Horror movies get a lot less scary as you get older and no, before you ask, this isn’t one of those whiney pieces bemoaning a reduction in quality because, to my mind, the genre is in fairly rude health. Start with Jordan Peele’s Us and move on from there if you need evidence.
The revelation, if that’s what you want to call it, came while I was listening to the thoroughly enjoyable Shock Waves podcast, the hosts of which were comparing Pennywise, Stephen King’s demonic clown, to Wes Craven’s Freddy Krueger. They made the point that the two characters are generational bogeymen in terms of their pop culture impact. Pennywise is for today’s teenagers what Freddy was for us.
The difference between the two, for me, is that the first iteration of Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street, which I illicitly watched on video underage, stayed with me for weeks. Krueger and his claws were with me every time I woke up in the middle of the night. It’s still a film I don’t care to rewatch.
Andy Muschietti’s It, featuring Pennywise, is a great movie, with some delicious scares, and the sequel had its moments. But the clown ain’t sitting on my shoulder on the way to the bathroom.
Supernatural horrors start to pale as one’s knowledge of the real world grows. It’s a far, far, scarier place then even the most blood curdling nightmares dreamed up by the genre’s creators.
Consider the people we’ve been electing of late. For Pennywise, the malignant clown, I give you Boris Johnson. You want a real life analogue of Freddie? There are a fair few candidates. I’ll let you fill in the gaps.
There’s no supernatural force responsible for the malevolent populists who have come to power in the UK, the US, and Hungary, and Poland too.
Social media has played a destructive role in propagating the paranoid narratives spun by the leaders of those countries, and we shouldn't exempt traditional media either. But people didn’t have to listen to them. They didn’t have to vote for the bogeymen. Their leaders are self-created horrors, even if they are not yet on a level with the world’s worst villains.
But the fright factor the latter are capable of inducing, while considerable, pales by comparison to the horrors the natural world is coughing up, and I’m not just talking about he microbial terror lurking in the angry bloke outside Tesco who refuses to wear a mask while he’s coughing his guts up.
Some of the most chilling TV shows or films I’ve seen are Sir David Attenborough’s documentaries in which the naturalist carefully explains the impact man is having on a real world. Another one is due, courtesy of Netflix. It’s even getting a brief cinema release. Per the trailer, he’s offering us a way out, as well as a witness statement.
Some of the most frightening literature is not produced by King, but by the scientific journals chronicling the impact we’re having on the world in terms of climate change, pollution, habitat loss. I’ve had a scientific education. I’ve read them. I don’t need Sir David to underline the point. I’m already down with what he’s saying.
Anxiety about the world we are leaving for our children is far more likely to keep me awake today than even Freddy did when he made his debut on home video. Nasty world leaders, climate change, environmental destruction, the prospect of more pandemics. Being in the news business doesn’t exactly help: I’m confronted with it every day.
Against this backdrop, watching horror flicks from around the world serves, in a curious way, as a palliative. Maybe it’s the adrenaline rush. Maybe getting a controllable scare in a safe place helps when it comes to dealing with fears that aren’t controllable. Maybe there’s an element of desensitisation. I’m not sure. But it seems to work.
When I was younger, Nightmare on Elm Street and Freddy stopped me sleeping. Strangely, Pennywise, It, and their peers, are helping with anxiety and insomnia now I’m older.
We need to fight our self-created horrors. Sir David thinks there’s a way to win against the environmental ones. If the fictional ones can help energise us in that, because who doesn’t feel energised after a good night’s sleep, so much the better.