Geoff Pevere: Bankers or Boogymen: Which is Scarier?

One of the interesting things about the horror movie is that it’s always been most popular with young audiences. It’s basically a teen genre, and I’ve only really come to understand why as I got older and found myself that much harder to scare. With age comes responsibility, and with responsibility comes a whole new world of terrifying. Instead of shuddering at the thought of ghosts, zombies, serial killers or poltergeists infiltrating your electronics, you sweat at whether you’ll make the bills or remember to lock the door. The real evil takes the form of bank statements and second thoughts.

I get asked to comment on the horror movie just about every year at this time, and Halloween is as good a time to make the point as any. After all, it’s one of the most childishly exuberant of calendar wingdings, and it primarily delights either the kids with the loot or the grownups who like to let their inner kids out for a hoot now and then. (There’s another fact of age and case in point for my argument: dressing up in costume is fun for kids, teenagers and young adults, and of no interest whatsoever to just about anyone who’s already thumped into thirty-five or beyond. Again, why dress up when the mask you look at every morning is already so frightening?)

It’s not that I don’t like a good horror movie – in fact I love ’em because they’re so rare – it’s just that I don’t need them to be uneasy any more. For that’s what horror movies do and have always done: they let you stare what troubles and unsettles you straight in the face and walk away. It’s a form of temporary mini-catharsis that reassures you that you will live through the fear. At least until it comes back, which it always does, and that’s why we’ll always have horror movies, stories, legends, comics, TV shows, novels plays and theme parties. Because we’ll always need something to help us through what keeps us up at night, something that says ‘See? That wasn’t so scary after all, was it?’

So if I get scared at movies today it’s just as likely to be the result of a likely natural scenario as an unlikely supernatural one. Much as I dug the first Paranormal Activity, and especially that brilliantly shuddery shot of the bedsheets rippling as the god-knows-what crawled beneath them, it only unnerved me as long as it took for those thoughts of what I was currently hating at work to firmly re-assert themselves on the streetcar home. Jesus, I thought, I’d trade a soul-sucking demon from hell over my current boss any day. And I’d probably sleep better too.

When I was a kid, those things that scared me most were those that suggested there might be something dead but restless under my bed, in my closet or crouching just outside my bedroom window. It was the thought that my home was vulnerable, that all the protection and comfort and love offered by my family was nevertheless utterly vulnerable to something that could pass through walls or return from the dead. It was a question of domestic security being violated. That’s why I can tell of the most frightening dream I ever had, because it came to me when I was about seven years old and it exploited these fears so potently I’ve never forgotten it: I’m walking along a sidewalk at night and I’m wearing pajamas. (Flannel, probably, if you must know.) I’m looking for my home and I come upon it, but there’s something different. It looks old and run down, and like nobody lives there. I slowly approach the front door, tentatively calling for my mother as I tiptoe inside. And there she is in a chair, facing away from me. I approach. “Mom? Mom?” I put my hand on her shoulder and she turns, and the look on her face still sends a chill down my (now gently curved) spine every time I think of it. She doesn’t know me….My mother doesn’t know me….

That was scary, scary shit for a kid like me at that age, perhaps the most frightening thing my unconscious could cook up and throw at me under the circumstances. And for years the movies that frightened me the most were those that quietly unnerved me: those that gently unsettled the surface of normality, that teased the familiar into unfamiliarity, that basically brought back that feeling of stepping in to that house and not being recognized by my own mother.

But that kind of vulnerability is specific to age and circumstance, and it lingers only in sensation as you get older. You remember how much it scared you, but the same kind of things don’t make you jump in the night the way they used to. (For one thing, you have to be asleep in the first place, and that too becomes more challenging with decrepitude.) These days, I’m just as likely to have a nightmare about losing my wallet as my life, and I’m every bit as terrified by documentaries about American power and politics as movies about flesh-eating entities risen from the dead and clogging up shopping malls, hospital emergency wards and traffic lanes out of town. When you’re young, those kinds of things are terrifying because they’re unimaginable. When you’re not, they’re just what happens in between the real nightmares.

— 30 —

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Geoff Pevere has been writing, broadcasting and teaching about movies, media and pop culture for over thirty years. He just can’t help himself. His column appears every Friday.

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