Everyone has a scary film scene that scarred them for life.
Mine was the “Grim Grinning Ghosts” sequence on the 1990 film Disney Sing Along Songs: Disneyland Fun. Odd choice, I know, but stay with me.
The film is basically a child-directed marketing tactic to promote Disneyland, taking place at the theme park and features a series of Disney songs accompanied by the Disney characters themselves. The scene was gently nestled between a Minnie Mouse number about “making memories’ and the exciting and colorful Disneyland parade. The scene begins with two children running up to the gates of the Haunted Mansion. There is a slow zoom on the little girl’s uneasy expression and her voiceover ponders,
“I wonder what weird things happen here at night?”
An eerie chorus begins to play in the background and the scene cuts to a foggy evening as the gate of mansion slowly creaks open. As the musical number starts, a group of sinister-looking trees begin to sway to the beat as one by one notable Disney villains begin to join in. What really spooked me about this scene was the menacing looks of the wicked characters, the inserted clips of the interior Haunted Mansion ride, and the heavyweight of some choice lyrics. For example – “If you would like to join our jamboree, there’s a simple rule that’s compulsory. Mortal’s pay a token feel”. These lyrics are pretty morbid and clearly imply the inevitably of death.
I was obsessed with this film as a child and probably watched it about 10 times a week. Strangely enough, I remember being terrified of this number but I wanted to watch it. Sometimes I couldn’t make up my mind whether I wanted my mom to fast forward past the particular scene or not. Usually, I opted to leave it on; however, I did have to remain underneath my blanket for the entire duration. The clip can be found on Youtube and the comment section is filled with Millennials mentioning how much this scene scared them. Fear tends to have a generational commonality. Whether that is from an actual horror movie, or from an obscure Disney VHS tape from the 1990s. You can share trauma with thousands of others without even knowing it.
Usually, I consider a horror film successful if I am able to come back to it throughout the years and still get creeped out by it. Now rewatching this clip, I was able to get through it due to the fact that I now know that there are actually people in those costumes.
However, I still get waves of nostalgic fear as I recall my childhood memories and can understand why I was afraid of it as a child.
There is a collection of themes used in effective horror scenes. Themes that literally everyone can identify with being frightened of (unless you have nerves of steel). These consist of lack of control, isolation (both physically and socially), and the unknown.
Children Victims of the Horror Genre
Children have been used repeatedly throughout the horror genre. Many times they are used as a plot device for tragedy (Georgie in IT, Gage in Pet Sematary, Carol Ann in Poltergeist), made into the villain (also Gage in Pet Sematary, Damien from the Omen, literally everyone in Children of the Corn), or portrayed as a victim. They are the terrified mini protagonist fighting against an evil force. The child victim films prey on both adult audiences and child audiences.
Children are able to see themselves represented, but as adults, we are able to empathize with the child characters – whether that be from our own childhood experiences or parental instincts.
Child’s Play was one of those films I couldn’t even stand to hear about as a kid. The film takes the core symbol of childhood, distorts its docile nature with violence and evil, and makes it into something that will come to life and murder you. It’s one of those films that continues to scare you into adulthood. I wasn’t able to watch it completely until my 20s. Our child victim in this film is Andy, a five-year-old little boy that receives a possessed doll as a birthday gift. The doll, Chucky, commits violent acts and blames them on Andy. At first, Andy faces social isolation. No one believes poor little Andy and he’s institutionalized for it – leading to physical isolation. Andy has to fight against Chucky all on his own.
As a child, we are assured by the fact that our parents will protect us – what happens when they aren’t able to? Even when Andy’s mom finds out about Chucky, she is unable to stop him. She is just as scared as Andy.
Creepy from the First Scene
Insidious is one of my favorite contemporary horror films. I first watched it as a scrappy middle schooler and it did a number on my nerves. This is the token film that I can watch repeatedly and still get creeped out by it. There were a series of aspects of this film that I love. While it utilizes jump scares, it relies on major creep factor. The sound editing and film score are major contributors. Right off the bat, the first shot of the film opens up by slowly zooming in on a frozen, veiled old woman. The sharp violins grow louder and louder until it builds and they cut to the title – INSIDIOUS in bloody red, all capitalized font, as the score blares menacingly.
