So, I ended up seeing Paranormal Activity last night. Scared the ever-loving shit out of me at the end. 75% of the movie barely rates as 'creepy'. The last half hour, though, pretty creepy. I don't know why it got to me. Maybe it's one of those primal, hardwired fears- fear of something that has your number, that you can't fight, that you can't outrun. One of those pieces of flotsam that stuck with me through the years was a piece of narration from a not-scary book called Idlewild. To paraphrase Nick Sagan, the three most universal fears break down as follows:
1. The Beast Like Us: Vampires were never scary just because they drank our blood. Vampires were scary (y'know, before they became angsty teens) because they were a predator that looked like us, acted like us, that we could understand. They violated ancient taboos regarding sex, cannibalism, etc. Though they were like us, they weren't. Anyone could be one. Your sister, your brother, your uncle, your cousin- any of them could be turned into a vampire and you wouldn't know until it was too late. They were wolves in sheep's clothing that didn't prey on the weak.
2. The Beast Inside of Us: Werewolves, on the other hand, are the epitome of loss of control. It's not your fault you ended up as one, and you can't control it. You can't fight it. There's something terminally wrong with you, that if anyone ever found out, would kill you for. Werewolves are animals in the most basic sense, the kind of animal we stopped being when we started using tools and hiding in caves. It's a primal fear- regression, loss of control. The idea that you could be a monster yourself, and not be able to do a thing about it.
3. The Beast In the Dark: As soon as man had fire, he had somewhere to hide, somewhere that was safe. If you lived anytime before about 1500, if your home fires burned out it was considered a serious emergency. The home fires kept back the dark, and by extension, all the predators you couldn't see. Night was something to be feared. You never knew what could be lurking out of sight. Part of this is hardwired into our sense of hearing, too. That 'bump in the night' meant a lot more in prehistory than it does now- anything from sabertoothed tigers to other men with ill intent could be out there. We've stopped believing in monsters, and maybe that's a bit naive- there's still plenty out there, even if they wear a human face.
The book then posits that Lovecraft came along and broke the mold. Instead of something you could understand, the protagonists faced unknowable horrors that had no reason to destroy them. But that skips over the old ghost story. Ghost stories are, like the above, more or less universal in every culture and every corner of the earth. Unseeable, unknowable demons that have nothing but malice for the living. I guess Paranormal Activity falls partially into the last category. It takes place mostly at night, where befuddled protagonists try to fight off an invisible enemy. The more they try to fight it, the more it fights back.
Fear doesn't have to be rational. In fact, fear is largely irrational. And I mean Fear, capital eff. Not 'I'm afraid of failure' or 'I'm afraid of commitment'. I mean that feeling of icy water in your guts, the feeling of your body struggling to make up its mind as adrenaline dumps into your blood and your hackles go straight up. And like my previous post said, there's more than splatter to that. A good horror movie should trip those instinctive, baseline fears leftover from when our ancestors still huddled in caves and struggled with the concept of tools. That's real fear, good fear. Natural fear.