The scariest movie scene ever filmed does not take place in a graveyard, asylum, or Transylvanian castle. Rather, it is set in a school nurse’s office.
In Risky Business (1983), high school senior Joel Goodson (Tom Cruise) misses two midterms after he accidently sinks his father’s Porsche in Lake Michigan. Although Joel fears his father’s wrath, the real terror begins when he seeks a note from the school nurse. If he is not marked excused, his GPA and chances of attending Princeton will both be ruined.
He pleads with the nurse, but she is unmoved. In desperation, he grabs her by the collar. “I’m sorry,” he apologizes, as he releases his clenched fists, “I just don’t think I can leave until I get just a little compassion.” He receives none.
Risky Business is a dark satire of teen sex comedies, not a horror movie. Yet, this scene still gives me shivers. Indeed, the idea that my future will be irreparably sabotaged by a combination of my own ineptitude and an inflexible, unsympathetic academic system is way more frightening to me than most horror movie tropes. When the nurse dismissively waves Joel away, she may as well be brandishing a bloody machete.
This type of everyday anxiety is not often exploited in mainstream horror cinema. Certainly, horror movies often play on primal instincts. But these fears are subtly different than the nagging, unflashy worries of the average, comparatively privileged university student. This might seem somewhat unusual, considering that most young people, a crucial horror movie demographic, probably worry more about their grades and career choices than about being chopped in half.
I am not complaining, however, that Hollywood has yet to turn out a feature length version of those nerve-wracking moments from Risky Business. Nor, do I fault horror movies for failing to harness more humdrum anxieties. Indeed, I hope that no film ever bears a tagline like, “In T-29 no one can hear you scream.”
Rather, I think that this omission speaks to why horror movies are so counterintuitively enjoyable in the first place.
No matter how realistic the special effects or performances may seem, there is still a fundamental undercurrent of fantasy in most horror movies, since the scares onscreen are not those of everyday life. Even found footage horror films, like The Blair Witch Project and the Paranormal Activity series, which achieve considerable realism through their pseudo-documentary aesthetics, also rely on basically supernatural subject matter.
It is precisely because we are not constantly afraid of being dismembered or possessed that moviegoers can generally react to such cinematic mayhem with excitement and delight, rather than abject repulsion. In this way, horror movies can offer us an escape from our most persistent, daily worries, as opposed to preying on them.
Ultimately, horror films work because, even when the blood and guts are flying, they are careful not to cut too close to the bone.