What films have changed your life? GOOD WILL HUNTING? ROCKY? STAR WARS? Maybe one of these and, if you were born in the early ‘90s, like me, you probably are also secretly thinking about the first time you saw MEAN GIRLS or HARRY POTTER. Every horror fan has similar lists running through their head: the scary movies that gave me the most horrible nightmares, the ones I found the goriest, the ones that were so bad that I laughed instead of screaming. Here is a sample of a few that changed my life—the greatest, the creepiest, the most fascinating of the bunch:
5. ORPHAN (2009) dir. Jaume Collet-Serra
Producers: Leonardo DiCaprio, Susan Downey, Jennifer Davisson Killoran, Joel Silver
Writers: David Leslie Johnson, Alex Mace
Stars: Isabelle Fuhrman, Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard
I often wonder how many people were as obsessed with ORPHAN as I was as a teenager. The film maintains a sort of middling popularity (a score of 7 out of 10 on IMDb and a rating of 55% on Rotten Tomatoes), but I rarely hear others mention it as a favorite or even as memorable.
When I was 18, my interest in horror was in its fledgling stages. I had seen THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991) and loved it, and was ready to move on past the comparatively tame thriller to true horror. I picked up ORPHAN on a whim shopping at the used video store nearby. I brought it to a sleepover and my friends and I watched it together. Afterward, we all professed an identical fear: that we would not be able to sleep from then on.
I haven’t seen ORPHAN in years. I’m not sure if it would still hold up as scary now (especially since it’s PG-13 horror, which is now tame in comparison to the R-rated and unrated gore I frequently watch), but at the time, it was hideously disturbing. Even though it’s been almost seven years since its release, I’m reluctant to give much away (just in case this one flew under your radar) but I will say that this tale of a very peculiar little girl (Isabelle Fuhrman) is worthy of the terror it prompted in my young self, however tame it might now seem. After the initial screening with my friends, I rewatched ORPHAN dozens of times, each time equally fascinated and horrified. Knowing the twisted conclusion did nothing to desensitize me to the pure horror of it. ORPHAN was my first favorite and quite possibly the first horror film I ever saw.
4. THE RING (2002) dir. Gore Verbinski
Producers: Roy Lee, Mike Macari, Michele Weisler
Writers: Ehren Kruger (screenplay), Koji Suzuki (novel), Hiroshi Takahashi (screenplay for RINGU )
Stars: Naomi Watts, Martin Henderson, Brian Cox
The power of the spoken word is difficult to overstate, even in an era when the closest thing to word-of-mouth is the podcast and the stories we pass down are recorded in digital color and dramatized with music and special effects. If you’ve ever been scared by a campfire story—and I sincerely hope that you have—you know exactly what I mean.
THE RING came out when I was in the third grade. I would have been completely unaware of its existence, if my best friend, Leah, didn’t have what I didn’t: an older sister. Older siblings mean a certain proximity to adult knowledge and, one day, Leah came to school and recounted, in great imaginative detail, the entire plot of THE RING. We spent all of recess and designated reading time hunched together—her weaving the sinister tale, me listening in rapture.
Sometimes—as we know from movies that exploit the unseen, like THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999) or THE CONJURING (2013)—one’s imagination generates more fear than the story alone. I didn’t sleep, night after night, staring unblinking at my nightlight.
THE RING certainly isn’t the scariest horror movie there is—or the best-made. It’s good (still boasting a 71% rating on Rotten Tomatoes), but watching it in 2016, it’s dated and parodied to death. When I watch it now, I’m somewhat entertained, but far from fearful. But you never forget the first horror film that scares the living daylights out of you and, in my case, it was a film that I didn’t even watch until a decade after its release.
3. FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980) dir. Sean S. Cunningham
Producer: Sean S. Cunningham
Writers: Victor Miller, Sean S. Cunningham
Stars: Betsy Palmer, Adrienne King
Something magical occurred in the summer of 2013: every single installment of the FRIDAY THE 13th franchise appeared on Netflix. At the time, I was house-sitting for family friends, utterly alone with their big-screen TV and Netflix subscription (and their three dogs, two birds, and lizard). I saw a golden opportunity: what better way to enhance the thrilling impact of horror than to fully immerse myself, all alone, in one of the most famous franchises of all time?
