stephen king what's scary essay

What's Scary


“What’s Scary” critiques the last decade of genre cinema, from 1999’s phenomenon THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT to 2009’s surprise smash DISTRICT 9. He also chooses his favorite films and touches on the recent flood of horror remakes and zombie flicks.

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Image for Danse Macabre : Includes a New Essay 'What's Scary'

Danse Macabre : Includes a New Essay 'What's Scary'

By: Stephen King

Price:   $24.99

Quantity: 3 available

Condition: New

Hodder are boosting Stephen King's backlist with new covers and new author brand lettering to direct readers to the right King title for them. It was not long after Halloween when Stephen King received a telephone call from his editor. 'Why don't you do a book about the entire horror phenomenon as you see it Books, movies, radio, TV, the whole thing ' The result is this unique combination of fantasy and autobiography, of classic horror writing honed to an unforgettable edge by the bestselling master of the genre. DANSE MACABRE ranges across the whole spectrum of horror in popular culture from the seminal classes of Count Dracula and Frankenstein. It is a charming and fascinating book, replete with pertinent anecdote and observation, in which Stephen King describes his ideas on how horror works on many levels and how he brings it to bear on his own inimitable novels.

Title: Danse Macabre : Includes a New Essay 'What's Scary'

Author Name: Stephen King

ISBN-10: 144472326X

ISBN-13: 9781444723267

Location Published: UK, Hodder: 2012

Binding: Soft cover

Book Condition: New

Size: 19.8 x 12.9 x 3.4 cm

Kg: 0.38 Kg

Categories: Horror

Seller ID: 9781444723267

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stephen king what's scary essay

stephen king what's scary essay

Friday essay: in praise of the ‘horror master’ Stephen King

stephen king what's scary essay

Lecturer in Communications and Media, University of Notre Dame Australia

Disclosure statement

Ari Mattes does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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Growing up in the 1980s, the name Stephen King was synonymous with macabre, terrifying, apparently taboo (though ubiquitous) book covers. They seemed to appear everywhere: bookstores, to be sure; but also newsagents, supermarkets, cinemas, airports and libraries. They always seemed to be spinning in some library carousel, looking tattered, like they’d been borrowed 100,000 times.

Like a kid from a King novel, I was obsessed with the forbidden. I would spend hours staring at these book covers, thinking about the horrors that might lie within.

stephen king what's scary essay

A giant, bloody salivating dog. A freakish pair of eyes looking out of a drain. A silhouette of a figure with an axe eclipsing someone in a wheelchair. Hell, they looked more like movie posters than book covers. I’d go to bed and imagine one of these figures coming alive and creeping towards the house from the backyard.

Very occasionally, this was actually scary – but mostly it was just fun.

Why we love horror

Why do we gravitate towards subject matter that, if it existed in the real world, would be at best supremely unpleasant? There are many theories regarding why people love horror film and literature.

Perhaps it’s cathartic. Maybe it reflects Freud’s “ death drive ,” or what Edgar Allan Poe described, in a titular short story, as the “imp of the perverse,” (suggesting we all have self-destructive tendencies). Or maybe it simply reflects our fascination with extreme experiences, a desire to be overwhelmed by the sublime, which Edmund Burke defined as a mixture of fear and excitement, terror and awe. Perhaps horror thus manifests a desire to re-enchant the world with magic in a controlled and safe context, physically activating the body and its response mechanisms in an environment that only simulates real peril.

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote about the collective pleasure of inflicting pain on others through punishment. Does our fascination for horror channel this? Or, as Julia Kristeva ’s theory suggests, does art help us manage our abject horror at the breakdown between self and other – most pointedly captured in our confrontations with corpses?

stephen king what's scary essay

Literary theorist René Girard ’s ideas are equally compelling. Perhaps we’re attracted to images of violence because of its anthropological function in the earliest periods of community formation. A victim – the scapegoat – would be chosen to bear the violence that would otherwise be destructively directed towards other members of the community. This idea is beautifully rendered in Drew Godard’s The Cabin in the Woods , a horror film about the origins of horror films in ritual and sacrifice.

