The first scary movie I ever saw was “Jaws”. It was a July afternoon in Oklahoma, and I was visiting my cousins.
I don’t ever remember a hotter summer than that one. The heat rose off the roads in waves and the tar that zigzagged over the cracks in the sidewalks grew soft and stuck to our flip flops.
By noon, we retreated indoors, sunburned and tired from running through the sprinklers and hungry for a bologna sandwich. Still in our swimsuits, we ate in front of the television lying on our stomachs.
“Jaws” seemed innocent enough at first – the banana boats, the too short shorts on the guys, and the Farrah Fawcett hair on the girls. It was beachy and perfect for a summer afternoon. And then the music kicked in.
Dunna. Dunna. Dunna dunna dunna duuuuuunnnnnna.
A fin knifes through the water. Somebody gets dragged under. The water bubbles red. Everybody screams. And my cousins, all boys, tickle me until I am crying. I’m not sure where my heart has gone, but it is thumping loudly from somewhere underneath the floor. I am seven.
My scary moving-going has not gone any better since. I caught one scene from “It” on TBS at age 10, which forever ruined clowns for me. Although, does anybody really like clowns? I will not be seeing the remake.
At 11, I watched “People Under the Stairs” in a detached trailer neighboring my grandparent’s lake house with a girl named Chastity, who was one year older than me but looked like she was 30. She, too, was visiting her grandparents for the summer. They had cockatoos that roamed the trailer, freely pooping on the backs of chairs and your hair if you weren’t fast enough. Both the movie and the trailer gave me nightmares for weeks. I still can’t handle cockatoos.
Maybe I was simply too young for blood and terror and creepy slo-mo shots of half open doors. Maybe I should have waited a decade or two. Even now, I steer clear of the “Horror” category on Neflix. I can’t even pause in my scrolling because the movie covers give me the shivers. How do the eyes of the serial killers and demon dolls manage to follow you around the room?
In all honesty, I don’t think it was my age that ruined it for me. I think some people just aren’t cut out for the scary stuff.
According to Glenn Sparks, a professor at Purdue University, who conducted a research study on why certain people are affected by these films more than others, it has a great deal to do with our wiring. Some people get a kick from that adrenaline rush. The quickened heartbeat and prickling at the back of the neck leave them with more energy when the film is over, what he calls the “excitation transfer process.” It leaves you jittery and happy at having gotten to enjoy the thrill. It’s the same reason some people love roller coasters – the fear factor that leads to greater victory when it is done.
There’s also the novelty of the horror film that draws people in, the idea that you’re seeing something you don’t see every day. It’s curiosity that keeps you watching and wondering what could possibly happen next.
But for some of us, the rush and the novelty isn’t worth the emotional price. I don’t want to come out clammy and shaky and headed for sleeplessness just to say I did it. I’m all for novelty, but let it be for the good. Let it bring me a vision of utopia, not the stuff of nightmares. Give me “This is Us” and “Sing” and let me relax.
I think some of us are simply more sensitive to stimulus than others. The magic of story-telling in books and film is that it carries fiction into reality. If done well, the world in the story is all-encompassing and complete. But if you are a super feeler, a highly sensitive person, the reality can be too much to handle.
You can feel that hot sun and choppy water right before the shark appears. You can hear that door creak open from a mile away. You can already see those unblinking eyes looking back from the rain-slashed window and will continue to see them long after the credits roll. If you are anything like me, you need less, not more, stimulus. Life is enough of an adrenaline rush.
If you’re a scary movie lover, more power to you. With Halloween right around the corner, this is your season. But for those of you who aren’t, know that you’re not alone. I’ll be right there with you, with the lights on, watching re-runs of “Parks and Rec” and locking all the doors after dark.