Collins’ Crypt: You’re Never Too Old For Horror Movies

Some horror movies can and should scare parents more than their children.

Back in 2013, when it came time to tell our friends that we were having a baby, I stayed "on brand" and arranged to do it at a 16mm screening of Rosemary's Baby, because I thought it'd be funny (for added hahas, the kid was due around June 13th - which was a Friday, and you can be assured few people declined the chance to point that out), but also because it was a good excuse to watch the movie again. Despite my affinity for horror movies in general and evil child stuff in particular, I'd only ever seen the film once before, as it was one of the (few!) classics I never got around to seeing until I was an adult. But my ignorance turned out to be a blessing, as Roman Polanski's 1968 chiller (based on Ira Levin's novel, which has minimal differences from the adaptation) is a horror film that plays better to adults than kids/teens anyway, and I'm sure if I saw it when I was like 12 I'd grow up thinking of it as "a bore" or something along those lines. 

(Now that I think of it, I haven't seen it again since that screening, so perhaps I'll watch it again this week for the 50th anniversary of its release. Happy birthday, Rosemary's Baby!)

It's something I've been thinking about lately, and came to a head the other day, when someone's glowing post about Hereditary - and, specifically, how much it scared them - prompted one of their friends to snort that "you shouldn't be scared by horror movies as an adult". It's possibly the dumbest thing I've seen anyone say online (outside of political discussion, anyway), and it's only because I had better things to do at the time that I didn't lay into him. Yes, a movie like Friday the 13th Part 7 or even something a little more highbrow like Friday the 13th Part 6 likely won't get referred to as "scary" by many adults seeing them for the first time, but slasher movies like those are not representative of the entire horror genre. Just as one's taste in comedy can be molded and refined over the years, your appreciation of certain types of horror can change as you get older, and in turn, you can and likely will find ways to be just as scared at a movie like Hereditary or Rosemary's Baby as a pre-teen might get at the likes of the Poltergeist remake.

What it comes down to is: what exactly makes each individual movie get the pulses racing? If it's because lots of things pop out at unexpected moments, then yeah it'll probably play better to the younger set - but not every horror movie is like that. Rosemary's Baby in particular has almost no on-screen violence and very few traditionally scary moments, yet it's a terrifying film all the same, playing best to adults who might wonder/worry about who their neighbors really are, the idea that you might be losing your mind, that your spouse is lying to you, and - for women - the natural terrors that accompany being pregnant. This is not to say an impressionable youth won't like the movie, and I'm sure any number of kids saw one of its two key terror scenes on cable and had their mind properly warped, but by and large the film's power rests on having been around long enough to worry about the same things Rosemary herself does, so you can sympathize with her in ways a little kid couldn't possibly. 

Even something more traditionally horror-oriented like The Shining falls under the same umbrella, working best when you're closer in age to Jack and Wendy than little Danny. I vividly remember seeing the climax of the film as a kid, watching Jack Nicholson stomping his way around the frozen maze, trying to find and presumably murder his son (who was about my age, in fact), and yes, I found it scary and it stuck with me for years - but it was also the only part of the movie I saw. Had I watched from the beginning, I probably would have gotten bored and never made it that far, as it saves most of its more horrific stuff for the back half (of a two hour plus movie) and it's not exactly jam-packed with it even then. Not to mention my lack of understanding would reduce the eeriness of some of its visuals - six year old me would probably light up at the sight of a guy in a bear costume, rather than wonder "Wait what the hell is happening here?" like I do now. It's the slower part of the film (aided by those ominous tracking shots) that give the film its power, and why it's so well regarded, something that typically eludes the average haunted house movie that springs its ghosts on the characters shortly after they arrive there.

Now, Stanley Kubrick's film is famously a "bad" adaptation of Stephen King's novel, in that Jack Torrance seems crazy from the start and thus it's hard to get the idea that isolation and mounting pressure to provide for his family is getting the better of him. But there's enough residual plotting and character development from the book that found its way into the film, and anyone who has ever tried to quit drinking can certainly understand Jack's plight, desperately wanting a drink after the blowup with his wife and not being able to find one, something a younger person probably wouldn't get. If you can get past the bad topiary FX and TV-movie aesthetic of the more faithful miniseries (or just, you know, read the book) it's easy enough to be scared by the idea of wanting to better yourself and take care of your loved ones but finding it fruitless. Jack's personal demons (abusive background, short temper, drinking problem) are ultimately joined by the real ones of the Overlook Hotel, and again that's the sort of thing I can't quite see a young child finding particularly terrifying, as the idea wouldn't even really resonate with them. Sure, eventually Jack grabs an axe and basically turns into a slasher killer, but a sympathetic adult would already be scared long before then, simply from the idea that it could happen to them as well. 