In a broader cultural sense, our modern interest in horror, the supernatural and the weird has grown in direct proportion to industrialisation, and the parallel shrinking of the world’s magic and mysteries (captured in the term “globalisation”).

In a post-sacred era of intense scientific rationalism and technological development, the aesthetics of the weird, supernatural and horrific – in all their wondrous irrationality – allow us to occupy an alternate, imaginary space removed from the horror of things as they really are: mass industrial wars of attrition, precarious states of living, pandemic disease and global warming.

Read more: Friday essay: scary tales for scary times

My first King

When I finally had the autonomy (and my own money) to pick the books I wanted to read, it was with mixed feelings of shame and excitement that I went to buy my first Stephen King novel.

I still remember the suburban bookstore and the sardonic frown of its middle-aged clerk as she looked down at my ten-year-old self when I placed Pet Sematary on the counter and got 12 bucks out of my wallet. I remember blushing when she intimated (or was it actually a question?) I must have been buying this for an older relative.

stephen king what's scary essay

The novel follows what happens to a doctor and his family when they discover, in the woods, a children’s pet cemetery that reanimates whatever is buried there. It lived up to the promise of its cover, offering splashes of superlative gore, a handful of genuinely terrifying moments (the sequences involving Rachel’s sick sister Zelda still get to me) and a plethora of new words. Not swear words, mind you – any self-respecting kid knows all of these by seven or eight – but terms like “cuckold”, about which I had to consult my mum.

For the next two years, I spent most of my reading time dedicated to King. I quickly got through the pantheon – massive tomes like The Stand , Needful Things and It ; more moderately sized ones like Carrie , The Shining and Salem’s Lot ; and short, explosive ones like The Running Man , published under King’s pseudonym, Richard Bachman. And then I started with the new releases (there was at least one every year – like 1994’s Insomnia ), generally available from Kmart in hardback.

I found in King an interlocutor who spoke with gusto and enthusiasm about all kinds of things – old age, domestic abuse, natural and supernatural horrors of the mind and closet. But, more than anything else, he seemed not only to write stories that often featured young characters, but to accurately dramatise what it actually felt like to be a kid.

Short stories like The Sun Dog , novels like Cycle of the Werewolf and the monumental It – not to mention more obvious outings like The Body, the basis of the massively successful nostalgia film Stand By Me – captured the peculiar melancholic excitement, both intense and slightly wistful, of being near the beginning of life in that delirious halcyon era just before puberty sets in.

stephen king what's scary essay

Then I grew up – and stopped reading King. Through writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jane Austen, I was introduced to prose worlds that seemed to be richer: both more concentrated and more expansive, certainly more nuanced. King gradually disappeared from my field of vision.

I forgot about the “gypsy” curse on Billy Halleck (the basis of Thinner ) and about Arnie and Dennis from Christine , as they struggle to overcome the eponymous evil car. Like one of the children of It – who forget their childhoods, until they reunite as adults to confront them – I forgot about my horror master, erasing my childhood experiences from memory. When I was 15, as a gag, I tried reading Firestarter and found it garish, gross, infantile. A few years earlier, King’s novel about a pyrokinetic child being hunted by a government who want to weaponise her would have seemed thrilling, maybe even insightful.

But the King was dead.

Read more: 'Supp'd full with horrors': 400 years of Shakespearean supernaturalism

Literary snobs and good writers

Perhaps the only thing worse than the literary snob who looks down on everyone who doesn’t read Joyce’s Ulysses on loop is the literary snob of the populist variety, the one who scowls at everyone who doesn’t read the kind of fiction that ord’nary folks like.

When outspoken literary critic and professor Harold Bloom described the 2003 awarding of the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters to Stephen King as “another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life,” it was easy to dislike Bloom as an example of the former. Listening to King discuss his writing, it is almost as easy to dismiss him as the latter.

What makes a good writer? According to King,

If you wrote something for which someone sent you a check, if you cashed the check and it didn’t bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented.

So is King, as Bloom writes, “an immensely inadequate writer on a sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph, book-by-book basis”? King does, after all, describe his own work as “the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and a large fries from McDonald’s”. And there are numerous passages throughout his work – probably most pronouncedly in the words of writer Bill Denbrough in It – in which King expresses a serious disdain for academic knowledge and scholarship.

