When Everything's Gory, What's Scary? As Halloween approaches, Pop Culture Happy Hour visits All Things Considered for a talk with hosts Ari Shapiro and Audie Cornish about scary things.
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When Everything's Gory, What's Scary?

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When Everything's Gory, What's Scary?

When Everything's Gory, What's Scary?

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If you recognize that theme music, then you know that, every week, NPR's Linda Holmes hosts a rotating cast of NPR personalities. They discuss books, movies, music, television and whatever else they find interesting.


It's the podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, and it's been kicking off the weekend for listeners for about five years now. Ari and I have both been on the panel. Right, Ari?

SHAPIRO: And my dirty secret is exposed.

CORNISH: And so we wanted to return the favor. We invited Linda Holmes, along with Pop Culture Happy Hour regular Stephen Thompson of NPR Music, to join us for a mini happy hour, right?

SHAPIRO: Like, we're calling it a mini-bar.

CORNISH: Yeah, it's late enough in the day. Stephen and Linda, welcome to the studio.

STEPHEN THOMPSON, BYLINE: Thanks for having us.

LINDA HOLMES, BYLINE: Thank you so much.

SHAPIRO: Because Halloween is approaching, for this little mini-bar, you wanted to talk about things that scare us.

HOLMES: That's right because we were talking about the fact that horror movies, of course, have gotten really gross and really explicit, and so has television. And then the question becomes, is it possible for anything to be scary when everything is already kind of already out there?


HOLMES: You know?

SHAPIRO: Well, there's a difference between horror grossness and fear. I mean, Alfred Hitchcock knew that.

HOLMES: Right, absolutely. And I think, you know, for me, personally, I'm not a big horror-movie person, but I've read a ton of, like, Stephen King when I was a kid...

CORNISH: Oh, yeah.

HOLMES: When I was a teenager, I was an early adopter of Stephen.


HOLMES: And it was not the big, horrifying, bloody stuff that I gravitated to. It was these creepy, creepy stories. Like, I always say my favorite one is called "The Moving Finger." And a guy just goes into his bathroom, and there's a finger coming out of his drain. It's not - it's not that it's gory; it's just really creepy and scary.

THOMPSON: Well, yeah. You're talking about the difference, in some ways, between horror and suspense. And, you know, I have an 11-year-old daughter who is obsessed with horror movies all of a sudden. She wanted to - for Halloween, she wanted to dress as the bogeyman from "Sinister 2," a movie...

CORNISH: That's so specific (laughter).

THOMPSON: A movie that I have not allowed her to go see. But I think what she likes is - and she uses the terminology. She'll say, I really like jump-scares.

HOLMES: Oh my gosh.


THOMPSON: And we'll watch things, and she'll be like, there's a jump-scare coming. Like, she enjoys, I think, the formula of the element of surprise.

SHAPIRO: You know, I don't know if this is coincidence, but I think some of the scariest films of the last few decades have been really under-the-radar, low-budget things. I'm thinking of "The Blair Witch Project," "Open Water," "Paranormal Activity."


HOLMES: Right.

SHAPIRO: These were all low-budget, low-expectation - scared the bejeezus out of people.

HOLMES: Absolutely. And they're - the great thing about those, from a business perspective, is that they can be made so cheaply that it has allowed them to kind of multiply. And that allows you - when you're working on a really small budget, it allows you to experiment, and it allows you to kind of get things off the ground yourself.

SHAPIRO: But because those movies don't have big, monster budgets, it's all about what is unseen.

HOLMES: Absolutely.


SHAPIRO: You know, in "Open Water," they're not showing footage of sharks. They're showing people, from the chest-up in the water, suddenly feeling a jolt or a bite.

HOLMES: Right.

CORNISH: So the key to real scariness is a low budget.


HOLMES: Right. Well, it's true because, if you think about "Blair Witch Project," which kind of ushered in this whole found-footage horror thing, the scariest shot in "The Blair Witch Project" is just a person standing against a wall, right? And it's so scary, you know? I knew a guy who watched that movie and then had to, famously, cover up the windows of his house and watch "A Bug's Life" twice before he could recover.


SHAPIRO: I'm imagining him reaching the credits the first time and thinking, well, let's do that again.

CORNISH: Yeah, not ready yet.

HOLMES: Not ready to go outside yet. It's a really scary movie. So the one trend has kind of been these found-footage things. Another trend is kind of this self-aware horror-comedy. It started sort of with "Scream," and then there have been other ones - "Cabin In The Woods" a couple of years ago, which was a Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard thing. And then, just recently, there's one called "The Final Girls," which is sort of similar. It's a comedy, but also a horror movie about a group of contemporary teenagers who find themselves transported into an '80s slasher movie - kind of a summer camp slasher movie.

