Look at the box office for any given weekend — especially in October, as Halloween rolls around — and you're likely to see a horror film perched there. This year it's "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning," followed by "The Grudge 2"; as the dark holiday arrives, "Saw III" will no doubt dominate.
Some of these are not particularly good, but people flock to them nonetheless. Why, especially these days, does the public plunk down its money for a front-row view of its worst nightmares?
John Polson, director of last year's Robert DeNiro shocker "Hide And Seek," has a simple explanation.
"I think a lot of people, frankly, feel like their lives are day-to-day and a bit mundane, and there's nothing better than going into a theatre for a couple of hours and having the s*** scared out of them," he says. "It's always a great feeling just being scared, particularly when you know you're in the safe confines of a theatre. You know you're not gonna die."
At their most basic, horror movies offer the rush of the rollercoaster ride, not to mention the pleasure of putting a protective arm around a terrified date's shoulder. But they also let us confront our deepest, darkest fears, without having to face them directly in everyday life. They let us observe a dress rehearsal for our own deaths, knowing that at the end we can get up, walk out into the lighted lobby, and go home.
"I make the distinction between horror movies and terror movies," says Brad Anderson, director of "Session 9" and "The Machinist." "Monsters or slashers jumping out of closets are scary in a much more superficial, visceral way. Horror resonates long after the experience, and is so much creepier because it gets inside you."
The best horror offers more than just a collection of cheap "jump" scares that you laugh off a minute later.
It's harder to dismiss the unease of 1961's "The Innocents" or 1963's "The Haunting," in which malevolent, ghost-filled mansions serve as metaphors for the fragmenting minds of the story's heroines.
"The Exorcist" is filled with dread over the breakdown of the family — is little Regan really possessed by the Devil or acting out against her parents' divorce? — while "Night of the Living Dead" tackles the collapse of society itself.
The 1986 version of "The Fly" — one of the few horror remakes that improves on the original — shows how the relentless onslaught of disease can cut us off from our humanity whether we like it or not.
Mary Lambert, who directed the film version of Stephen King's grim novel "Pet Sematary," says on the DVD that horror movies are really about the repercussions of making the wrong decisions: "If you hadn't forgotten to lock the door … if you'd only stayed where it was safe … if you'd only done things a tiny bit differently, none of this bad stuff would happened."
Horror movies let us see the results of those bad choices, paying only the price of a ticket. Then we leave them behind, secure that we've escaped the darkness for at least a little while.
King himself wrote in his 1981 book Danse Macabre that horror movies "do not love death … by showing us the miseries of the damned, they help us to rediscover the smaller (but never petty) joys of our own lives."
By Don Kaye