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FIELD NOTES: Fear itself - Movies

What are you afraid of? It is a question that has haunted our kind since we first began gathering around communal fires in hopes of keeping the unknown at bay. As a species, we like to scare each other, and ourselves. It’s a weird concept if you think about it; purposely subjecting ourselves to stressful situations to get our hearts beating and our blood pumping. And this time of year, especially, we tend to push ourselves to the limits of dread in search of that deeply unsettling feeling that a good horror novel, movie, or TV show engenders. 

I thought about this recently as I watched all seven hours of the Netflix horror extravaganza “Midnight Mass.” It is one of the better horror movies I’ve seen over the past few years, right up there with “IT,” “Hereditary” and “Midsommar.” You can check out a full review on my blog, but suffice it to say it’s not for the faint of heart. 

I haven’t always had a taste for horror, but it does go back a ways. When I was in fifth or sixth grade, I bought a book from the Scholastic Book Club called “Strange But True.” It was a collection of supposedly true stories about weird and uncanny events; things like the Jersey Devil, the Mary Celeste, the Moth Man, etc. While it wasn’t precisely “horror,” it did scare the bejeesus out of me. I don’t think I slept for a week! Later, in high school and college, I started reading Stephen King, Clive Barker, Shirley Jackson, and H.P. Lovecraft. As a freshman in college, I got my first exposure to HBO and saw the original Halloween about a dozen times, along with a few less-known horror flicks like “Prophecy” and “Humanoids from the Deep.”   

Since then, I’ve become a connoisseur of the genre, even trying my hand at writing a few stories myself. While I don’t especially enjoy “slasher” films, I do make an effort to see as many serious (if there is such a thing) horror films as possible.

Here is a list of my favorites from the past 20 years or so, in no particular order. If you’re looking to get into the Halloween spirit, check these out:

“The Blair Witch Project” – Yeah, I know. But putting aside the hundred bad “found footage” movies it spawned, it’s a very good film with a creepy plot, spooky scenery, and reasonably good payoff. 

“Sleepy Hollow” – The first time I saw this, a year or two after it came out, I hated it. I was expecting something different, I guess. Then, I saw it again 10 years later and finally got it.  

“Hereditary” – When this came out a few years ago, some hailed it as scarier than “The Exorcist.” It’s not, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a great horror film. The thing I like best is the way it plays with horror tropes; you think you know what’s going to happen next, but you don’t.

“The Cabin in the Woods” – Speaking of horror tropes, this movie is amazing, even if it isn’t exactly a horror film. 

“IT, Parts I and II” – Yes, “Part I” is stronger than “Part II,” but as a whole story, “IT” is still one of the scariest ever written or filmed. 

“Midsommar” – This one! Like “Sleepy Hollow,” I was expecting something different, and this bright, cheery film with intermittent stunning brutality can overload the senses, but those horrific images stick with you. 

“A Quiet Place, I and II” – Like “IT,” the first film is better. Both “I” and “II” are probably better described as science fiction than horror, but that’s splitting hairs.

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