As Bloom would probably argue, consistency in style and tone, and complexity of form, are key elements underpinning any kind of aesthetic mastery. And it’s undeniable that King has produced a not-inconsiderable volume of poorly written and inconsistent work. Sometimes his novels warrant criticisms of pretentiousness, hackneyed style and tediously repetitive prose.

stephen king what's scary essay

King may or may not be a great, or even good, writer. His more self-consciously serious stuff sometimes seems intolerable to me: kitsch is only fun if the attitude is fun. And some of his work ( Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption and Dolores Claiborne , for example) feels heavy-handed to the point of being virtually unreadable. Never mind – these works are frequently adapted into incredibly popular and incredibly dull films.

In any case, the debate continues to play out, with critics intermittently arguing for and against King’s writing. Dwight Allen, for example, wrote in the Los Angeles Review of Books that King creates one-dimensional characters in dull prose. In the same publication, Sarah Langan responded :

All of [King’s] novels, even the stinkers, have resonance. […] his fiction isn’t just reflective of the current culture, it casts judgement. […] No one except King challenges [Americans] so relentlessly, to be brave. To kill our monsters.

King is, undeniably, a juggernaut of commercial literary production – an industry unto himself, a literary and cinematic brand – who has written a handful of genuine horror genre masterpieces throughout his career.

Perhaps it’s in part this combination of prolific volume and intermittent brilliance that keeps me, like an addict, coming back for more.

Ultimately, though, I would suggest I like reading King for the same reason so many others do, a reason that accounts for his enduring popularity when better horror stylists (King’s contemporaries Clive Barker and Peter Straub , for example) have fallen by the wayside. And that’s his unprecedented capacity to tap into nostalgia.

Returning to King-world

Nearly 20 years after I gave up on Stephen King, in one of those random nostalgic moments that seem to populate his fictional world, my brother gave me Revival for Christmas.

King’s Frankensteinian novel, published in 2014, is about the aftermath of an encounter between a young boy and a Methodist minister fascinated by electricity. After years of mainly reading what is sometimes pretentiously called “literary” fiction, and mostly avoiding anything written after the 19th or very early 20th centuries, I returned to King-world.

And I was dazzled by what I found there, realising what I must have known as a kid: King is a superb storyteller. Much of his work is characterised by an infectiously energetic prose style, governed by a flair for simple but satisfying plotting and a supremely inventive imagination.

And – yep – I was stunned by his capacity to precisely render in prose, perhaps more acutely than any other contemporary writer, the confusing, often hokey and melodramatic, but always exciting images, emotions, and sensibilities of youth.

I realised there’s something brilliant, and totally inimitable, about King. Despite his work’s sometimes kitsch silliness (a hazard of the horror genre), despite the not uncommon misfires – and despite the absurdly voluminous output - King is able to authentically generate an atmosphere of nostalgia that taps into something at the very core of the pleasure of reading.

Read more: Frankenstein: how Mary Shelley's sci-fi classic offers lessons for us today about the dangers of playing God

It: a masterpiece of nostalgia

His novel It is a case in point: a masterclass in narrative development through a nostalgic structure.

It – for anyone who hasn’t read it, or seen one of the three film adaptations – cuts between the adult lives and childhoods of a group of misfits, the “ Losers Club ”, who collectively band together to fight the evil of their town, Derry. That evil takes the form of a shape-shifting clown, Pennywise.

The Losers Club battled and banished Pennywise as kids, but now “it” has come back. The club members return from around the world to live up to their childhood promise: that if “it” ever returns, they, too, will return to fight “it”. The narrative cuts between characters, en route to Derry, as they recall forgotten passages from their childhood “it’s” return has forced them to remember.

So, the novel is structured around a nostalgic trope: adults literally remembering and reconstructing their childhood in the present. At the same time, the town Derry is developed by King according to a quintessentially nostalgic image of the American small town, recalling peak 1950s Americana. Think Grease : soda fountains, switchblades and quiffs. But behind closed doors, fathers abuse daughters, mothers keep their children sick, and a monster that assumes the form of whatever demon most terrifies you stalks the streets, killing and eating children.

stephen king what's scary essay

The narrative architecture is starkly simple, sustaining a profound sense of dread in the reader. The characters remember a dreadful past, in a present-future they wish had never materialised. Perhaps nostalgia always contains shades of the dreadful, given its suggestion that one’s future is foreclosed, that all we have are memories of a better time: memories that only exist as memories.

