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[Editor's Note: This essay is the second of two parts.]

If you read our recent article on the Gross-Out Scale, you are already aware that we think there are ways to gauge how well a Horror film delivers on one of its two major promises: to provide its audiences with sufficient gross-outs and creep-outs. As we said previously also, we devised these scales as a kind of public service to fans of the genre—a kind of shorthand for word of mouth reviews that offers a way to judge whether or not a film delivers the gross-outs or creep-outs so desired by moviegoers. In sum, the Gross-Out Scale is concerned with the titillation associated with abjection, the Creep-Out Scale with the thrill of terror. Though we would argue that a good Horror film provides both, we do not think they need to be dished in equal portions or that a movie in this genre is deficient because it favors either the gross-out or the creep-out.

Like a good gross-out, an effective creep-out is accomplished cinematically through a story that has elements of fantasy made to look real enough to have an effect on the viewer. In our previous article, we referred to this as the Realness Factor, and it just means that for a movie to put it over, it must have at a bare minimum a level of believability to its presentation (though, obviously, that gets stretched to the limits in many Horror films). For the truly great examples in the genre, a higher standard inheres—they must give us a new kind of reality we can accept beyond what we know. Convince us that there are vampire clones with ten-inch collapsible mandibles who are part of an underground conspiracy funded by a nefarious vampire supremacist, and you'll get very high points (if Blade II were a little less an action film, it might have scored better here). This is usually accomplished through acting, cinematography, special effects, sound, and visuals—all of which we discuss below to describe how a Horror movie produces a good creep-out.

Creep-Out Factors

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Just as some things gross out some people and not others, not all people find the same things creepy. We might find Joan Rivers's newest face-lift quite creepy, but not all people would agree. Fine. The point of this article is not to try and make a list of the universally disturbing things that frighten all six billion people living on this planet, but to address the factors that go into making a good creep-out in a Horror film. Like the Gross-Out Scale, the Creep-Out Scale runs from -10 to 10 (including zero) in how effective a movie is on delivering this Horror-genre theme. It does not necessarily depend upon a great quantity of scary situations, as a few nicely timed and deeply riveting scenes can put a film on the high end of the scale, but to qualify for a rating in the 8 to 10 range, one does need more than one or two individual creep-outs.

Beyond the issue of quantity and quality are the factors a film depends upon to produce a good creep-out. Whereas we argued that most of the Gross-Out factors depended upon various depictions of the body, we would argue that the key to understanding Creep-Out factors lies in unknowability. The less you understand something, the greater potential it has to frighten you. In Horror films, this usually involves all manner of perils that are based on contact with the unknown. If we wanted to go all psychoanalytic on you, we might direct you to what the philosopher Slavoj Žižek says of the shark in Jaws. He argues that the metaphoric entanglements the shark poses are difficult to locate because they are too vast in number to present anything like a stable set of meanings. The true power of the shark to evoke terror derives from its ability to exceed its symbolic value. In short, the shark frightens us because it is, as Žižek says, "the feared 'thing itself,'" not because it is a representation of something else. [1] Chiefly important for the Creep-Out Scale are the following: scary people/monsters/aliens, weird situations/settings, uncanny visuals/sounds, and disturbing objects/places.

First, scary people/monsters/aliens. These entities are frightening because they want to do things to you that you may prefer not to have done (well, other than under highly specific circumstances, to be sure). And what's worse, they don't always appear scary at first glance. There are many ways that ordinary or even very attractive people can be frightening under the right circumstances. For example, we are both huge fans of the group Blondie, especially its lead singer, Debbie Harry, but she was more than a little convincing (and therefore frightening) in Tales from the Darkside as the witch who wanted to eat a very young Matthew Lawrence for dinner. The creep-out here is pretty good, as it presents the attractive middle-aged woman on the block in any American town as someone who sees her paperboy as a food source. Isn't that what's so scary to most of us about serial killers? Don't we always hear from neighbors about how friendly Jeffrey Dahmer was to people who lived nearby? Certainly this is an often-used theme in the Horror genre—the "normal" person with a huge slice of freak inside. Other examples? That Devil-made-me-do-it demon spawn Damien from the Omen films; all of the slashers in the Scream films were either ordinary or attractive folks; Linda Blair was kind of cute before she started regurgitating her stomach contents on everyone around her and unnaturally spinning her head around in circles; and didn't Kevin Spacey look like a "normal guy" when you finally saw him in one of the creepiest movies of all time, Se7en?

