I was browsing through films to rent the other day, with my mother, and we got onto the conversation of horror films. She can't stand them and can't watch them. Not the gory ones anyway.
The gory ones, of course, aren't the scary ones. You see one as a kid maybe, and you're terrified. But you become desensitised. I've seen Hostel, all of the Saw series, etc. I find the Saw franchise particularly interesting, and, unless I'm being terribly naive, to me those films realise (or at least attempt) the zenith of the genre. They all more or less rest on the same basic premise, which is this: What if you woke up in a situation of unparalleled horror? A horror beyond words, too terrible to imagine? And what if it wasn't a dream, but a reality? Your chest/jaw is going to be ripped open by a reverse-bear trap, unless you can fish out a key from corrosive acid/a dead person's stomach? What if the series of events could lead to revenge on the people who you consider to be variously accountable for your young child's death? And so on. It's the height of visual and psychological torment. And yet I, and many of my friends of various dispositions towards the genre, can watch these films and not be haunted by them. Why?
Because horror is, of course, not about what is shown, what is said or done; it is precisely about what is hidden, unspoken, undisclosed - and yet teetering on the parameters of your consciousness. Hitchcock has been spoken about as the 'master of suspense'. He may not have had the special effects budget (or capabilities back then) to create the graphic spectacles we are presented with today, but this worked to his advantage. 'Suspense': meaning, literally, to suspend; not to remove, or obliterate, but to captivate the audience by evoking feelings in them that the worst is always just around the corner, a monstrous apparation that is omnipotent in the mind because it can only ever be cauterised by realisation. Scary, in other words, is that which you know exists, but which you refuse to confront. If you confront it, if you throw off the sheet and say, 'This is your monster,' it is no longer as terrible.
It can never be as terrible as it was in your mind.