FRIDAY THE 13th tackles—so subtly it almost seems unwitting—my favorite archetypal horror conflict: society versus wilderness (See: the name of this blog). Camp Crystal Lake is the site of historical trauma: clearly, the classic battle between man and nature is represented in the cabins that interrupt the thick woods, the bonfires that burn and the campers who disturb the peace; additionally, Jason Voorhees’ vengeful wrath is seemingly in response to an accidental drowning years before, when he was a child attending the summer camp. The cause? The camp counselors weren’t paying attention—they were too busy flirting and smoking pot to keep a careful eye on the campers.
A plot as dense and meaningful as this one is a triumph in a genre that is famous for its low-brow status. Certainly, FRIDAY THE 13th is no art horror pic, but it is something even more deceptively brilliant: a film that is un-self-consciously a meticulous record of the eighties: a time when the War on Drugs waged and rule-breaking was akin to treason. FRIDAY THE 13th is wonderful for a lot of reasons—it’s entertaining, visually compelling, and creepy as hell—but the best part is Jason and all he represents.
FRIDAY THE 13TH has become a particular favorite of mine, especially fun during the summer months when the crickets outside echo those onscreen and bonfires beckon from the neighbors’ backyards. If HALLOWEEN taught me the broad significance of the slasher, FRIDAY THE 13th served to cement my own passion for the sub-genre—it was then that I began studying the Final Girl and all she means, prodding me toward Film Studies and the joy that I derive from that work today.
2. ANTICHRIST (2009) dir. Lars von Trier
Producer: Meta Louise Foldager
Writer: Lars von Trier
Stars: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Willem Dafoe
ANTICHRIST is my favorite film of all time (horror or otherwise) and exactly one of my friends has enjoyed it. It’s an acquired taste and if you’ve seen any of Lars von Trier’s films, I don’t have to tell you why. There’s a lot of screaming, sobbing, and graphic mutilation. As revolting as ANTICHRIST is, though, it’s the most exquisite picture I have ever seen.
The terrible beauty of nature, the perplexity of grief, the ambivalence of desire—these themes weave together in the dreadful tale of a woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who miraculously discovers her own power while researching the history of the men who have extinguished feminine power with their brutality through the ages. The moral of the story is the simple truth that to live is to suffer and one must accept the Pain, Grief, and Despair (all names of chapters of the film) simply because such is the order of the universe. I don’t know what it says about me, but the concept makes a lot of sense. I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.
1. HALLOWEEN (1978) dir. John Carpenter
Producers: Debra Hill, John Carpenter
Writers: John Carpenter, Debra Hill
Stars: Tony Moran, Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasence
I fell in love with the slasher the night before Halloween. “We watch this every Halloween,” my friend Terra explained, sliding a DVD into the player. Seconds later, the Halloween theme began to play, chilling me to the bone, and my life changed forever.
Slashers are the best kind of horror movies: bloody but not exploitative, sinister but not terrifying, campy but not stupid. Between the pseudo-human monster—the most fascinating kind, if you ask me—the goofy, fun-loving teens and the flinty Final Girl, the slasher is a wonderfully grim journey through suburban America, a peek into the gore of the ruination of the American Dream.
HALLOWEEN is the king of the slashers—though THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974) prefigured it, HALLOWEEN brought the slasher roaring into popularity, spawning a rash of variations in the ‘80s, the slasher’s golden age. Michael Myers (Tony Moran)—human but inhuman; simultaneously mortally psychopathic and unnaturally invincible—captivated viewers, including me, with his preternatural silence, blank white mask, and the slow, muffled breathing that signals his presence. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is the epitomized Final Girl: virginal, brainy, and steely enough to fight her way to the film’s finish.
HALLOWEEN is not just special because of its cultural role, however. It’s a conspicuously unflawed film, written with skill and performed splendidly. Thanks to Terra—and to the likes of John Carpenter—I’ve never spent a Halloween without the company of Michael Myers since.
In a way, every horror film is at least a little life-changing. Each one is a diverse speculation, mind-bending in the possibilities it presents, and each brilliant one is a lesson in the cleverness hidden in the depths of low-brow cinema.
And what about you, reader? Which horror movie gave you the most vivid nightmares? Which was the first you truly loved? Which gave you a radically new perspective? What did you realize? What has horror taught you?