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Can movies scare us twice?


A few days ago I wrote an article on the 2016 film Lights Out, which to my pleasant surprise, is still as good as I initially remembered it being. It also got me thinking. How much did my original appreciation of the movie come from the scare factor, and how much did my enjoyment come from the overall quality of the film's own merits? I've had plenty of experiences with horror films that were so entertaining and scary when I first saw them that my initial experience could not be matched in any time I returned to the movie after. I'm thinking partially about Crawl, a 2019 monster feature involving a tropical storm which strands a woman and her father into an ever sinking house while alligators run rampant throughout the waters and attempt to hunt them down. Alexandre Aja pulled off quite a feat with balancing one location as the only set of the film, and kept the fun appeal of the alligators and keeping track of where they are during the many hunt scenes. I liked the movie so much that I decided to watch it again with my mother about a week after my experience. With the film's lean running time and simple presence I ended up conflicted upon my second experience, given that when all the cards are on the table and you know what's coming, it's harder to be surprised or entertained the same way on the first watch.


Not all genres suffer from this, with multiple movies in the action, drama and probably most especially comedy genre benefiting from returns either with family members or friends or even a simple re-watch by yourself when you find it on TV late at night. I've personally seen movies like The Big Lebowski time and time again, soaking up the bizarre nihilism of the film and appreciating the performances each time I watch it. If you haven't already been aware, I'm also a huge nerd, and I tend to gobble up MCU releases like I'm at a buffet. In fact, I think movies like Avengers: Endgame or Black Panther are beneficial of multiple viewings, to appreciate the heroes' journeys and the little details we might as viewers miss because we are already so distracted by each occurring scene. Hell, I'd even say it's worth it to re-watch Captain America fighting Captain America on four different viewings (yeah i did.)


So what is it about horror movies that brings me to my point? Well on the very basic definition of scary books, movies or haunted houses, the goal is to shake us or scare us on either a psychological or emotional very in-your-face level. Certainly with the trends in Hollywood as they are today, a lot of new releases benefit from jump-scares, (a friend and I had a conversation about for their merits) which can be considered easy opportunities to catch us off guard with loud noises or quick cuts. This common trope among major horror releases has tired some critics out to a degree that the score median of overall critical response has been low to middling. However, jump-scares and other spooky reveals during a horror movie can really push us into a level of unease and excitement that otherwise wouldn't be achieved by something slightly more nuanced. When we first view a movie in the horror genre, we very rarely know exactly what to expect, and the unknown is what gives the film the upper-hand.

So what happens when we re-watch a horror film? Well for me and the film Crawl, I wouldn't by any means say I was bored or underwhelmed. In fact I enjoyed the opportunity to witness it with another, new audience member. But I'd argue that the "magic" was gone, or at least the first time experience I had. It's like going on a ride and knowing when the dips and turns and flips are going to happen. You're prepared for it. It makes things less exciting. You have the upper-hand.


That being said I would argue that certain horror films tend to linger in our thoughts, even come home with us and sneak into our rooms as we try to sleep. I was thirteen the first time I watched The Blair Witch Project which is arguably one of the first of its kind in the found-footage genre, or at least the first of its kind to be so successful. This movie was one I missed on its 1999 release while it was in theatres, but viewed (per recommendation) on DVD in my upstairs room one late night. I can't remember if I slept a wink that night. But unlike some modern horror films, or even older ones with a less impacting experience, it stuck with me. I probably watched this movie 12 times in my teenage years, and somehow, each time it scared me. I think part of it was the unknown, the things we couldn't quite distinguish in the dark, or the sounds we couldn't quite place. Over time though, I could almost recite the movie in my sleep! So why was it that I couldn't sleep with the lights off during a tenth viewing, or even finish it halfway some nights. The movie kept scaring me.


Of course I was younger then, probably more prone to nightmares and less understanding of what makes horror films work, or whats real and not real. I believed in ghosts and the idea that found-footage films were secretly real (and I wasn't alone on the thought with Blair Witch). So do movies still scare me after my first viewing? Well yes and no. The films that are hyped up by audiences and critics are always going to excite me for the weeks leading up to their releases, but tend to fizzle out after initial viewing, somewhat due to my high expectations. Lots of films in the slasher genre are enjoyable and quite good, but they don't carry the same shock factor of seeing Girl #1 sliced and diced the first time around. But once in a blue moon, I see a film that really resonates and almost requires multiple viewings. One example is The Babadook a horror movie as resonant about death and grieving as it is just damn scary. I also find myself returning to The Ring time and time again, both the Japanese original and the remake. When I was fourteen, I couldn't watch the whole videotape without squinting my eyes. (I'm older now and I can..... I swear!) The jump-scares are expected, but the sense of dread and creeping horror remains.

It's a lot to ask a movie to keep our attention and offer us reasons to return after we purchase the first ticket or pay for the rental. I've become more and more a fan of physical media because of my commitment to re-watching and truly appreciating a film for it's quality and what makes it special or important in the vast sea of film. When I was younger I'd cover my ears in expectation of the big loud jump-scares, and today I realize, I wasn't fully comfortable being scared on a high-adrenaline level. Today, I'm ready for the jumps and twists and turns of a horror movie, and I challenge each one of those to keep me scared long enough to cause me trouble turning the lights off, or sleeping without my little dog in the bed. Horror movies of that caliber offer returning customers, and give reasons to create favorite memories and places for them to exist within our top-ten lists and hopefully on our shelves as well.