In some of King’s work – Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, for example – nostalgia acts mainly as window dressing, functioning primarily as an aesthetic. But in It, nostalgia is neither incidental nor benign: it’s a way of exploring the impossibility of having to remember trauma .

Memory appears inevitably nostalgic, because it involves, for the characters, narrative reconstruction of childhood in the present. In the Derry library, for town librarian Mike Hanlon – the only Loser to remain in Derry as an adult (and the only one who didn’t battle It in the sewers as a child) - for example. Or for Ben Hanscom, an internationally successful architect, once the fat kid of the group, who flies back to Derry, drunk and asleep in first-class.

stephen king what's scary essay

In this way, the novel functions as a kind of treatise on narrative itself. A grab bag of clichés from the horror playbook become legitimately terrifying for the children in the novel - they’re kids after all, and the cultural worlds of kids are often constructed around clichés – from mass-produced popular figures like the Wolf Man, to figures associated with the characters’ nightmarish personal traumas.

It’s a “coming of age” story with a vengeance - a metatext on the horrors of youth, of fitting in, metamorphosing into adulthood, and breaking free of one’s parents - and it inherently explores the ways we use horror stories (like fairytales) to come to terms with this.

As Adrian Daub, revisiting the novel on its 30-year anniversary, wrote in the Los Angeles Review of Books in 2016:

Anamnesis — remembering — is the central structuring device of It’s parallel plots: characters have to find out what they once did, and confront what on some level they already know. […] Perhaps all the kids who devoured It in the ’80s sensed that King had made their pre-adolescent mode of experiencing the world — that unique combination of vivid clarity and forgetfulness — its formal principle. […] All the friends, events, images, and feelings that we ever-so-gently cover in sand as we stumble into adulthood can startle us when we come face to face with them again, and these are the true source of It’s terror. What else have we hidden back there, we wonder uneasily?“

In It’s truly weird (over)length, in It’s oscillating moments of genius and stupidity, in It’s ambition – as King’s horror book about horror, the horror book to end all horror books – it is an American masterpiece. It captures everything incisive, deluded, cruel and sentimental about the popular American literary imagination.

Read more: Why do we find it so hard to move on from the 80s?

Reading as escape and connection

So why is nostalgia such a powerful affect in It, and in King’s work in general?

I think it taps into something at the heart of the process of reading novels. We sit with a novel and retreat from the world: an intensely solipsistic act. A novel sweeps us up into a fantasy image of things (no matter how distant or close to reality) and makes us feel, in our solitude, excitement about what’s to come – but also a faint melancholy in remembering we will soon have to leave this world.

It’s no surprise many people cry at the end of novels: we’ve made such a personal investment, then that world simply disappears, and all we’re left with are our memories of it. In our desire to return to this pleasurable state, we may feel compelled to borrow – or buy – another book.

But while reading a novel feels like a private act (as opposed to going to a movie or concert), there’s also always a sense we are connected to (and connecting with) some kind of cultural and historical continuum.

We read Dickens in our solitude, yet imagine we’re in Victorian England, connected across 150-odd years. Time and space seem collapsed into a vibrant, active present. Dickens speaks to us, but more significantly, the zeitgeist addresses us in a moving presence – perhaps we can cheat death, after all?

The structure of It (and much of King’s other work) reproduces what attracts many of us to reading fiction in the first place – an escape into a present that is at the same time a kind of memory-fantasy, governed by lingering nostalgia.

stephen king what's scary essay

For Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch , literature offers a utopian space in which we can transcend and transform the past and future, captured in the figure of heimat (meaning homeland – and appropriated in opposition to the term’s German nationalist use). Literature allows us to return to a mythic-nostalgic image of "home” – which we know has never actually existed. This nostalgic space opens the possibility of a better collective present and future.