CORNISH: But is the goal there camp, basically? You know what I mean? Kind of going - there's a "Back To The Future" element to that of, like, we're doing something we used to do in the movies.

THOMPSON: Yeah, I think they are. But at the same time, I feel like horror is a cousin of comedy, that both are rooted in a certain amount of surprise. Halloween itself is designed as a way to laugh at the things that scare us. So, you know, if you have kids dressing up as monsters, we're not as afraid of monsters. And I think that giving horror movies that element of surprise and that element of silliness and that element of self-awareness, I think, is actually in keeping with the Halloween tradition and, I think, some of the traditions of horror movies themselves.

HOLMES: I think that's fair. Do you - are you a scary movie person, Audie?

CORNISH: I can't stand them. I'm the kind of person who watches "The Walking Dead" and then will, like, pause and fast-forward through the zombie parts, which...


SHAPIRO: That's all the parts.

CORNISH: ...Is a little bit like saying that you read Playboy for the articles.


CORNISH: But I think that, if there's good character development, if there's suspense, if there's tension, I'll go along for the ride.

SHAPIRO: Can anyone explain why we like to get scared, why we pick up the Stephen King novel and buy the ticket to the horror movie?

HOLMES: I suspect there's plenty of cultural criticism around that. I picked up Stephen King novels when I was 13, 14 years old. And I think what fascinated me about it was, first of all, it had an element of something adult and transgressive, which I suspect is part of the reason why Stephen's daughter likes horror.

SHAPIRO: Stephen Thompson sitting in the room with us, not Stephen King.

HOLMES: Yes, correct. I suspect that it has something to do with that element of doing something you're not supposed to do and something adult and a little bit forbidden. I don't think my parents were necessarily excited that I was reading a lot of Stephen King.

SHAPIRO: I wouldn't describe myself as a horror buff, but I watched the first couple season of "American Horror Story." I went to see "Crimson Peak," the Guillermo del Toro film, with high hopes and was sorely disappointed. But I do enjoy those sort of, you know, thrills and chills. And I think it's something about the knowledge that you're safe, that you're not actually at risk, that you can feel fear while simultaneously knowing that you have nothing to fear.

HOLMES: Well, yeah. It's like anything else, right? It's a stimulus that, as long as it's voluntary...


HOLMES: ...It has a totally different feel. It's like going to a movie that makes you cry. Sometimes you come out of the movie, and you say, ah, that was such a great weeper. I just sobbed.

THOMPSON: It's cleansing.

HOLMES: Yeah, I was so sad. But it's - I think it's the same thing, where if you go and you're scared and you're in control of it, it can be a very satisfying thing.

SHAPIRO: Can we do a lightning round? Whether you like horror or hate it, love scary movies or would never watch them, if you were going to choose one to watch on Halloween, what would you really enjoy watching?

HOLMES: My incredibly scary movie that I always recommend is "Wait Until Dark" with Audrey Hepburn...

THOMPSON: Aw, it's such a good movie.

HOLMES: ...Which is an unbelievably scary movie with, for your daughter, a great jump-scare, perhaps the original.

THOMPSON: Maybe the best jump-scare ever on screen.

SHAPIRO: Stephen?

THOMPSON: I would say 1944's "The Uninvited." You talk about a movie where you see very, very little in the way of actual scary things - that is a wonderful, scary, suspenseful movie.

SHAPIRO: I'm going to go with a movie - it's Spanish. It's maybe five years ago - called "The Orphanage," "El Orfanto," which is an amazing suspense-thriller that works on a supernatural level and a real-life level, with the best thing for every scary movie, a creepy kid.

CORNISH: Right, right. And probably, still in that genre, I'm going to say "Pan's Labyrinth," which is a movie I have yet to watch without covering my eyes at some point. All right. I want to leave the conversation there, but we want to hear your suggestions, as well. And you can join the conversation online. You can talk to Linda and Stephen on Twitter. Stephen, your handle is?

THOMPSON: @idislikestephen.

CORNISH: And Linda?

HOLMES: Mine is @nprmonkeysee.

CORNISH: And if you want to hear more Pop Culture Happy Hour, you can visit npr.org or wherever you download podcasts. The episode this week, I'll actually be appearing.

HOLMES: That's right.

CORNISH: In the meantime, I just want to say, Linda and Stephen, thanks so much.

THOMPSON: Thank you.

HOLMES: Thank you.

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