When I was a kid, cutting my teeth on horror stories by the likes of Stephen King and Clive Barker, I came to the realization that being scared, in the confines of a fictional world, was one of the most amazing feelings I had experienced. Age hasn’t dampened my enthusiasm for being terrified in a controlled environment, but it has become increasingly difficult to tell me a story that really makes my hair stand up and quickens my pulse. That’s not more difficult at my current age just because I have less hair on my head than I used to. I’ve just seen a lot of horror movies, read tons of books, and even played a few really chilling games. Every once in a while, I get a welcome surprise by a story that can let me relive the joys of my early years immersed in the genre.
In the early 1990’s, I bought a video game called “System Shock 2”. Horror stories set in space have since been one of my favorite genre mash-ups. In a future where mankind can explore the stars, live in a nearly self-sufficient but closed environment, and feel completely safe thanks to amazing technological innovations, things that go wrong become truly horrific. Rogue artificial intelligence, psychotic breaks of the fragile human mind, and parasitic alien races harried me throughout my attempts to travel through a malfunctioning, and often dark, spaceship. Footsteps, suddenly silenced screams, and taunts from my hunters kept my tension high and surprises frequent. Even after completing the game and defeating the evil menace, I would find myself reliving moments of it in my mind, cringing, and reaching for the light switch.
Around the same time, a low-budget film probably led to many people’s fear of the woods. It was called “The Blair Witch Project”, and I remember being curious about the story but not anxiously awaiting its release. Much of the movie seemed silly to me, and the shaky camera point of view made me queasy, but I steadily grew more and more concerned for the mental and physical health of the protagonists. By the last 15 minutes of the movie, I practically had to remind myself to breathe. The end left me so tense that I couldn’t sleep that night. I didn’t dare turn off the light on my bedside table, but I eventually nodded off. I never watched it again, and I tell myself that’s because I won’t be surprised by the events I’ve already seen. Secretly, just between you and me, I’m concerned that I might have nightmares.
Recently I watched a movie called “As Above, So Below”. It impressed me as one of the most atmospherically frightening movies in my recent memory. Set mostly in the Catacombs of Paris, darkness, cave-ins, and other more sinister threats lurked. The legend of the Philosopher’s Stone and ancient treasure only added to the mystery and excitement. Like most great horror stories, the real tension built from forces and threats unseen and unassailable, threats a few mere mortal characters were ill equipped to combat.
It might be a while before I watch another horror movie. So many made these days are forgettable or made strictly for shock value. When I watch an exceptional one, it sticks in my memory for months, and I can savor it. I don’t want to dilute the memories with any cinematic disappointments, so I’ll wait until I find something that will make a lasting impression. Besides, too many shocks aren’t good for my aging heart. I need to give myself some time to recover from my last good scare.