Riding the bus I overheard a conversation between a man and a woman about which movie was the scariest. Predictably the man said Saw and the woman said The Exorcist with the addendum, “because Saw is just a movie, but The Exorcist could really happen.” Needless to say fourteen ellipses paraded through my brain in succession at this utterance. “Psychotic killers are not real, but demon possession is” was the basis of her opinion. We can only hope she was sterile. Nevertheless, we should suspend our sense of reality and accept as fact her delusion that we may examine on equal footing these two positions. Saw’s terror lies in physical and psychological torment inflicted on a victim in a more or less arbitrary fashion. The victim suffers pain as a direct and indirect response to the self-preservation instinct. In The Exorcist the characters fear having their soul corrupted by sin. Here we are again deforming the shape of truth to fit “sin” loosely over “immoral actions” by ignoring the troublesome oxymoron, “religious morality.”
The reason this is significant is that one may tell a lot about a person by their greatest fear and a film can invoke that fear in ways that are experienced similarly by all viewers. One generally fears losing that which is valuable to them, therefore reaction to horror films is a window of insight into someone’s values. Those who fear Saw most value their physical and mental comfort; those who fear The Exorcist most value spiritual integrity. While I cannot agree with her choice of movie, I do agree with her in principle so that for me the scariest movie is The Machinist. There can be many other possibilities: insanity, dishonor, confinement (i.e. Virginia Woolf), emotional pain, the afflictions of loved ones, chaos or the unknown, permanent destruction of something sacred. A good experiment in personal discovery might be to watch well made horror films which use different fears and observe your experience of them.
The scariest movies for me are not the ones that are most realistic. Psychotic killers do not bother me because they are still confined by the rules of the physical world. Whereas paranormal events and entities are not constrained in the same way. I know what it takes to stop a serial killer, a vicious dog, or a school or piranha (get out of the water), but I don’t know what it takes to stop a ghost, a vampire, or a demon. Contrast that with a zombie apocalypse, for which I am overprepared. It is the unexplainable that I fear the most, hence my childhood fear of the dark. You can’t prepare for what you don’t know, or worse, can’t stop.