In Defense of Fear
Six years ago, I tried and failed to watch the midnight premiere of Paranormal Activity. I say watch because I made it to the theater, just not through the movie.
I knew nothing about the movie before going. I’d somehow managed to miss any trailers on TV, any rumblings about it on the internet. A couple of coworkers had asked me to go with them after work that night. The theater in Times Square was just a short walk from the bakeshop where we worked, and I’ve always been an easy sell when it comes to movies.
“What’s it about?” I asked them.
“It’s supposed to be the scariest movie in a long time,” one of my coworkers blurted. Her toothy grin betrayed my other coworker, who countered, “It’s more like a psychological thriller. You’d like it.” Those words—You’d like it—are sometimes a friendly dare.
I pulled out my phone to look up the plot, even just the tagline — maybe find hints, words like “bloodbath” or “serial ax murderer” — but my coworkers insisted I trust them. “You know. These movies are never really scary,” one of them said.
It was almost Halloween, a time of year when I used to will myself into trying to be one of those people who like scary movies. Or can watch them, at least.
Thing is, I am not, nor am I ever going to be, one of those people. But at the time, I decided to suspend my fears for the slim chance of dispelling them.
The theater was a zoo: multiple floors filled with bodies. The escalators were a disaster of their own. There was no room to get off and no one regulating them, so people walked in place on the steps, trudging up to the deck of a popcorn kernel-covered Titanic without being able to get off. I imagined what might happen if those on the escalators stopped moving — whose shoes would get caught, who would fall and cut their hands, as if this had the potential to become a Black Friday tragedy, the kind that happen at Best Buys and Targets. I think this way in close quarters.
We took the elevator.
My first mistake was going. My second mistake was sitting in between my coworkers in a middle row of a sold-out theater, clicking through reviews on my phone. So this was a scary movie. The most terrified I’ve ever been in a film, one review said. You won’t sleep for weeks, another said. My hands and face began to sweat.
The lights went out. Giving myself a pitiful kind of hope, I lasted through one preview, my hands shaking, too afraid to be embarrassed. I apologized to my coworkers, even as they tried to talk me into staying — even as I barreled over them, my hands shielding my eyes from the flashing screen.
Back by the concession stand, I realized that the building looked empty. Everyone was watching a movie or had left. I thought about buying popcorn and sitting by the bathrooms to wait for my coworkers, but that seemed more pathetic than leaving. So I asked for a refund at the ticket counter and took a fifteen-dollar cab ride home because I was too jumpy to take the subway.
I don’t like horror. I like hope. I like suspense. I like funny. I like watching Liam Neeson electrocute sex traffickers. I like listening to Ethan Hawke talk about destiny for two hours. I don’t want to watch a masked intruder skulk around a family’s home with a shaved-off shotgun. I don’t want to see a group of sorority girls picked off one by one at their formal by a dead (or undead) sister.
Why? I see myself in that family’s home, usually as the father who dies trying to save the kids, bloody baseball bat in hand. I’m the kind of moviegoer who makes connections — whether I want to or not. Watching a movie, for me, is an exercise in empathy. To that end, I don’t want to feel like a body thrown down an elevator shaft into a pit of fire. I don’t want to feel the weight of every innocent life lost, every body counted. I respect fear. I don’t want it used as a motivator, a carrot dangled with amusement as the prize.
Horror fans, if you like that, you like that. But some of us don’t. It’s not that we haven’t seen your favorite horror movie or that we just haven’t seen any “good” ones. It’s that we don’t get the rewards you do. If you’re not a fan of them, horror movies just take and take.
Me, I still get nervous during Jumanji. I get goosebumps during that last roll of the dice, when Robin Williams lifts his head to his father-hunter and whispers that fateful word. I’m afraid when he is afraid, and I like that. That kind of fear, to me, is telling and cathartic. It leads us places; it doesn’t trap us there.
So I didn’t see Paranormal Activity. My coworkers said it was stupid. I read the Wikipedia synopsis instead. And you know what? It still scared the shit out of me.
Jiordan Castle is a full-time writer, part-time pizza eater and dog petter. Her work has appeared elsewhere in print and online. She gets personal at nomoreundead.tumblr.com.