Every now and then I am "treated" to an eyewitness account of why not all horror movies are meant to scar a little one for life. I saw The Witch for the first time at a press screening, but decided to see it a second time as I had trouble making out some of the dialogue the first time around, plus I was kind of curious how a regular crowd would take to it. At no point during this decision to pay good money and check it out at an AMC multiplex on a Saturday night did I think I'd end up sitting next to a little four or five year old girl, whose father (my age, maybe a bit younger) was seated on the other side of her. It was assigned seating and fairly crowded so I had no choice but to keep my seat and never once get immersed in the film's world, because the little girl kept telling her father how bored she was (though if memory serves she mixed it up once or twice with a "I don't LIKE this..."). I have no idea why he'd bring her to that particular movie; maybe the sitter canceled, or maybe he was just a moron, but maybe also he thought that it was about a traditional witch and even if some of it went over her head it'd be no different than showing a kid the 1990 film The Witches (a "children's" movie that's really kind of messed up). But he was wrong, as we all know; The Witch may be terrifying in spots, but it is most definitely not a movie any normal kid could enjoy as they might the restricted but faster paced likes of a Freddy or Chucky sequel. 

And that brings us to Hereditary, which I saw a week before it opened wide and correctly guessed would get a D Cinemascore (actually a D+; I'll correct myself before someone else does, as if there's any difference) due to its odd plotting and slower than average pace. Not to mention that the trailer gave away a number of its key visuals (and also included a full blown spoiler regarding the Ann Dowd character), which when presented out of context made the film look more like the usual kind of kitchen-sink haunted house movies those low-grading audience members were probably expecting. Apart from a quick bit in the first reel where Toni Collette thinks she sees the ghost of her mother, the film takes a while to get to anything supernatural in nature, opting for a mounting sense of dread that begins as soon as the film does, which, again, isn't the sort of thing that will resonate with a younger viewer. They'll eat up some of its later moments, I'm sure, but the film's strengths mostly come from Ari Aster's ability to use sound and production design to get under our skin, and Collette's terrific performance of a woman slowly and subtly reaching her breaking point as she realized there was no way to escape her family's "curse". I wasn't as enamored by it as some of my peers, but it was undeniably unsettling more often than not, and where some horror movies I wonder when I would feel comfortable showing it to my son, this is one I spent more time wondering if I would ever try to show it to my wife, knowing how unnerved she'd get (to my amusement, of course). Apart from a few key moments, my kid (aged 4, for the record) could watch it now if he wanted; he'd just leave the room out of boredom, whereas he'd probably run away screaming if I put on a "kid's movie" like Nightmare Before Christmas. The context of why so many people are finding it terrifying would be completely lost on him, and there's only a few scattered moments of things he'd recognize to be "scary" (and, again, they're almost all in the trailer). 

Thinking about these films made me wonder how that guy or anyone else could come to the conclusion that adults shouldn't be scared by horror movies, as there are so many that are specifically made for older crowds and thus there would be no point to their existence if the target audience had passed the point that they could be affected by them. My only explanation is that he was equating "being scared" with reacting to a jump scare, be it real (the killer leaps out from a concealed spot) or fake (a phone rings, but REALLY LOUDLY!). However, even those can be effective when used properly (and not overused, as they sadly often are) and done well, regardless of how old the viewer is. Case in point, the code name for a fake scare is "Lewton Bus", taken from Jacques Tourneur's Cat People, in which a tense moment was deflated (purposely) by the blaring sound of a bus passing by, momentarily terrifying its audiences even though nothing about it was actually scary. I mean, I wasn't there so I can't be 100% sure, but I doubt there were a lot of children in the audience for that particular film, so if adults were immune to being scared even in that fleeting way I doubt the name would live on. As long as the filmmaker understands that it's quality over quantity that matters, you're never too old to get goosed by one; indeed, one that always sticks out is a film no kid would ever want to watch. It's called The Eclipse, starring Ciarán Hinds, and it's basically a drama about a guy haunted by the ghost of his wife, but played as a character drama instead of a traditional scary movie... allowing it to blindside viewers like me with one of the hands down best jump scares I've ever seen in a film. To date, of all the hundreds of horror movies I've seen in a crowded theater, it's the only one that prompted a total stranger to grab my arm because she was so terrified in that moment, and it was in a movie that was largely about running a book fair. A kid would have been asleep by that point.

But hey, I'm not the Movie Police (my application was denied when they saw how many copies of Shocker I owned), so if that guy couldn't understand being scared as an adult, that's well within his rights, and it's his loss. Likewise, I don't need any of you to tell me I'm "wrong", because you saw Rosemary's Baby in its entirety when you were seven and it made you a horror fan for life - I'm absolutely sure you're not alone. The point is, while some horror movies are certainly aimed at a younger or at least less discerning crowd *in general*, there are others that the filmmakers, if not outright require, are certainly recommending you be a bit older to fully appreciate what they were going for. It's easy to spot them - just look for angry viewers claiming that they're not horror movies (all of the above are victims, plus Get Out, which... oof). Some movies are perfectly capable at serving both masters; Romero's Dead films can terrify the younger set with visions of the undead trying to eat them, while their parents can enjoy the satire and/or social commentary found within (you know you're an adult when you realize how funny "this was an important place in their lives" is). But those are rare; there are some that just don't have enough for the average impatient kid who is daring himself to watch. Rest assured, however, there will always be horror movies that are perfect for whatever age group you're currently slotted in, and there's absolutely no shame in being scared by them - in the best cases, it just means you're maturing.