Horror Movies Surge Back To Mainstream Audiences

Paranormal Activity 4 was the number one movie in the U.S. last weekend, and it's no surprise since Halloween is around the corner. Beth Accomando of member station KPBS reports that, after decades of slasher films dominating horror, the pendulum has swung back to favor paranormal movies.

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Halloween is almost here, so perhaps it's no surprise that the film "Paranormal Activity 4" led the box office in its opening weekend. It is the latest entry in an already successful movie franchise. As Beth Accomando of member station KPBS reports, film audiences still enjoy a good scare - but what scares us keeps changing.

BETH ACCOMANDO, BYLINE: Horror renaissance man Clive Barker says the first person to scare him was Walt Disney.

CLIVE BARKER: The first movie that I remember scaring me was "Sleeping Beauty," Disney's "Sleeping Beauty."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SLEEPING BEAUTY")

ELEANOR AUDLEY: (as Maleficent) Now, shall you deal with me, oh Prince, and all the powers of hell.

ACCOMANDO: Barker describes Disney as being particularly good at a mixture of scares and sentimentality. "Paranormal Activity 4" co-director Henry Joost would agree. As a child he was terrified by the giant squid in Disney's live-action film "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) Captain.

HENRY JOOST: Yeah, I just vividly remember that, when the sailor gets thrown back into the Nautilus and he has, like, tentacle marks on his skin. That really freaked me out.

ACCOMANDO: Joost's co-director Ariel Schulman remembers straying from his parents' approved viewing list to see "Nightmare on Elm Street" when he was young.

ARIEL SCHULMAN: And that's the one where Johnny Depp gets sucked into his bed.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAMING)

SCHULMAN: And it had that effect of basically just scaring me from being alone in my room.

ACCOMANDO: Now, Joost and Schulman are scaring a new generation of filmgoers with the latest entry in the "Paranormal Activity" franchise. These are low-budget found-footage films, and they trap the audience along with the characters inside a home or bedroom. Then they let loose a supernatural threat.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAMING)

ACCOMANDO: Schulman gets sadistic pleasure from scaring his audience.

SCHULMAN: You're looking for physical, visceral reactions, which is very satisfying for them and us.

ACCOMANDO: Schulman says the "Paranormal" films offer a communal thrill ride because the people who come are eager to be scared in the safety of a crowded movie theater.

SCHULMAN: The most similar thing I can compare it to is a rollercoaster. Nobody comes in with their arms crossed, they're not looking to be critical, they're looking to enjoy the ride, throw their arms in the air, scream.

ACCOMANDO: Supernatural tales fueled the genre in the early days of cinema when filmmakers were playing with the new tools of visual effects and were eager to test their cinematic sleight of hand, as in "The Ghost Walks" and "The Uninvited."

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED MOVIE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (As character) Flowers are withered by the touch of an unseen malignant hand. Candles flicker then die as a ghostly chill fills the air...

ACCOMANDO: But after America endured two World Wars and was on the brink of social upheaval in the '60s, horror had to reflect new fears says Miguel Rodriguez, director of the upcoming Horrible Imaginings Film Festival.

MIGUEL RODRIGUEZ: I think the supernatural didn't have the kind of power to frighten that it once had, and really it came down to turning to things that felt more real, I think one of the films that really turned the tide was Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PSYCHO")

JANET LEIGH: (As Marion Crane) (Screaming)

ACCOMANDO: Made in 1960, "Psycho" ushered in films about serial killers, which led to the slasher films of the '80s. They were all about the kills and a high body count. The killer could be real, as in "Black Christmas," or a boogeyman, like in "Halloween."

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAMING)

ACCOMANDO: More recently, the genre has served up the torture porn of the "Saw" and "Hostel" franchises, where nothing is left to the imagination and excessive gore is front and center, says Henry Joost.

JOOST: There was a trend of really gory horror movies that were really gross and with lots of blood and mutilation and stuff like that. And the "Paranormal" movies are really a departure from that.

ACCOMANDO: Horror is like a pendulum. Currently, it's swinging away from gore and back toward ghost stories and the atmospheric supernatural roots of horror, says Rodriguez.

RODRIGUEZ: I think ghosts have really captured the imagination once again, which is really, you know, like an old campfire kind of feeling to it, camp stories kind of feeling to it. And they kind of start to give answers about death and mortality that feels more like an escape.

ACCOMANDO: Horror movies have always reflected our fears and offered a safe way to exorcise them. It's also not a bad way to get your date to snuggle up just a little closer in the movie theater. For NPR News, I'm Beth Accomando.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: You're just a little more reluctant to go into the shower now? This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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