10 types of scary

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 LambsThe ExorcistTexas Chainsaw MassacreHouse 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 StreetFriday the 13thHalloween

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 ProjectCape 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: PoltergeistEvil DeadRosemary’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 MeBlue 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: JawsVertigoThe BirdsPanic RoomArachnophobia 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 MovieEvil DeadScreamUrban 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 VampireTwilightThe HungerBram 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 Horizon2001: A Space OdysseyCube

the not-so-hidden value of netflix

i’m pretty much completely in love with netflix.

it started with some casual experimentation through a friend during college.  he had a netflix subscription and we’d often get triple features of obscure asian action flicks (digging deep in the early career of jet li with the once upon a time in china series — which i highly recommend, btw) and post-modern art films like  eXistenZ and naked lunch (and pretty much anything else by david cronenberg).

after graduation, netflix and i drifted apart, and i spent more time with the cult classics, indpendent and anime sections at hollywood video.

all that changed when erin and i had kids.

what used to be a simple 20 minute trip to see what we haven’t watched already and browse the new video releases, suddenly became: “do we take G with us?  should one of us go alone?  this sucks…maybe we can just download something…”  suddenly, netflix was not only a great library of obscure videos, but a welcome replacement for what used to be the friday night trip to the video store.

sure there’s the fact that you don’t get your videos right away.  but i think that’s just a matter of retraining your brain.  rather than expecting you’ll hit the video store on friday, if you already have a queue set up of stuff you want, one that you’re watching and updating in between deliveries, you’re guaranteed that when friday (or whenever) hits, you’ll have something you know you want to watch.  and the recommendation engine really is pretty good (most of the time).

but even that isn’t what makes netflix a comcast- (or insert-cable-company-name-here) killer.  no, the real secret (that isn’t really a secret) of netflix is their instant viewing catalog.

i’ve been using the watch instantly feature a lot lately.  much more so than the dvd rentals themselves.  often, we’ll forget to put the dvd’s in the mail — something that was completely unfounded a couple years ago.  but i don’t beat myself up over losing value in the membership with netflix by hanging onto dvd’s longer than we need to anymore.  and the reason is that there are hundreds — if not thousands — of titles i want to watch that i can check out right this second.  my 4 year old just finished the full run of the original astroboy series, which he’s been working on for the past several weekends.  we watched wall-e for the first time streamed through netflix, and then for the second and third times.  we’re not really  huge on dora the explorer, but the fact that you can stream the full first and second seasons means that if and when it comes up, we can play it for the kids and not have to own the dvds.  and we’ve discovered great new kid shows like kipper and the rubbadubbers that we wouldn’t have found otherwise.

watch instantly is perfect for hermetic parents like us, who are more likely to buy books on amazon than hop in a car to barnes & nobles or a used book store because the latter means making oneself look vaguely presentable to the outside world, getting the kids’ jackets and shoes on, remembering to take the kids to the potty, making sure to take the dog outside to pee…by the time all that’s done, it’s time for lunch (or dinner, or bed, etc…).  i’d love to be able to go see new movies, but being able to see new-ish rentals streamed via netflix isn’t too bad, either.

it’s all thanks to their recent partnership with starz, a premium cable channel like hbo and showtime that honestly, i’d never even heard of before i read this article in wired.  but i’m sure glad they forged the deal, because all of a sudden, netflix exploded with streaming options the like of which longtime subscribers had never seen before.  and not just the weird, obscure, b-movie indie-type films like cannibal: the musical or B.U.S.T.E.D.(both of which you can stream, by the way, and i recommend both of them).  no, as previously mentioned, mainstream — and top selling — flicks like wall-e and bridget jones’s diary can be streamed as well now.

how netflix pulls it off involves a complex system of who has access rights for broadcasting films that i only understand half of.  i recommend reading the previously mentioned (and linked) wired article for a better explanation than i could begin to articulate.  what i do know is that it’s one thing to rent out dvds (or cds, or videos) because ownership law states that once you own something, you can pretty much do whatever you want with it shy of reproducing copies of it yourself and profiting off it — which includes renting out your copies of the originals.  once you decide to stream content — this applies to any content, be it video or audio — you enter into a whole different world of copyright law as it applies to broadcasting and who gets what royalties.  by partnering with starz, starz essentially deals with the legal stuff — because they already have that in place.  netflix shares starz’s access to new (and old) movies, and passes along the streaming content to its’ subscriber base.  i only hope that eventually hbo and showtime decide to stop fighting netflix and jump on the boat, because it shouldn’t matter to them — either way they’ll get their paycheck, and i’m guessing a whole bunch more people will jump onto netflix if netflix has a vast new library that includes everything hbo or showtime has access to.

this, of course, makes netflix public enemy number 1 in the eyes of the other content providers for movies and television — your cable company.  it will be interesting to see how things play out, but already there’s momentum to move stuff online and content providers will need to think (and act) more like isps to keep their users.  soon it will be hulu + netflix vs. cable tv with hbo.  i know what side i’m on: i may have a cable subscription, but it’s not tv that’s running through that coax — it’s data.