Cinematic Scares

‘PARANORMAL ACTIVITY,’ ‘THE STEPFATHER,’ ‘WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE,’ ‘SAW VI’

I’ve enjoyed being scared witless in movies ever since 1967, when I was eight and jumped screaming from my seat as a murderous Alan Arkin, kitchen knife flashing, hunted the blind Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark. To paraphrase Tolstoy, happy movies are all alike, but every scary movie is scary in its own way. There are stalker movies, like Halloween, that turn you into prey; harrowing studies of twisted family relationships, as in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?; mind-bending forays into paranoia, such as Roman Polanski’s Repulsion or The Tenant. A large body of films chronicles nature gone awry (The Birds, Jaws) or the devil in lusty action, à la The Omen or The Exorcist. The varieties of cinematic dread are endless. Yet all these movies depend, at key moments, on the anticipation of something terrible about to happen. The witty insight of 1999’s low-budget blockbuster The Blair Witch Project was its recognition that the scariest part of a scary movie is the buildup—the not-seeing, the not-knowing. By keeping evil invisible from start to finish, by never revealing it, Blair Witch was all foreplay and no consummation: the scary movie both pastiched and perfected.

Hewing closely to the same model is this season’s surprise box-office colossus, Paranormal...

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About the Author

Rand Richards Cooper, one of Commonweal's film critics, is the author of two works of fiction, The Last To Go and Big as Life.