Scaring up fear on film

Dakota Johnson in Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Susperia. Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Studios

As we sink deeper into autumn and the end of October looms, the thoughts of many Americans — young and old — turn to Halloween, the spookiest holiday of the year (unless you’re uneasy about overeating on Thanksgiving). The tricks and treats change when we cross the threshold to adulthood, but that urge to experience a real scare in a controlled situation sticks with many of us. Even though movies and TV shows that trade in various shades of horror get released any time of year, it seems like a no-brainer to schedule a fright-fest right around Oct. 31.

There probably isn’t a person alive who is completely without fear. Everyone’s anxious about something to various degrees, be it a threat from the wilds of nature — spiders, snakes, swarms of wasps, earthquakes, etc., — or from the dark side of humanity — serial killers (in or out of hockey masks), terrorists (domestic or otherwise), autocratic would-be dictators (at home or abroad), nuclear war, etc. Then, there’s the supernatural and the extraterrestrial. We can say it’s irrational to be afraid of ghosts or alien invaders, but that doesn’t stop the terror from shaking many of us to the core when we’re exposed to such things in books, in movies, or on television.

I myself bear scars from a childhood viewing of a Twilight Zone episode that depicted nine-foot-tall aliens called Kanamits who land on Earth in spaceships and promise to rescue humanity from war and starvation. Without going into the details or spoiling anything, I recall huddling in my bed on the night I first saw the show, and thinking that a Kanamit might be lurking outside the house and peering into the window of my bedroom with unholy intent. I still shudder a bit on the few occasions I’ve rewatched the episode as a grown-up who should know better. And don’t get me started on the first time I saw Alien in a theater.


So why do we subject ourselves to stories in any form that will give us the willies when there’s enough to disturb us in daily life? It could be the rush of endorphins triggered by the flight-or-fight instinct. Or perhaps it’s the thrill of facing our fears in a controlled and generally nonthreatening environment. Or the desire to feel more alive in a maelstrom of information bombardment so great that it can desensitize a person. Or it just might be the pure entertainment value offered by the fantastic and the fear-fraught. Whatever it is, the movie industry is more than happy to profit from it.

We’ve already had the mid-September release of Mandy, a very effective, wildly hallucinogenic, gore-splattered action film featuring Nicolas Cage at his best in fully unhinged mode as an avenging warrior going after the psycho-religious cult that abducted his girlfriend. And that was followed by a family-friendlier sorcery-infused feature: The House with a Clock in Its Walls, starring Jack Black and Cate Blanchett in a fable about a 10-year-old boy who moves into his uncle’s musty, run-down house and inadvertently uncovers a world of magic and magical beings.


But October has even more in store. A Marvel Comics villain and Spider-Man antagonist gets his own eponymous stand-alone movie: Venom, opening Oct. 5, with Tom Hardy as a hapless fellow who becomes bonded to a violently dangerous alien symbiote. Goosebumps: Haunted Halloween, with an Oct. 12 release date, is the second feature film to be adapted from the creepy stories of author R. L. Stine, this one centering on that famous horror trope, the ventriloquist dummy who comes to life with evil intent.

Combining science-fiction and paranormal elements, I Still See You, also viewable on Oct. 12, is set nine years after something apocalyptic killed millions of people only to have created a worldwide population of ghosts presumably haunting those left alive. Additionally dropping on Oct. 12, Apostle is a period piece set in the early 1900s with Dan Stevens of TV’s Legion and Downton Abbey as a young man seeking his sister after she’s spirited away to a remote island by one of those wacko religious cults (clearly, another horror staple) led by a self-proclaimed prophet played by Michael Sheen.

The month’s hallowed offerings hit the home stretch on Oct. 19 with Halloween — a continuation of the long-running franchise of the same name, this time with the return of original scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis from 1978’s debut Halloween and 1981’s Halloween II as the now-older-and-presumably-wiser Laurie Strode going up against the seemingly immortal, knife-wielding boogeyman Michael Myers.

Finally, Oct. 26 brings the most highbrow movie of the bunch, courtesy of Oscar-nominated director Luca Guadagnino of Call Me by Your Name fame: his remake of Suspiria, the classic from Italian horror-meister Dario Argento. Guadagnino’s version stars Dakota Johnson and Tilda Swinton in a tale of evil plaguing a renowned dance company.


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Michael Snyder is a print and broadcast journalist who covers pop culture on "Michael Snyder's Culture Blast," via, Roku, and YouTube, and on KPFK/Pacifica Radio’s “David Feldman Show.” You can follow Michael on Twitter: @cultureblaster