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Debate: Would you spend good money to be scared witless?



The Blair Witch Project, a low-budget horror film that has taken America by storm, is premiering at the Edinburgh Festival this week. I can't wait to see it.

At the start of Kevin Williamson's Scream the Munch-masked, knife-wielding maniac asks "Do you like scary movies?" As far as his audience was concerned, the question was rhetorical - they wouldn't have been in the cinema if they didn't have at least a passing interest in being scared out of their wits of a Saturday night.

What, you don't like scary movies? Which ones do you mean? Are you talking about "slasher" movies (Friday the 13th, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween); Hammer horrors (too many top camp carry-ons to mention); psychological horror thrillers (The Exorcist, Rosemary's Baby, The Omen); one-offs that combine all of the above (OK, it's just Psycho in this category); underrated cult gems (Stepfather, The Wicker Man) or sci-fi scarers (Aliens, The Thing)? Horror movies come in all shapes and sizes. To dismiss them all is to dismiss a primeval propensity to feel the fear and watch it any way.

It's the reason people climb mountains, jump out of planes and ride roller coasters. It's that "close to death" thing that makes you swear you'll never do it again but stops you from stopping yourself. It's the "phew" factor - and where would we be without it. The thing is, with all the above you are taking Real Risks. Watching horror films you can experience your virtual near-death experience safe, surrounded, and preferably sitting next to a loved one whose hand you are mercilessly trying to prise away from her eyes.

Gore is the horror equivalent of the fart gag. It's acceptable, but the real reason to watch scary movies is for that spine-tingling sense of anticipation. If timing is the key to comedy, then anticipation is its horror-film equivalent. The makers of The Blair Witch Project know this. And then some. To stretch the comedy analogy, for a film director to make an audience jump out of their seats must be as satisfying as a comedian cracking them up in the aisles.

All societies have their bogey men - strange supernatural omnipresent powers that can deliver retribution in a lightning-strike instant. In the Bible it is God. In ancient folklore it is giants, witches, monsters, and slimy creatures under the bed. (OK, that last one was just my childhood imagination and Dad, if you're reading, thanks for checking.) In modern movies such as Halloween it is characters like Michael Myers - before he went on to find fame as Austin Powers.

The point is, some of us love to be scared - just as long as it's not to death. Don't get me wrong, I don't want to be coming across these spooks in my daily life, but I'll pay good money to watch them up there on that screen, out of harm's way, terrifying other people.



ALL THE advance publicity for The Blair Witch Project is fortuitous because it means that I definitely won't make the mistake of going to see it. No matter how clever, or lacking in actual blood and gore, my idea of being entertained does not include spending an hour or so in a state of high anxiety, gripped by terror with hands alternating over eyes and ears. (Somehow the sound of the monster is often worse.)

One reviewer of The Blair Witch Project actually raved about how she found herself a small ball, coiled tight with tension by the end of the film, as if this were a good thing. Can someone tell me why this is a recommendation? A bad day at work can take you to the same place but at least they're paying you. I genuinely don't get it. I asked a colleague who finds all scary films seductive why this was, and she said it was because she was once removed, voyeuristically watching it all happening to someone else. Obviously she speaks only for herself, but can this be healthy?

At least I am now absolutely sure that I need waste no more time paying to be terrified. I have seen enough now to never go near any film that announces itself as "horror". I have seen The Shining, Halloween, Friday the 13th, The Omen, The Exorcist and even Scream and I won't be fooled again; I hated them all. This has nothing to do with production values, calibre of acting, good scripts, clever references or any sort of qualitative assessment. As soon as I'm in a room watching something where the central premise is that something is chasing someone and will at some point catch up with them, I lose grip and actually get vaguely annoyed about being manipulated in this foolish way; quality tension or no, "evil" in all its many horror film forms does nothing for me, no matter how cleverly the camera stalks its prey or how creatively it kills. Of course Halloween made me jump, but no, I didn't enjoy it. I'm not all that happy about people who hide in bushes and say "boo" either; call me a kill joy but I feel it lacks subtlety and ingenuity as attention-grabbing tactics go.

It's not that I'm a film snob either. I watch James Bond films, even the ones with Roger Moore. Neither do I particularly champion the right of poor white American trash not to have their lives horrifically ended because they had sex or so much as a drag of a cigarette. Violence in itself won't put me off seeing a film either - I don't particularly enjoy seeing Joe Pesci bludgeon someone with a baseball bat, but I haven't let it stop me seeing more Mob films. No, the problem with a horror film is that its primary purpose, its only purpose in fact, is to scare you as if this were a worthwhile end in itself. And for me they always succeed - I was not one of those who was amused by Jack Nicholson's hamminess in The Shining; I was too busy alternately gouging bits out of my brother's arm and shielding my eyes/ears. Where's the fun in that?