I look at films like the recent remakes of “The Nightmare On Elm Street” or “Friday The 13th” or even the “Paranormal Activity” series, I see one thing that they all have in common: They rely way too heavily on jump scares.
A jump scare is exactly what it sounds like. It is something that comes up out of no where, is completely unexpected, and is meant to make the audience yelp in horror.
Here’s the thing about jump scares. They are not scary. They are startling. It is the movie equivalent of me grabbing your ear and yelling as loud as I can into it.
That is not horrifying, just unexpected. While catching the audience off guard is part of horror, that is far from the only aspect.
Two of the most terrifying movies I can think of are Ridley Scott’s “Alien” and John Carpenter’s “The Thing.” Both of which deal with similar circumstances: An alien is stalking a group of humans who cannot escape and have no chance of rescue. The difference between the two is not only the type of alien that is stalking the characters, but also how they go about making the alien the most unnerving creature imaginable.
“Alien” does this by presenting him as the ultimate killing machine. Acid blood, two sets of jaws to rip you apart, lightning fast and can hide in the ducts, and is just as smart as any human but only designed to kill. This is made even worse when he is hiding in a gigantic spaceship with thousands of places to hide. The alien could literally be hiding around any corner, waiting to strike, and you would never know. We have no way of understanding it or communicating with it, because it is alien to us.
“The Thing” is takes a rather different approach, by making its alien a shapeshifter. It is essentially a collect of cells that work as a virus, infecting other living organisms and adding to its collect. He can take whatever form he chooses to, including other humans that it has assimilated. As such, most of the film relies on paranoia and mistrust. Who is the alien and who is human? How can we know for sure? What is the alien’s true intentions? Why does it want to assimilate all the humans? And what would happen if it were released on a major city?
The great thing about both of these films? Little to no jump scares. These movies are scary through atmosphere, tension and making you care about the characters who are being hunted.
That’s another thing about recent horror films: The characters serve little to no purpose other than to be a body count for the monster. They’re designed to be despised, so that when they do eventually die, you cheer and thank the movie for killing off an annoying character.
Except that by doing so, the movie is no longer horror. It falls more in line with being a comedy. You are literally rooting for the bad guy with the machete or chainsaw to continue his murder spree. Something is just not right about that.
The best example I can think of what is wrong with modern-day horror comes from Alfred Hitchcock. He gave an example of his form of suspense by comparing it to some gentlemen playing poker at a table, when suddenly a bomb explodes from underneath the table. That is a surprise that you didn’t see coming. Now, take the same situation, but show the audience the bomb underneath the table before it blows up and show some kind of countdown. Suddenly, that is suspenseful and thrilling.
It is not the explosion or the dead bodies that makes a film worth seeing. It is the situations and dilemmas that the characters would get into, and asking, begging the audience if these people will walk out of this or not. It is the threat of danger and destruction that makes us want to see more, but necessarily the destruction itself.
Most modern-day horror films would be more tempted to just show the explosion rather than build it up, which is why most of them are so predictable and boring. You know exactly what’s going to happen before the trailers have even finished.
It is sad that we have come so low that our primary way of scaring audiences is by yelling “Boo!” really loud and hoping that will spook them.