By Ayesha Siddiqui
I am afraid of The Beatles.
That’s right. I’m talking four geeky guys with a penchant for twisting and shouting as opposed to the four-legged insect, although I do suppose that would have been more acceptable.
But we’ll get to that.
My fears have long bordered the line of irrationality, although some are more conventional than others. I was, for example, fairly perturbed by the dark when I was younger, as most children tend to be.
As a species, we are quite intriguing. Children demand to know, with the despair and endless curiosity that they do not yet know everything but with the conviction that they can do so. The naive young mind is unsettled by the circumstance of ignorance; that which conceals poses a threat. The darkness obscures, and so we flee from it. Maybe this explains the insatiable curiosity of a child; perhaps to know means to conquer fear.
Is our waning fear of the dark as we get older a sign of our accumulation of knowledge? Repeated interactions with the world enable and encourage us to form a certain worldview that is hard to sway and hence our scope of expectation is narrowed. While the chances of a mad-axe murderer lurking in the darkness may be slim, at least you believe that it can only, at worst, be a mad-axe murderer and not, say, the disembodied entity from your nightmares…but imagine if the mad-axe murderer and the disembodied entity were in cahoots — now that would be terrifying. And while the nightly walk to your bed from the light switch may forever evoke a very specific kind of emotion, for the most part, we are assured that at worst we may swallow a spider in our sleep instead of being yanked under the bed by the monster who inhabits that space.
It does make one wonder. Is fear simply the subversion of our expectations?
Now, I must clarify that I’m talking about fear here in a very specific respect. Of course, there definitely exists a certain existential kind of fear. You know. Illness. Death. Failure. Mundanity. Loneliness. Oblivion (we get it, Augustus Waters). But that’s a whole other arena that I simply refuse to enter because I cannot afford another nightly descent into existentialism. Right now, however, I’m talking about fear in its most unconscious, primal form. The kind of pure dread that is immediate, visceral, and petrifying.
My sister and I had attempted to watch the original version of The Exorcist years ago during the incipient days of lockdown. After forcing ourselves to sit through the first half of the film, we eventually gave up given its unsuccessful attempts to pique our interest. Admittedly, I was disappointed. Given that this was supposed to be the paragon of horror cinema, I was almost worried that the pandemic had entirely dulled my senses from enjoying the simple pleasures of entertainment.
There’s a movie theatre near where I live that plays reruns of classic films. The recent reruns didn’t catch my eye until a couple of weeks ago when I saw the marquee read The Exorcist. I caught sight of the gleaming letters spelling out The Exorcist. Momentarily charmed by the recognition of what felt like an old friend and the infectious zeal of my cinephile boyfriend (and our even greater zeal for the $5 price), my curiosity rekindled for this classic. Convinced that I hadn’t watched it right the first time, I believed I was
now prepared. Plus, this was definitely a film to be watched in a theatre. Ambience was key.
And so I was armed. The crisp coolness of the dimming room paired perfectly with the gentle murmur of the audience. A sweet lover to the right of me, a bag of overpriced popcorn to the left (there had to be a catch to those dangerously low ticket prices and it was dangerously high snack prices), I let the horrors begin.
Well, at least I waited for the horror to begin.
And kept waiting.
When I emerged from the theatre two hours later, I believe I was still waiting. Hence, I did what anyone might have done: I commenced a thorough Reddit deep-dive. It was crucial I got to the bottom of why this film was crowned to be the scariest film of all time.
My excavation presented me with two main findings.
The first finding was contextual, describing the implications of the release of The Exorcist in 1973. It argued that The Exorcist holds this title not because it is the scariest movie to exist, but because it was the first of its kind. The premise, accentuated by its execution with explicit language, violence, and imagery (although commonplace and perhaps even dated today), was jarring for a 1973 audience simply because it had never been done before. That was a logical explanation. But I remained unsatisfied. If The Exorcist no longer holds the claim of exclusivity within the horror genre, why is it still regarded as the scariest film of all time to this day?
My search continued, leading me to my second observation. The broad strokes of this observation were as such: apparently, the mind of the modern viewer is oversaturated with the once-original themes and visuals present in The Exorcist that have since been recycled into other films. This means that The Exorcist simply doesn’t stand out anymore. One user even commented on the over-reliance on “jump scares”, claiming that we seem to have forgotten about the slow build-up of what they call “suspense horror.” Ah, so we were just watching it wrong, then! The Exorcist was meant to disturb us on a deep, psychological level which modern horror just hasn’t conditioned us to be afraid of. I experienced a wave of regret as I read this, thinking back to my first-ever horror movie. Oh, how my ten-year-old self had horribly misjudged by choosing to watch Annabelle before The Exorcist. Now I would never understand true psychological disturbance—or true art.
Forgive me for my irreverence; I merely jest.
But I saw a glaring paradox here. On the one hand, there’s the argument that The Exorcist isn’t scary today because it doesn’t subvert our expectations in the way it did in 1973. Yet, it is also suggested that the aspects of horror that elicit fear in us today are a result of their repetition. We have become accustomed to finding fear in certain patterns — patterns that supposedly negate the ability to experience fear through other aspects of horror.
These bold claims raise many questions. First, are our more abstract feelings of fear learned, rather than instinctively felt? Yet, in the context of films, if we continue to be afraid, despite knowing the trajectory of a horror film, what does that say about fear and expectation? Perhaps fear is more than the subversion of expectation. It is beyond rational, and therefore, it is not the patterns that teach us to be afraid. Rather, there must be something objectively or universally terrifying about these repeated horrors that continue to elicit fear despite being predictable or expected.
This, then, raises another question: can objective entertainment exist, or do we have an artistic responsibility to view each piece of entertainment media through the context in which it was made? If this is the case, then that leaves the genre of horror in a bit of a predicament. If fear cannot be conditioned, yet we must first attune ourselves to a certain expectation in order to find terror within it, does that not entirely collapse the notion of fear? Without the concept of objective terror, there is little room for the visceral and immediate doom that characterizes fear.
I thought The Exorcist was a bit of a drag. In terms of plot, yes, but equally in terms of a certain terror I personally find necessary when categorizing a good horror film.
It could just be that my horror is simply broken. The Exorcist didn’t frighten me, but you know what does? The song and music video of A Day in the Life by The Beatles. Why? I don’t know. There’s something about the orchestral buildup that feels inexplicably sinister. It sounds like a tragedy; a soundtrack to an inescapable catastrophe. Accompanied by spasmodic bursts of grotesque facial distortions, it unlocks a deeply, deeply, unsettling emotion that I cannot explain but that consumes my being.
Where does that leave us, then? Perhaps fear is neither purely objective nor purely subjective and is simply beyond definition and rationality. In that case, anything can be a fear. It knows no rhyme or reason.