How I learned to watch horror movies

For most of my life I’ve been staunchly been anti-horror movie. I find no entertainment in being scared – the “adrenaline rush” people say they feel from a jump scare activates my fight or flight that usually just turns into panic and anxiety. I have historically avoided scary movies, haunted houses and horror-adjacent events during the month of October for pretty much my entire life.

But over the past couple of years as I’ve expanded my movie horizons and filled important in gaps in my movie history, I could only avoid horror movies for so long. Sure, I had seen a handful of horror movies over the years – I watched The Shining and the Scream movies with some friends in college, but I wasn’t ready to fully dive in at that point.

So since spooky season is once again upon us, here are some tricks I’ve learned in teaching myself to appreciate and even enjoy horror movies.

1: It’s just a movie!

You hear this argument a lot when horror experts are trying to convert a new fan. It certainly won’t always work, but one thing that has worked for me is understanding more about how movies are made. As I’ve slowly become more film literate, I can enjoy a movie on two levels: the story it’s telling and the mechanics behind the camera. I can see directing choices, notice editing, cinematography, and other behind-the-scenes details. I’ve found it’s helpful to focus on those details sometimes when watching a scary movie as it takes away some of the mystery and atmosphere of the plot itself. It reminds you that it’s just a movie, not something that can happen in real life.

This can be especially easy in a lot of older horror movies, because characters within these movies stereotypically make terrible choices that no rational human would and decisions that lead them directly in the path of the villain. So point those bad decisions out. Yell at the characters on the screen. Tell them how dumb they’re being. It makes you feel smarter than they are and make you believe you wouldn’t do those same things if you were in their position.

2: Know what you’re getting yourself into

Like any good horror movie final girl going into the climactic confrontation with the villain, it’s best to be prepared. Knowing what to expect can help soften the blow of jump scares or other intense scenes. Don’t be ashamed to read the Wikipedia synopsis of a movie before you start.

Listen to the music too. Often, the soundtrack will either get very quiet or start to become louder and more intense before a big jump scare or big reveal.  

And there’s safety in numbers. Watching horror movies with friends who have seen them before can help because they’ll let you know when the scariest moments are coming up and can help make fun of character decisions with you.

3: Know your limits

“Horror” is a broad movie genre and there are a bunch of sub-categories that can be more accessible to those who don’t like traditional horror films. Start with something that you may not even realize is a horror movie, like Jaws, Gremlins, Little Shop of Horrors or The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Or go even easier with Disney’s Halloweentown or Hocus Pocus. There are plenty of tame horror movies you can dip your toe into without having to jump into the deep end with something like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

There’s a ton of great horror comedies that balance out the scares with hilarious moments. This sub-genre has especially gotten popular in recent years and is one of my favorites. Movies like Zombieland, Ready or Not, Happy Death Day and The Babysitter give you enough horror moments but lean heavily on comedy to lighten the mood.

The Scream series is a perfect starting point for non-horror fans. It’s scary, but not overwhelmingly so. It has plenty of comedic moments too and the series is built on picking apart traditional horror tropes and how horror movies work. It keeps the audience aware that they’re watching a movie while still enjoying the story it presents.

4: Timing and balance

For me, there’s no better time to watch a horror movie than like 11 a.m. on a Saturday. After it’s over, you have all day long to watch seven or eight episodes of The Office or Schitt’s Creek, crank up You’ve Got Mail, Thor: Ragnarok or watch Barb and Star go to Vista Del Mar for the 14th time. It always helps to have a palette cleanser to settle your nerves or put your mind in a more comfortable place after a scary movie. 

One positive about horror movies is that a lot of them are not super long. Especially some of the classics from the 70s and 80s – they’re only like an hour and a half. So there’s plenty of time to watch something else to balance out your emotions afterward.

And if needed, keep the lights on and the curtains closed when you’re watching a scary movie.

And if all else fails, no one will judge you for locking your bedroom door that night when you go to bed.

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