Read more: The psychology behind why clowns creep us out

Long live the King!

There are definitely better, more controlled stylists than King in popular horror fiction. But their work is somehow more forgettable. King’s perpetual presence - as ringmaster, as media conglomerate, as relentless worker – is always in performance in his work.

You may find his style annoying, or his narratives hokey, but you will always recognise them as Stephen King. He has a flavour, and it ties his work together, good and bad. Much of it emanates from the man himself and his sheer love of writing and reading – dare I say it, of “literature”.

This is evident in his publishing history, but also in the forewords and reviews, and endorsements, he writes for writers he loves. The revival of interest in noir master Jim Thompson , for example, who had vanished into obscurity, seems to be at least in part down to King’s forewords to several of his books. And one wonders how much the Hard Case Crime imprint, which publishes hard-boiled crime novels in the flavour of those of the 1950s and 60s, relies on the success of King’s original crime novels written for them. How many forgotten masterpieces of noir literature have been brought back into print because King publishes with Hard Case? How many books have moved because a line from King is featured on the cover?

No other living horror writer has enjoyed King’s longevity. There’s no one whose monsters have lingered quite as long in the popular imagination, and in the imaginations of countless readers like me.

The literature we read as children and adolescents has a profound effect on our cultural and personal formation, shaping our becoming as adults. King’s worlds, where children struggle to shape their futures, draw upon our own, personal nostalgia. But they also tap into a kind of nostalgia that lies at the heart of novelistic pleasure itself.

Horror films and novels situate us in precarious situations - we identify with victims, sense their isolation as monsters attack, and feel their glory when and if the monsters are defeated.

We creep through the worlds of horror, watchful, alert, before returning to the safety of our bedrooms, but we’re always a little sad when we come back: that world may have been dominated by killer birds , or by hellish blood-sucking fiends , but it was an exciting, atmospheric - and beautifully solitary – place.

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Read Stephen King’s 2010 Essay on ‘The Blair Witch Project’

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The King sure does know his horror.

Released in 1999, Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick’s The Blair Witch Project completely changed the game, not just making a massive profit on an incredibly low budget and not just kick-starting the found footage movement that’s still going strong today, but also revolutionizing movie marketing and, well, just plain terrifying the entire world. The film is nothing short of one of the most influential horror movies ever made, and though these things are of course totally subjective, it simply has to be considered one of the scariest movies of all time.

How scary? It scared the daylights out of Stephen freakin’ King.

Originally published in 1981, King’s nonfiction book Danse Macabre is, as described on the front cover, an essential overview of the horror genre, and the 2010 reissue of the book included a brand new forenote wherein King shared some opinions on the then-current state of horror cinema. Within that introduction was a short essay on The Blair Witch Project , and with Adam Wingard’s sequel Blair Witch now out there in the world, we wanted to share that with you.

Here’s Stephen King on The Blair Witch Project !

