This isn’t exactly a new thought. Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Yet we continue to be afraid for little reason other than we have been told to.
In fact, it seems as if every generation of parents has had a pop-culture influence to be frightened of. Elvis’ hips seem silly now, but at the time they caused a near panic from parents. For every generation of children that grows up under these evil influences, a new fear rises when they raise their own kids.
Movies exploit this concept extraordinarily well. What reason do you really have to fear a horror film? When I was young, I remember being frightened by seeing Freddy Krueger even on a TV commercial. In fact, I’ve never even seen any of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, probably because I was so terrified of the killer as a child.
If we were to think logically about it, these movies wouldn’t frighten us at all. The only reason horror movies frighten is because people have been told that they’re scary. It is this manipulation of the audience that demonstrates how much movies rely on distortion. If you were to watch a horror film on mute, or dubbed with polka music, you would probably laugh at it instead. In fact, I often laugh at scary movies because I haven’t allowed my mind to be put in that frightful state.
Often, scary movies don’t stand the test of time. I watched the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre a few years ago for the first time. I had been told that it was one of the scariest movies ever made. I recall being somewhat frightened for a time, until the scene in which a teenage girl is chased through the woods. My heart was pumping, for a time, but the chase carried on for such a long time that my brain suddenly switched on, and I started laughing uncontrollably. It was as if the Benny Hill theme was being played while the nubile young girl ran from Leatherface.
In our world, there are so many things we are told to fear. Terrorism is perhaps the most ridiculous of all our modern fears. The very construction of the word commands you to be afraid. It’s illogical to fear terrorism, because fearing it accomplishes the goals of the perpetrator. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney like to trumpet the fact that no terrorist attack was launched on US soil after the September 11th attacks in 2001, but we spent the following seven years in constant fear of another. Doesn’t that mean that they failed to protect us from terror?
With all the fearful reporting our media is responsible for, I’m surprised nobody has created a show called Nothing to Fear. The whole concept would be to debunk the ideas that are created by the media and the government. They would be the only show on TV to do it, and could use the exact same exciting footage used by 20/20. In fact, the only thing that frightens me about 20/20 is the idea that Barbara Walters is thought of as an actual journalist. But I digress.
True fear comes from the unexpected. Perhaps this is why I generally don’t find horror films all that frightening. This concept works in many different genres of film. When you are told that a comedy is hilarious, it often fails to live up to expectations. Hype often works against the smaller, more earnest movies that seem to garner Oscar attention every year.
In fact, I’m not sure most people watch horror movies so that they may be frightened. Most horror movies these days are mere schlocky bloodbaths that are enjoyed mainly for their “so bad it’s good” elements. I love watching the ’80s horror movie Sleepaway Camp, because I enjoy “exposing” new people to the hilarious stupidity of it. Many horror films employ what I call the “thud moment,” in which a hand grabs someone’s shoulder out of the darkness whilst a single note is played by flinging cats at a string-section (I assume). But would this really be scary taken out of context, or even upon the second viewing?
Perhaps it is merely human nature to think this way. As children, we fear monsters under the bed and bogeymen in the closet. Perhaps, as adults, we still haven’t developed the logical minds we think we have. The only difference is what is widely chosen as the acceptable fear. Movies exploit this, but in the end it’s just entertainment. The movie Jaws helped to grow an already illogical fear of shark attacks, so much so that its writer, Peter Benchley, even spent the last years of his life defending sharks from man’s cruelty. Perhaps, instead of fearing the impact of popular culture on our children, we should first consider how it has frightened us.