How to Appreciate Classic Horror Films

As someone who spends a lot of my time ruminating on past conversations and thinking of things I should have said, I’ll confess this post is a result of a person telling me how boring she thought The Shining was after watching it for the first time as a middle-aged adult.

Being truly scared is terrible. But being scared in a safe setting, like watching a horror film, can be tons of fun. The problem is so many classics of the genres are now decades old, so without reconditioning yourself from today’s jump-scare laden films, you are likely to think a lot of these older classics are lame. I’ll admit, I thought Halloween was boring when I first watched it! To be fair I was a preteen around the millennium, so at that point in my life everything was lame except for butterfly clips and Abercrombie & Fitch. Now compare that jaded reaction to this audio sync of an audience reacting to the film when it was originally released in 1979:

As a preteen, the only thing I screamed that loud for was an NSYNC concert.

Since we don’t have a time machine or giant theater we can use to watch classics on a whim, here are three tips I’ve found useful for giving older horror films a fighting chance to scare me:

3) Readjust Your Expectations

Even if you aren’t a horror film fan, you can probably describe the plots of movies like Friday the 13th, The Shining, and The Exorcist. You can probably quote them and recreate certain scenes. It feels silly to watch films that so immersed in our pop culture that we feel like we’ve seen them through osmosis. And the iconic scenes have been parodied so often the scares have been wrung completely dry. It can be really neat to watch classics, but this is a tough feeling to get past. You often feel like you’ve seen it before. And you have, because it’s been recreated and duplicated in various forms.

We also have a tendency to associate things we hear are AMAZING and ICONIC with being fast-paced. If people are so into it, it must start at a breakneck pace that ropes you in right from the start. Queue everyone who ran out to read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, expecting a fast-paced violent mystery, being put to sleep by chapters and chapters dealing with libel laws in Sweden. (It does get good, but boy is it a slog till then!).

Prepare to be a bit bored by today’s standards as the story builds. Instead, focus on some questions to shift your mindset when watching a classic: does it meet your expectations? Did anything surprise you about this film you thought you knew? Were there other scenes you had no idea were in there that scared you? (For example, I don’t think enough people talk about “the stair scene” in Psycho. Talk about a jump!). What do you think this film did that made it so influential? These questions can help you appreciate a film a bit more, even if it feels dated.

2) Set the Mood

The worst thing you can do is haphazardly watch a classic while chatting with a friend who is making fun of it, or watching it in the middle of a sunny day (unless it’s the original Suspiria). The key is to make the experience as immersive as possible, and to take it seriously. Watch them alone at night in the dark. The music and sound design is crucial to many horror films but especially some of these older ones that didn’t always rely on jumps and gore, so I find it very helpful to watch them with the volume turned way up. Sit as close to the TV as you can so your subconscious mind doesn’t start wandering, thinking about clutter or other things you can be doing. If you have to watch them on a tablet or laptop, wear headphones. Watch them in one sitting without pausing or eating a meal. This should go without being said, but put your phone and anything else away that might pull you from the moment. Anything you can do to make it feel like you are in a theater will help it feel a bit more authentic.

1) Cleanse Your Palate by Time Traveling (!)

That’s how you know this tip is click bait! But I think this is one of the most effective strategies I can suggest. Horror films today are much more intense and jump-scare heavy then they were decades ago. Even a timeless classic like Psycho will seem incredibly tame by today’s standards.

So how can you combat this? By cinematically “time traveling” to trick yourself into being in a similar mindset to audiences back in the day. Watch a few horror films that are even older than whichever classic you are trying to watch. Never seen Psycho? Don’t just start with Psycho. Watch a horror film or two from the 1950s and then watch Psycho. This is a great method to use in order to appreciate just how shocking early genre classics like Psycho, Night of the Living Dead, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre really were for mainstream audiences.

I fully realize that is adding a lot more time to this endeavor, and maybe this palate cleanse trick isn’t worth it for casual viewers. But again, if you truly want to appreciate a classic, this method can be really helpful for getting into the right mindset. Here’s an example of how I used this method during #31HorrorFilms31Days:

I have seen Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre plenty of times, but holy shit did I see them in a whole new light after watching I Walked with a Zombie and Village of the Damned first.

Introducing Someone Else to a Classic

Image result for watching someone watch a movie

Part of the joy of being a fan is introducing new viewers to movies you love. If you are going to watch a classic with someone who has never seen it, some of these methods (watching alone without commentary; watching some primer films) immediately fly out the window. Instead, if someone is going to take the time to let me show them one of my favorite movies, I like to give a few reasons about why I like it so much. (Or vice versa – if a friend is showing me a movie they really like I love to know why they enjoy it). Enthusiasm can be contagious, and giving some context before starting the movie can help people appreciate the film a little more. If there is something silly, cheesy, or problematic, acknowledge it and highlight some of the elements that still make it worthwhile.

Of course there’s still a chance you will hate a classic horror film, but at least these tips will help you give a film an honest chance. For every person that says how boring The Shining is, there is someone like one of my patrons, who while watching it on the big screen for the first time as a senior, screamed and grabbed her husband’s shoulder when the Grady twins suddenly appear after Danny turns a corner. Her response was so theatrical I told her afterwards I thought she was messing around to be funny, and she said “no! I had never seen the movie before and I wasn’t expecting that!” Anytime a horror film can make us feel that way it’s golden.

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