One thing about Blair Witch: the damn thing looks real. Another thing about Blair Witch: the damn thing feels real. And because it does, it’s like the worst nightmare you ever had, the one you woke from gasping and crying with relief because you thought you were buried alive and it turned out the cat jumped up on your bed and went to sleep on your chest. The first time I saw Blair Witch was in a hospital room about twelve days after a careless driver in a minivan smashed the shit out of me on a country road. I was, in a manner of speaking, the perfect viewer: roaring with pain from top to bottom, high on painkillers, and looking at a poorly copied bootleg videotape on a portable TV. (How did I get the bootleg? Never mind how I got it.) Around the time the three would-be filmmakers (Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael Williams, who, coincidentally, happen to be played by Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael Williams) start discovering strange Lovecraftian symbols hanging from the trees, I asked my son, who was watching with me, to turn the damn thing off. It may be the only time in my life when I quit a horror movie in the middle because I was too scared to go on. Some of it was the jerky quality of the footage (shot with a Hi-8 hand-held and 16-millimeter shoulder-mounted camcorders), some of it was the dope, but basically I was just freaked out of my mind. Those didn’t look like Hollywood-location woods; they looked like an actual forest in which actual people could actually get lost. I thought then that Blair Witch was a work of troubling, accidental horror, and subsequent viewings (where I actually finished the film) haven’t changed my mind. The situation is simplicity itself: The three kids, who start out making a documentary about a clearly bogus witch legend, get lost while making their movie. We know they are never going to get out; we’re told on the title card that opens the movie that, to date, they have never been found. Only the jumpy, disconnected, haunting footage they shot remains. The idea is complete genius, and a big budget would have wrecked it. Shot on a shoestring (a ragged one), this docu-horror movie gained its punch not in spite of the fact that the “actors” hardly act at all, but because of it. We become increasingly terrified for these people – even the annoying, overcontrolling Heather, who never shuts up and continues to insist everything is totally OK long after her two male companions (and everybody in the audience) knows it’s not. Her final scene – an excruciating close-up where she takes responsibility as one tear lingers on the lashes of her right eye – packs a punch that few Hollywood films, even those made by great directors, can match. The Fearless Girl Director who confidently proclaimed “I know exactly where we’re going” has been replaced by a terrified woman on the brink of madness. And, sitting in a darkened tent after six nights in the woods, with the Hi-8 camcorder held up to her own face, we understand that she knows it. Blair Witch, it seems to me, is about madness – because what is that, really, except getting lost in the woods that exist even inside the sanest heads? The footage becomes increasingly jerky, the cuts weirder, the conversations increasingly disconnected from reality. As the movie nears the end of its short course (at just eighty minutes and change, it’s like a jury-rigged surface-to-surface missile loaded with dynamite), the video actually disappears for long stretches, just as rationality disappears from the mind of a man or a woman losing his/her grip on the real world. We are left with a mostly dark screen, panting, elliptical lines of dialogue (some we can understand, some we can only guess at), noises from the woods that might or might not be made by human beings, and occasional blurry flashes of image: a tree trunk, a jutting branch, the side of a tent in a close-up so intense that the cloth looks like green skin. “Hungry, cold, and hunted,” Heather whispers. “I’m scared to close my eyes, and I’m scared to open them.” Watching her descent into irrationality, I felt the same way. The movie climaxes when Heather and Michael find a decaying house deep in the woods. Shot almost completely in 16mm black-and-white at this point, the movie confronts us with a series of images that are simultaneously prosaic and almost too awful to bear – the wreckage inside seems to glare. Still carrying the camera, Heather bolts up the stairs. At this point, her two friends seem to be calling from everywhere, and the camera’s randomly shifting eye flows past the handprints of the children who have almost certainly been murdered in this house. There’s no dramatic music here or anywhere else; Blair Witch needs no such cinematic steroids. The only sounds are shuffling footsteps, yelling voices (from everywhere!) and Heather’s escalating moans of terror. Finally, she plunges down to the basement, where one of the hokey stories they were told before their rash entry into the woods turns out to not be bullshit after all. Michael (or is it Josh?) stands in the corner, dumbly waiting for the thing from the woods to do what it will. There is a thud as that unseen thing falls on Heather from behind. The camera drops, showing a blurred nothing. The film ends. And if you’re like me, you watch the credits and try to escape the terrified ten-year-old into whom you have been regresse d.

danse macabre 2010

Writer in the horror community since 2008. Editor in Chief of Bloody Disgusting. Owns Eli Roth's prop corpse from Piranha 3D. Has four awesome cats. Still plays with toys.

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‘Jumanji’ – The Surprising Gateway Horror of the Robin Williams Adventure Movie

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“You think that mosquitos, monkeys, and lions are bad? That is just the beginning. I’ve seen things you’ve only seen in your nightmares. Things you can’t even imagine. Things you can’t even see. There are things that hunt you in the night. Then something screams. Then you hear them eating, and you hope to God that you’re not dessert. Afraid? You don’t even know what afraid is. You would not last five minutes without me.”

This is a quote from the character of Alan Parrish as delivered by the late, legendary Robin Williams in the 1995 hit Jumanji . It goes pretty hard, doesn’t it?

It’s intense. It’s foreboding, and it’s played straight. That is the key to the gateway horror aspect of the film – the danger is always played straight.

