Here’s something topical, since Halloween — my favorite holiday — is just around the corner. This by no means is an exhaustive list of the different types of scary, but towards the end, I was hard pressed to think of anything that didn’t fit into one of these ten categories. Backstory: As I was making coffee, I had the idea for someone who wanted to create their own haunted house for Halloween, to wear some kind of zombie mask, or lots of makeup, and otherwise normal clothing, lounge in a chair motionless, and when the kids (or adults) got close, jump up and chase after them making piglike “eeeeeee eeeeeee” noises by sucking their breath in. The sudden WTF-ness would be overtaken by the immediate flight response as you’re trying to get away from the lunatic chasing after you. It would be awesome. Backstory to the backstory: Something similar to what I just described happened to me twice as a kid and both times I hit the guy, hard, with my bag of candy — also awesome.
1. Weird Scary
This is like what I just described. Stuff that’s so out of place or unusual that it’s frightening. The crazy homeless guy on the corner — he’s probably totally harmless, but when he’s yelling and cursing at himself, you can’t help but wonder how close he is to going completely berserk and attacking you. Weird scary is Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs — he seems perfectly civil, and anyway, he’s locked up, but something about the way he says “Hello, Clarice” is just unsettling. And normally vomiting isn’t so much scary as it is gross and generally unpleasant, but the puke scene in The Exorcist has a special place in cinematic history due to the insane creep factor of the possessed girl.
Examples: The Silence of the Lambs, The Exorcist, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, House of 1000 Corpses
2. Fantasy Violence Scary
In real life, dreams probably won’t kill you. In fact, generally speaking, the dead don’t rise to avenge their own unfortunate deaths by going on a killing spree. I’m willing to bet that in the history of serial murder, no one has racked up a body count equal to Jason Voorhees. However, that doesn’t stop people from lining up around the block to see these fictions on a huge screen because, let’s face it, Freddy is pretty freaking cool. Fantasy violence is characterized by huge amounts of gore and unrealistically large quantities of blood. Case in point: the scene in the first Nightmare on Elm Street in which the victim is writhing around on the freaking ceiling spraying blood everywhere. That. Doesn’t. Happen. It’s scary in the movies, though, due to a variety of cinematic tricks including the “BOO!” factor (detailed later), use of music, sound effects, ambient noise and lighting, and various other techniques.
Examples: A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Halloween
3. Realistic Violence Scary
I don’t care what anyone says: The Blair Witch Project was brilliant. Not because the acting was fantastic, or the idea was so original (although it was), but because it felt real. You didn’t even see the antagonist of the movie and yet you were gripping your seat and breaking out in a cold sweat. Realistic violence is scary because it’s not the stuff of dreams and nightmares. Sure Blair Witch is fiction (or is it?), but other gritty suspense films and psychological thrillers thrive on presenting a realistic scenario that is terrifying to entertain.
Examples: The Blair Witch Project, Cape Fear, Panic Room
4. Spooky Scary
Then there’s movies that are just plain spooky. This includes any of an infinite number of ghost movies, the kind where the house is built on an indian burial ground and there’s lots of ethereal “ooooooohs” and hands pressing through the walls. These movies are often characterized by clever cinematography and memorable imagery as well as good sound effects to create a creepy setting that allows you to suspend your disbelief.
Examples: Poltergeist, Evil Dead, Rosemary’s Baby
5. Mindfuck Scary
This is pretty much the definition of anything David Lynch does. The end of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me where Dale Cooper is being chased by Evil Dale Cooper through the white lodge — freaking terrifying for no discernable reason. For that matter, that whole damn movie is scary for no reason.
Examples: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Blue Velvet, Eyes Wide Shut
6. Fear of Stuff Scary
No one has a phobia of zombies. (Well, maybe someone does, but they’re unlikely to ever have to confront that fear.) Being locked in a closet-like space for 12 hours? Yeah, there’s a name for that. Fear of Stuff includes any film that plays into potential personal phobias. Hitchcock practically invented the medium with Vertigo and The Birds (who would’ve thought seagulls and pigeons could be so frightening?). Panic Room uses this, too, for the extreme claustrophobia of the small “panic room” the main character are stuck in for the majority of the film.
Examples: Jaws, Vertigo, The Birds, Panic Room, Arachnophobia or any other film ending in -phobia or named after a medical condition describing a fear of something
7. BOO! Scary
These movies are notable for their use of a technique exploited by bad directors to ellicit an immediate and dramatic response in the audience by doing a jump cut to something scary, usually accompanied by a noise, after a slow and gradual build-up. I remember a meme passed through email a few years ago where you had to solve a complex puzzle or maze — so you’re staring at something that isn’t moving very much for a long time — and at the end were greeted by a shrieking zombie thing. The first time I saw that, I jumped out of my chair and screamed like a school girl.
Examples: Twilight Zone: The Movie, Evil Dead, Scream, Urban Legend
8. Scary Grenade
Many years ago, I saw a standup comic (I don’t remember who) who introduced the idea of a joke grenade. A joke grenade is one that takes a few minutes to get a belated laugh. Similarly, a scary grenade is something that is scarier the more you think about it. This doesn’t have any real examples because I pretty much just made this up. But that’s not to say there aren’t scary grenades…the scene from Twilight Zone: The Movie in the third segment where the camera pans up and the kid’s sister has no mouth gave me nightmares for weeks as a kid.
9. Not Really Scary
Let’s face it: vampires, werewolves, zombies, mummies and ghosts aren’t really all that scary. These are often things we’re drawn to out of our own attraction to danger. Bloodthirsty killer? Scary. Bloodthirsty killer played by Antonio Banderas and Brad Pitt? Sexy.
Examples: Interview With the Vampire, Twilight, The Hunger, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, virtually every other vampire movie ever
10. Fear of the Unknown
Space, the vast nothingness just beyond our atmosphere, is freaking horrifying. All that nothing, the blackness, no oxygen, and then, what if there actually is something out there, and it’s not particularly friendly. I get chills thinking about it. The best movie to exploit fear of the unknown is Event Horizon, which combines the inherent fear of the unknown with many of the above, more visceral forms of scary.
Examples: Event Horizon, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Cube