This opening scene is a good representation of what to expect for the rest of the movie. It has a unique plot with a fresh angle on the supernatural. A young boy, Dalton, has the ability to astral project while he sleeps. However, one night, he travels too far and gets stuck in this alternate realm. Meanwhile, his parents are unaware of any of this and begin to face supernatural occurrences in the house. They bring on a psychic who basically tells them – “it’s not your house that’s haunted, it’s your son.” Demons, ghouls, and ghosts are all competing to possess the body of little Dalton. It relies on familiar aspects of the horror genre but tweaks them just enough to revoke any sense of repetitiveness or stereotypes.
Ending Tragic and Terrifying
In my personal opinion, one of the scariest segments resides in the last quarter of the film. Dalton’s father, Josh, ventures into the world of the dead to retrieve his son. He is in pitch darkness, led solely by a glowing lantern. The audience knows he is in a world inhabited by the dead, and not being able to see what is around him heightens our anxiety for the character. He is completely isolated from any living people. He is on his own, unaware of what lies ahead or what is even around him. Plus, we have a race against the clock – retrieve Dalton, or a supernatural being will possess both of their bodies. Josh ends up saving Dalton, however, doesn’t make it back in time to his own body. Another being has taken over Josh’s body – the old woman from the opening scene of the film. Now he is stuck in another terrifying world with no way to get out.
Key Tactics to Instilling Fear
Like Insidious, I watched The Shining for the first time when I was around 13 years old. Danny is our child protagonist whose “normal world” is already isolating and unstable. His father, Jack, is both an alcoholic and physical abuser and his mother, Wendy, while protective of Danny, tends to overlook her husband’s violent tendencies. After the family moves into the Overlook hotel, they are even more isolated. They are stuck in an empty, ghost-ridden hotel with no contact with the outside world and while Jack loses control of his mind, Danny begins to lose control over his safety.
There are many scenes that I can dissect from this film. However, one of my favorites is the scene where Danny rides around the hotel on his tricycle. The camera closely follows him as he furiously pedals the halls. The uneasy sound of the tricycle’s wheels switch between harsh and muffled as Danny rides over the hardwood floor and then the carpet. This scene builds up ample suspense and as Danny turns each corner, you aren’t sure what to expect. After Danny passes room 237, the camera pulls back and lingers, no longer following the child on his tail. We watch Danny grow smaller and smaller as he rides down the hall. The camera stalks after him, but the entire scene has shifted now. After passing room 237, we are in the presence of something – something that is now watching Danny.
Jump Scare Tactic
The film hangs on this shot until Danny turns the next corner. Then, it cuts back to following him again. He turns the corner and stops in his tracks when he sees apparitions of two young twin girls. What I love about this scene is that it uses a jump scare without really using a jump scare. Modern jump scares tend to be strong and in your face but the “jump scare” here is very understated and drawn out to make the scene have more resonance. The audience sees the twins from Danny’s perspective and from a lengthy distance. You’re close enough to see there are two people at the end of the hall, but you really can’t make out what they look like. They ominously call out to Danny, asking him to come play with them. The shot slowly zooms in, while cutting to a shot of the twin’s bloody corpses while they chant “forever and ever and ever”. Danny covers his eyes and they disappear. The added “appearance” of Danny’s imaginary friend, Tony, at the end of the scene, leaves the audience feeling extremely uneasy.
Take Back the Horror Genre
Like other areas of the film industry, the horror genre has gotten quite lazy over the past several years. Countless remakes of classic horror films and redundant franchises drain an interesting concept until it’s bone dry. If it’s scary, it sells and they will continue to sell the same scary idea until it’s not even scary anymore. The Conjuring was a solid horror movie; however, there are only so many stories you can get out of a possessed demon doll named Annabelle. However, there have been a few films that have fought against the modern conventions of the horror film industry. Newer films like Get Out, Hereditary, Midsommar, It Follows, and The Babadook with the addition of recent tasteful remakes such as IT, Halloween, andSuspiria, have made a name for themselves by putting a strong effort into their stories, characters, and fear building tactics. Instead of copying the same formula, they utilize their storytelling skills to build fear and suspense. Hopefully, this new wave of films will bring us to a new era of horror. Bring us films that will fight out money-driven entertainment and take the genre back to its innovative roots.
Finally, bring us horror that doesn’t rely on jump scares and rather focuses on what makes an audience squirm.