Bloody Disgusting loves giving props to gateway horror – those films and shows that embrace the macabre and are also safe for the younger set, often responsible for acting as pivotal stepping stones for a lifelong love of the genre.

Jumanji , despite surviving the test of time as a beloved 90s staple, seems to be skipped over when discussing gateway horror.

Directed by Joe Johnston , Jumanji isn’t pure horror, of course. It’s a rather confident mix of adventure, comedy, and action. Yet in that cocktail horror is always around the corner.

The very concept itself, that of a mysterious board game that can suck you into its world or spew its world into ours, is the perfect premise for all kinds of freaky shenanigans.

stephen king what's scary essay

The surprise acclaim the recent Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves has received got me thinking about the relationship a group of players has with tabletop games. D&D is of course known for its role playing and world-building elements. While traditional board games lack this degree of interaction, what if one had a mind of its own? What if you couldn’t just rage quit when things don’t go your way? What if the innocent act of playing meant agreeing to a battle of life and death?

Jumanji taps into one of horror’s most fertile tropes: the mundane as something terrifying. It’s just a board game, but the object itself is foreboding and ominous, seemingly emanating with a pulsing drum beat all of its own, hinting that the game is self-aware in some capacity.

Jumanji is clever in that it never calls attention to the meta of its narrative with winks and nods. It’s simply baked into the story.

We’ve just about all had that experience of a Monopoly game dragging on for eternity and someone (maybe you) losing their cool and storming off…possibly after flipping the board over in impotent rage. Agreeing to hunker down for a board game session is a commitment. Depending on how seriously you and those in your party take it, a session can result in aggravation, flared tempers, and game pieces whizzing past your head at treacherous speeds.

Imagine being stuck in a game of Monopoly. You NEED to finish it or else you and those you’re playing with could die. Or worse…get stuck in the game itself. It’s a darkly funny concept, and Jumanji ’s innate understanding of the culture of board games lends the fantasy all of the verisimilitude in the world.

The first bit of potential nightmare fuel in the film is when young Alan, after just having a falling out with his father ( Jonathan Hyde ), plays the game with his crush and neighbor Sarah. It doesn’t take long for Alan to roll a bad hand, getting sucked into the center of the board while Sarah looks on in terror – right before a cauldron of bats erupts from the fireplace, chasing her out of the house. Alan is slowly warped and stretched as the rules of our world no longer apply. Jumanji has him now. His screams fade, and then he’s gone.

Jumanji scary scene

Having not seen this movie for quite some time, I was surprised at the level of care Johnston took in crafting tension during most of the set pieces. A sort of localized, quasi-apocalyptic flavor circles the fringes of the narrative, as the town the film takes place in is also affected by the game leaking into our world. This raises the stakes of the movie significantly, as it could have been an easy oversight in the script to only have the danger target and affect the main characters.

Giant mosquitos attack people, sending them into shock all across town.

A gang of Gremlins-esque monkeys wreak havoc all over: stealing, hijacking vehicles, and causing complete and utter chaos.

A hungry lion stalks its prey from the shadows.

A stampede of jungle animals acts as a living freight train of destruction.

We have a psychotic hunter (also played by Hyde) by the name of Van Pelte hellbent on The Most Dangerous Gaming Alan.

There is even mild body horror at play as the young Peter ( Bradley Pierce ) begins to turn into a monkey for trying to cheat the game.

This kind of story decision can play havoc on a kid’s fears. The fear of punishment, of doing wrong and being caught – having that shame visible for all to see with nothing you can do to hide it – it’s pretty damned heavy stuff for a mostly light-hearted adventure film.

Jumanji scary horror

Robin Williams plays it in a mostly understated way. He doesn’t mug or go off on any of trademark ad-libbing tangents. He commits to selling Alan as a guy who has miraculously lived through some insane shit. Of course, the film doesn’t make him unfunny, but most of the humor comes from the clever reverse of the fish-out-of-water trope the character occupies instead of Williams affecting over-the-top voices or mannerisms.

Williams was very good at playing the action hero in family fare, with this role making a nice pairing with his beloved turn as grown up Peter Pan in Spielberg’s Hook . The rest of the cast is admirable as well, with a young Kirsten Dunst , the always underappreciated David Alan Grier , and Bonnie Hunt rounding out the characters.

