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The Horror of Horror Desensitization
Old scary stuff doesn't frighten newer audiences
Last week, I set up a Facebook event for my annual Halloween Horror Movie Fest party. I had to cancel it last year due to the pandemic, and I’m pretty excited about its triumphant return this October (thanks to the COVID-19 vaccines).
Even though it’s still a good six months away, it got me thinking about the genre, and I decided to pick one of my all-time favorite horror flicks for a Daly Family movie night in the basement last Saturday. I’m talking about 28 Days Later.
I wrote about my affection for zombie stuff in a recent newsletter, and I think particularly highly of this movie. It’s not just because it’s a great, scary film. It’s also because it revived the long dormant zombie genre with an effective, modern-day twist. I especially liked how writer Alex Garland and director Danny Boyle approached the story from an “infection” angle, in that the film’s ghouls aren’t undead slow-moving cannibals, but rather rage-filled, wind-sprinting savages. It made for an extra layer of intense thrills and scares that carried over into later zombie flicks.
Now, it wasn’t lost on me that such a film may not be the best fit for a family movie night. I worried it could be a bit too much for my children, especially my 14-year-old daughter. After all, I found the flick to be crazy scary and awfully disturbing when I first saw it, and I was almost 30 at the time! But ultimately, I figured that with me in the room, and in a position to fast-forward (or give a heads-up on) a scene if needed, it would be okay.
In fact, my reflexes with the remote-control were tested very early in the film, as I had forgotten, until just seconds before it happened, that the second scene in the movie starts off with some full-frontal male nudity. 😬
But here’s the kicker, once all was said and done. My kids didn’t find the movie to be all that scary, and my daughter even made fun of me afterwards for treating it as if it was.
This was basically my reaction:
Not scary? On what planet is a movie like 28 Days Later is not scary?
Have my teens become so desensitized, from other things they’ve seen on television and the Internet over the years, that they aren’t even fazed by an epic, well-written and well-acted, highly graphic tale of four scared survivors fighting to stay alive amidst a snarling, red-eyed, flesh-tearing, blood-vomiting apocalypse?
It sure felt that way, and I admit I found it a bit disturbing.
At the same time, there may have been another factor at play — one which perhaps warrants a little comfort, at least from a parental perspective: era-dating.
Yes, I totally made up that term, but hear me out.
When I was a kid in the mid-1980s, not much younger than my daughter is now, the horror film that everyone seemed to be talking about as the “scariest movie ever made” was A Nightmare on Elm Street. And I was inclined to believe them, because the commercials I saw at the time — featuring a severely burned Freddy Krueger donning a glove made of metal blades — struck me as pretty terrifying. If I had sneaked into a theater to see it, or had rented it when it came out on video a year later, it probably would have genuinely scared me… and more than a little.
But when I did eventually get around to seeing it in the early 90s, I was surprised to find that it wasn’t really frightening at all. Sure, part of the explanation was that I was older, more mature, and had seen a number of other scary movies by then. But another big factor was that the movie felt so dated (and therefore cheesy) that it was very hard to take seriously. It wasn’t relatable to where I was in my life, thus I couldn’t really buy into it.
Having now put some thought into this, I believe that a horror film only really works — at least in the context of scares — when you can envision yourself in the situation that the movie’s protagonists are in. That’s not to say that films from the genre cease to be good or entertaining once they reach a certain age. I’m not saying that at all. I don’t necessarily have to be scared by a classic horror movie like Psycho or Jaws to recognize and appreciate that they are objectively great films.
But I do think era-dating tends to de-fang older films, and makes them less likely to scare newer audiences.
To me, 28 Days Later doesn’t feel all that old and dated, but to youngsters like my daughter, it’s absolutely ancient. Heck, it came out four years before she was born.
No one in the movie has a smart phone or talks in today’s lingo, and being that the film takes place in Great Britain, the automobiles and buildings make things seem even older. She has a hard time immersing herself in that type of story, because the era and culture themselves strike her as inherently fictional, and therefore difficult to buy into emotionally.
At least, that’s what I’ve been telling myself since Saturday — and will continue to — so as not to worry that she’s secretly a sociopath. 😄
What do you think? Am I on to something, or am I full of it? Leave a comment or send me an email to let me know.
Update on “Restitution”
Last week, my editor sent me the first round of revisions, suggestions, and comments for “Restitution.” This is the first time I’ve worked with this particular fellow (though he’s been with my publisher for some time), and I’m really enjoying the collaboration. He’s helping to tighten up the book, and his ideas are very good.
Amusingly, we had an email exchange a few days ago over — wait for it — Siegfried & Roy.
Yes, I’m talking about the legendary Las Vegas performers, and strangely enough, they are relevant to the book. My editor had a legal concern, in regard to the role the duo plays in the story.
I’m not going to reveal anything else on the topic (for now), other than that I believe I’m on solid legal grounds. I’ll leave the rest of that weird disclosure up to your imagination.
Back in February, I wrote a well-received newsletter on the national news outlets that I actually trust (on both reporting and commentary). At the top of that list was The Dispatch. In my view, they’re the best.
Well, The Dispatch is currently running a 30-day free trial promotion of their website that includes all of their premium-level content. If you care about what’s going on in the country and world, and you’re sick of the partisan media hacks on cable-news and elsewhere pushing slanted narratives and yelling over each other, you should definitely check it out.
I’m betting you’ll thank me.
Obligatory Dog Shot
I mentioned in previous newsletters that during the pandemic, I caught up with some old favorite bands, and checked out some of their newer music that I hadn’t previously listened to. One of those bands was the Toadies, and I was taken back by just how good they’ve remained over the years.
Their most recent album, 2017’s The Lower Side Of Uptown, is just killer. It’s filled with one great rock song after another. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but I suppose the ones I listen to the most are probably “Amen” (which is stylistically similar to their huge 90’s hit, “Possum Kingdom”), “Echo”, and “Human Cannonball.” They also do a great cover of the 1950’s Jay Hawkins classic, “I Put a Spell on You.”
Honestly, this is probably the best album I picked up last year.
That’s all for now. Thanks for reading today’s Daly Grind.
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Take care. And I’ll talk to you soon!