The scariest film I have ever seen is I Know What You Did Last Summer, a 1997 teen slasher movie. It stars Jennifer Love Hewitt, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe, and Freddie Prinze Jr. It holds a 42% approval rating on RottenTomatoes. By those metrics, this film is considered not very good. But it fucked me up for life.
Also, I've only ever seen one scene from the entire movie, when a hooded figure wielding a hook stabs a dude in the stomach and blood starts coming out of that man’s mouth. I have watched hundreds of horror films since, but stop me in the street and ask me: What's the scariest movie you've ever seen? and I will unwaveringly answer "I Know What You Did Last Summer, because I was a seven-year-old wuss who had never seen a grown man run through with a sheep hook in a gas station lot before."
What I'm saying is, "scary" is a silly metric by which to measure a horror movie's quality, especially if it's the only one you use. Not to get all "I own a thesaurus" on you, but there are distinct differences between something that's scary, spooky, threatening, shocking, dreadful, et cetera. The new big horror release, Scary Stories To Tell In the Dark, for example, writes a check the movie needs to cash. It’s right there in the title
It's near impossible to qualify something "scary," but: It must instill fear (natch); it must be, in some way, surprising; and it must not offer catharsis. That last part's important, because movies that spam audiences with jump scares like A Quiet Place or the new Pet Sematary remake are still definitely horror movies. But scary? Not really. A Quiet Place was good, but I was not kept awake at night by the image of a multi-limbed monster bursting into my corn silo. Try as I might, I cannot relate.
The catharsis, in these cases, is the silly little adrenaline rush every time the movie essentially goes “Boo!” Those moments make you feel silly. They make you look like a fool in front of your date, who will now never be able to separate any romantic potential from watching you literally convulse with fear when a little kid’s hand grabs at Ethan Hawke’s sweater in Sinister, (a very scary movie, for what it's worth) or whatever.
Let's also consider another recent horror movie: Midsommar, derided by some Fandango users I would like to fight as "not scary." There is one jump scare in the film's 2 hours, 20 minutes, which director Ari Aster himself insists is more of a "jolt." This otherworldly fairy-tale is dreadful in the literal sense, and its length is part of the deal. Folks wanting to see a traditionally-structured horror went home disappointed because the slow and inexorable march towards the inevitable was the point of the film. Deaths are telegraphed. The ending is, in fact, hiding in plain sight near the very beginning of the movie. I also get mad when people wrongly think they’re cracked a film’s code, calling it “predictable” when, more often than not, they’ve just identified they’re familiar with story structure. Congrats, folks: welcome to freshman year at NYU.
Because get this: knowing what’s going to happen can be very scary. it‘s not about whether or not there’s going to be a ghost in the bathroom mirror when the dad stops rubbing his eyes and looks up. It’s that this terrible thing is going to happen no matter what you do. It’s not about a teen frantically cutting off their own arm with a carving knife—it’s that you can’t help but imagine being trapped in the unfamiliar world that would demand such a sacrifice. That last thing happens in the 2013 Evil Dead remake, by the way: A cruelly underrated horror movie, but not a scary one.
Here are some of the movies users on IMDB have labeled the "scariest of all time": The Exorcist. The Shining. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. These pop up again and again, and it's probably neither a coincidence that they’re films the current guard of movie critics would have seen at a more impressionable age, nor that all these films were seminal in shaping hundreds, if not thousands, of subsequent horror movies which mined them for inspiration in the form of shared images, themes, aesthetics, and maybe the occasional actor. "Scary" is something you haven't seen before, which, by simple virtue of the fact that there are more movies every day, is a harder moving target to hit.
I'm bored with people asking if a film is scary, and bored with people complaining about films that they think aren't. "Scary," like it or not, relies on unfamiliarity, which means the more horror movies you watch, the scarier you want them to be, and the more disappointed you'll probably end up. But hoo boy, when that one film comes along every now and again that drags you into its horrid, inescapable world no matter what you've seen before, that's something special. In the meantime, stop ragging on Midsommar for not having invisible demons running around slamming doors. I’m scared of seeing another lazy, binary take on a genre that wants you to feel everything.
Originally Appeared on GQ