I won’t lie. I just wanted an excuse to write about a film I liked as a kid that I was shocked to find holds up well almost 30 years later. Jumanji arrived right smack in the middle of the 90s, two years after Jurassic Park changed the game. Jurassic Park was the crowning jewel of gateway horror cinema in the 90s. Jumanji is from a time when family films weren’t just mostly animated features (no shade on animation, but the live action family film is all but extinct in theaters today). It’s also a reminder when family films weren’t afraid to treat the younger audience with respect, deal in heavier themes, and scare them good and proper.

Sometimes childhood staples lose their amber hue. Jumanji has enough craft and heart to remain a great watch today.

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A Response to Stephen King�s �Why We Crave Horror Movies�

Based on the firm belief that we are all mentally ill, horror novelist Stephen King writes an essay in Playboy magazine speculating the popular appeal of horror movies.  King writes the essay with a general audience in mind although the article is found in Playboy.  With much experience in the creepy field of horror, King has found the hidden animal that draws one to see a horror movie.  The feeling of daring ourselves and doing scary things to show that we are not afraid.  The horror film appeals to all that is bad in us and gives it a chance to come out in a socially acceptable way instead of killing someone.  Over all, we see horror flicks to have a very strange kind of fun.

I agree and rely on King�s opinions as a writer and reader of horror and nonfiction.  With much experience in reading his work and seeing his movies, King has come to a reasonable and logical explanation as to why we see horror movies.  When a new horror movie comes out, I feel this strange craving to go and buy a ticket.  My favorites are the completely gory and never could happen types of films.  They always have me on the edge of my seat and I love that feeling!  Besides, things like that could never happen anyway.  It�s like a dare to go and face the other world of pain and agony, except there�s no risk involved, and you can�t get hurt.  That feeling of natural adrenaline is something that will always keep me coming back to see another horror flick.  Like King explains in his essay, we go to have fun and exercise the sick side of our souls.  That�s good enough for me.

According to Stephen King, Horror makes us feel like children again.  It gives us that old imagination back and loosen up a little.  When I go to a horror movie, that�s exactly what I expect from it.  It needs to make me feel alive inside when I leave, like a child.  If this makes me look insane, then oh well.  But insanity has different degrees by which one can be judged.  We go to see horror films to feel normal.  The potential killer is in all of us and our emotions have their own body.  If we start to give in to the killer, then the feeling of normality slowly diminishes.  Horror films however, give us a chance to exercise that killer in a healthy way other than going out and killing someone.  I feel that this explanation is the best one that anyone could come with.  Like King, I to feel that the potential killer is within each of us.  However, the pressures of society force us to keep the killer locked up and hidden away.  Going to see a horror film is a way that we can somehow exercise that demon in a way that society and ourselves can accept.

King argues that horror films are also just a way to have good old fashion fun.  I agree, to a point.  For adults and teenagers, sure horror movies can be great, especially if you have someone to cling to!  But for a certain type of people, horror movies could mean bad news.  I know plenty of people who left the theatre in tears of horror and other in a state of mental shock.  I could also see that horror could become an unhealthy addiction.  Just the sight of blood could give the wrong person some nasty ideas.  They could go on a hearty killing rampage and crave the sight of blood more and more.  That scenario sounds like the plot of a horror movie, but it could happen.  For most people, I agree with king that horror movies are a great way to have fun and enjoy in moderation.

I can�t say that horror movies have made me a better person or given me a whole new insight to life.  Infact, the only thing that horror films have given me are a few nasty nightmares.  But without horror movies, I would probably be a huge wimp and the thought of a head getting chopped off would send me screaming.  Overall, I feel that Mr. King and I are the same along with the rest of the world.  We all have the same itching feeling to get a glimpse of blood when we pass that car accident on the free way.  That would explain the traffic jams.  We are human with the same wants and needs that we would like to see met.  On the whole, I feel that horror movies are out there to entertain us and exercise that sick side of our souls.

( 5 paragraphs, 797 words , 2.5 pages, double-spaced, Times New Roman, 12-point font )


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    The feeling of daring ourselves and doing scary things to show that we are