“Candyman’s not as scary as Freddie,” Alexis said, leaning on her desk.
“He’s much scarier,” said Gene. “Freddy’s not scary.”
“Freddie kills anyone. With Candyman you have to say his name three times in front of a mirror. Who’s gonna do that?”
“Well, yeah, but with Freddie you have to say ‘Kruger Kruger Kruger.’ So it’s the same.”
I watched the conversation with abstract anthropological interest. Or at least, that’s how I describe it now. As nerdy as I was, even I didn’t see myself as a pop-culture anthropologist among my peer group in sixth grade. But I did find it fascinating to listen to people talk about their passions, even those I didn’t share.
This conversation further cemented something for me: I hated horror movies. After all, they were all about making you feel scared. That was their entire purpose. Who would want that? Fear is terrible. I spent enough time frightened of dark and impossible things as it was. Adults wax about they miss innocent joy and belief in the fantastical children possess. But they forget about the fear.
Children spend so much of their time afraid, because they Believe. How can they not? We only know that the world is round, that certain mushrooms can kill us, that there used to be a thing called the Roman Empire where they spoke a language no one speaks anymore except the Pope and some Catholic school teachers, because someone you trusted told us, and we believed them. To a children, the world is full of dark, hungry things. They are just as real as Santa Claus, life after death, and the Boston Tea Party. Things that are never seen or touched, but that, in the right moments, cannot be doubted.
I just watched Candyman for the first time the other day, more than twenty years after Gene and Alexis made me never want to watch it. It sprang to my mind because I saw Tony Todd, the actor who plays Candyman, in two separate episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Playing two separate characters, although in their defense one of them was a Klingon. To many people I’ve known, Todd is and always will be Candyman, no matter what other roles he plays. Seeing the actor made me realize I’ve never seen the movie, and that was a gap in my knowledge. Because now, as an adult, I love horror movies.
I love them in a way I never could as a child. There are two major reasons for this. The first is that I came to realize that my middle school classmates had a very unsophisticated view of the purpose of horror. They were after what might be called “popcorn horror.” Popcorn horror is all about the fear. It’s about the thrill of being scared, decontextualized from any exploration of themes or interesting narrative or character work.
A friend of mine, writer and filmmaker Evan Alexander Baker, summed it up perfectly with the following quote:
As a lifelong horror fan, I ABSOLUTELY DO NOT prioritize being “scared out of my wits.” I watch horror movies because I want to be confronted with interesting, resonant images and ideas relating to the abject and the uncanny.
I am not there for a “thrill ride.”
Are there some genuinely scary horror movies that are also masterpieces of the genre? Absolutely. Are they masterpieces of the genre BECAUSE they are scary? Nope; they’re scary as a byproduct of their ideas and imagery.
When filmmakers set out, first and foremost, to be “scary,” they produce hollow technical exercises.
It took me years to appreciate that it’s not horror that I don’t like. It’s cheap horror. A lot of people gauge horror on the “scare” scale–like it’s a love-tester with “love” replaced with “fear”– and there’s nothing wrong with that. Popcorn horror has its place, for the people who like that kind of thing. I’m just not one of them.
I still don’t exactly enjoy being scared, but I love being unsettled. I love engaging in the vast landscape of imagination that exists in the places of the human mind that make us uncomfortable. My favorite kind of horror is the type that makes me doubt my view of reality and the world.
I love it for the same reason that I love really fantastical fantasy like China Meiville or AD&D Planescape setting, or conceptually experimental science fiction like the works of Philip K. Dick or John C. Wright. I love them because they are mind-expanding. At its best, horror is even better at this than any other genre, because it is unafraid to stretch your worldview until it breaks. Until it bleeds. It expands the mind in a way that is both intellectual and viscerally primal. Cartesian radical doubt for the senses.
The other reason I love horror as an adult, when I could not as a child, is because I can take it. I no longer Believe. Not the way that I did. I still get scared walking into the basement in the dead of night, but it’s not the paralyzing dread it was as a child. I can grit my teeth and make myself do it, because this basket of clothing isn’t going to wash itself. Hopefully. When something is frightening enough, it is real. As a child, you might understand intellectually that the shadow on cast by the door doesn’t contain a smiling beast with teeth for eyes. But emotionally, you know it is there. In your brain you feel it as strongly and completely as if you had seen it walked across the living room floor.
Adults have this kind of fear, too. You can see it when a parent loses track of their child in a crowded grocery story. They might go into complete panic until they find them. The odds that the child has been abducted in those three minutes are very small, but the fear is so real it feels like a certainty.
As we grow older, we learn what the world contains and what it does’ t. We come to rely on these patterns. They’re comfortable. The world becomes a safer place because we’ve seen its shadows enough times that our belief that they are harmless is stronger than the monsters. I can watch horror movies now, even though they still frighten me, because that fear is no longer the threat that it once was. It won’t slip under my skin and whisper in my blood for years, the way it did when I was small.
But it still frightens me, because I still Believe. Not as much as I did, but it’s still there. I dread the person I’ll become if I ever lose that entirely. I don’t think humanity will ever fully understand the world, and so there are places for the things that live in the cracks and lap at the wounds of our nightmares. I did not find Candyman to be that frightening, but I’m not going to say the name out loud. Because I just don’t know. And even now, as I write these words, I’m happier than I like to admit that there are no mirrors in this room.