As we walked back to our car, we heard a man approaching from behind at a purposeful clip. Our mutual antennae were attuned to the fact that he was gaining on us. We had left a movie and entered a movie cliche: three people on a deserted city street far from their normal stomping grounds with a stranger fast on their heels. We must have looked horrified when we turned to take in the man, who we imagined would surely have a gun or knife drawn.
"That movie scared me to death!" said the man, who had been aggressively seeking our company while we had been double-stepping to avoid his. "Can I walk with you?"
It was a perfect illustration of how horror, which today can seem so rooted in newspaper headlines of serial killers, home invasions and inexplicable sadism, in actuality often comes from within. Horror films may exploit contemporary phobias of gun-wielding psychos and serial killers fashioning skin suits, but what scares us most is far more elemental and timeless: Darkness. Basements. Attics. Vermin. Isolation. Death.
Some things seem hardwired to scare the communal bejesus out of us, and like Freudian puppet masters, filmmakers have been pulling those psychic strings since the movies began. Yet we're all affected differently by horror films, and our own vulnerability ebbs and surges over time. Once, all it took to goose a fright was two hours spent with one of the copious TV movies of the 70s. Entire psyches have been shaped by the devious terrors cooked up at ABC studios, in Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (1973), which pretty much affirmed every kid's intuitive understanding that basements were places to be avoided at all costs, best left to silverfish and little wrinkled demons.
Then there was the tabula rasa of prime time terror, Bad Ronald (1974), a quintessentially freaky yarn about a kid who takes up residence in secret rooms built behind the walls of his house. In a wacky blend of Telltale Heart gothic and California cul-de-sacs, Bad Ronald (Scott Jacoby) spends his time spying through his many peepholes at the family of golden-haired hotties who have moved into his house. More than a simple shocker, though, Bad Ronald was a perfect allegory for teen alienation in which the frumpy, outcast, dark-haired Ronald is the modern version of the pitiful hunchbacks and Lon Chaney gimps of movies past.
It was undoubtedly Nicolas Gessner's 1976 teen shocker The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (also starring creepo-horror regular Jacoby) that proved a turning point in my personal, maturing connoisseurship of horror. The preternaturally precocious Jodie Foster is a 13-year-old stalked by a pedophile (Martin Sheen) who suspects claims that her reclusive father is "right upstairs" may be a put-on. Not easily classifiable as a pure horror film, Little Girl nevertheless managed to chill the teen-me to the bone for suggesting that the world of adult protectiveness was actually populated by human predators.
That film proved there were more disturbing horrors than the gore spectacle of impaled jocks, vivisected sorority girls and the relentless ax blows of slasher thrills, which tended to dissipate after one viewing. It is generally the higher order thrills -- what Stephen King calls "the creeps" -- that make for a more lasting and disturbing brand of horror.
One of the most frightening films I have ever seen is a case study in emotionally submerged psychological horror. It was directed, shockingly, by the master of the austere European art film, Ingmar Bergman. Hour of the Wolf (1968) takes place on an unpopulated remote island, not unlike the marooned Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining.
There, troubled artist Johan Borg (Max von Sydow) and his wife Alma (Liv Ullmann) literally confront Johan's demons. Kubrick undoubtedly learned much from Wolf in making his equally brilliant The Shining. The sleepwalking sense of looming dread in Wolf and the sudden, hammering chaos of Lars Johan Werle's musical score, which ratchets the horror up to a nearly unbearable level, were also certainly influences on Kubrick.
Jean-Paul Sartre's famous musing that, "hell is other people" certainly applies to serial killer and psychopath-focused contemporary horror, all about the bottomless capacity for evil, not in werewolves or zombies, but in just plain folk. Plain folk that look a lot like us.
Everyone knows to steer clear of the cemeteries, not to invite the vampire inside and for God's sake, don't look in the attic. But who can make plans for the mercenary thrill kill team of The Honeymoon Killers or guys like Henry and Otis in John McNaughton's perennially disturbing Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, who operate with a colder, more zombified logic than even the flesh eaters of Night of the Living Dead?
But it wasn't until I saw Michael Haneke's skin-crawling Funny Games early this year that I encountered the gut-churning apex of contemporary horror. The masterful Austrian director's queasy film features two blandly normal teenagers wearing tennis whites who, in a slow, nightmare build, assault an affluent family vacationing at their lakeside home. The monsters strike at the most sacred heart of society -- the family. And they execute their crime with the demented glee of definitively 20th century monsters.
Unlike the legendary monsters of horror past -- Dracula or Frankenstein, who kill by ancient decree or because of humankind's meddling -- the young men in Funny Games operate without logic and for no apparent gain beyond the pure thrill of violence.
These are the kind of contemporary gargoyles that haunt our adult nightmares. Like the animated characters Beavis and Butt-head, whom the debauched killers continually reference, maybe they aren't so aberrant. Maybe we created them after all.
Felicia Feaster is a film critic for Atlanta's Creative Loafing.