Further, a special category under "normal" has to be children. They're all so cute, right? It takes a village, so they say, but what if it is Village of the Damned? The little kiddies with dead eyes, Carol Channing-platinum blond hair, and supernatural powers can be quite creepy. And what about Children of the Corn? And don't get us started on the dead well-girl from the Ring films or that creepy little hissing boy with the menacing eyes from The Grudge. Horror films have always reserved the right to depict children as objects to be feared—even when they only worship the demon in the cornfield and are not necessarily supernaturally evil themselves. In this genre, it seems best to keep a trained and suspicious eye on the young, lest they take over the world and unleash terror from the depths of Hell or outer space.

If you think people who look like your neighbors and their children are scary, what about monsters and aliens of various types? It would be difficult to imagine a Horror film without the concept of the monster. Since this has been argued in popular and academic literature in much more detail than we can give here, let's just say that we all understand that the monster is whatever creepy entity has entered into the lives of the people in the story we're watching to wreak havoc on them in various ways.

That said, in the Horror genre, we can distinguish between different types. Aside from the aforementioned fake "normals," there are monsters-as-such, like goblins, ghouls, ghosts, vampires, zombies, werewolves, demons, and devils; vicious animals (rodents, ants, bats, and roaches, on the small side, sharks, apes, bears, and dinosaurs on the large side); and animalistic monsters (abnormally intelligent or large sharks, strange animal hybrids, and imaginary creatures like Godzilla). There are also aliens, such as the strange creatures from the Alien films, Predator, the strange dinosaurish bat creatures in Pitch Black, and the extremely rude creatures from Independence Day. Both of these categories include creatures that are in and of themselves scary, and therefore worthy of being factors on the Creep-Out Scale (at least when the special effects and makeup present us with a disturbing, uncanny entity we actually fear may be there when we turn out the lights).

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There is one more subcategory here that technology necessitates we mention, that of robots and other crazed mechanical objects. When done properly, robots can be among the creepiest of monsters—their motives are the hardest to pin down, thus one has a sense of helplessness when trying to respond to them. With your average monster, a ghoul or a werewolf for example, you know what it wants—to gobble your guts and/or feed on your life essence (demons and devils are the most predictable of all—they only want your soul so they can make you one of their minions in order to enlist you in their cause to enslave or destroy humanity). Same with aliens—it's either about eating us or dominating us or both. Not complicated. Robots, however, are different. What do they want? You look into those cold mechanical eyes and you don't find desire, only the absent stare of a creature who is sizing you up, but not really looking at you. Surely this was at least in part the reason Will Smith had such a visceral reaction to them in I, Robot. Crazed computers can also carry a heavy Creep-Out factor. Remember the HAL 9000? That sociopathically dissociative voice announcing "I'm sorry Dave, I can't let you do that . . ." as he locks him out of the Discovery and makes him fend for himself in the cold vacuum of space. Yikes!

Second, the weird situations/settings form of creep-out. Probably the best (and most obvious) scary situation/setting is darkness. You can't see what's in front of you, and if you know there's some type of monster on the loose, it heightens the terror for the audience (though one could argue that stumbling around in the darkness unaware of danger can create just as much tension for the viewer). In fact, among the most terror-inducing settings can be included any scenario that distorts the five senses, particularly vision. We credit the film Pitch Black with being able to incite terror through both the use of light and its absence, as the planet with the monsters on it goes from blindingly bright when the hapless travelers crash there to absolute darkness later in the film. Fogs, smoke, and steam are also good—is that guy with the meat hook standing right next to you, or is he disemboweling one of your friends? A good trick that depends upon vision is the classic device of the Horror film, the shock—a moment of surprise when one is confronted with the unexpected (it can either offer release, like discovering a friend who hasn't been killed yet, or sheer horror, as when one is face to face with the monster). Good settings for a creep-out usually also involve distortions of reality that involve the reveal, that moment in which the threatened person finally realizes what's coming.

Third, uncanny visuals/sounds. These elements can really heighten the tension of a story—whether it's a quick flash of a disturbing visual or an overdone piece of music with a quasi-religious feel, these are strong Creep-Out factors. Among the visuals, we count all things that strike the viewer as inherently scary (especially things already established by the story as entities/objects to be feared); strange shadows; shocking moments (someone or something is standing where you didn't see them and the camera jumpcuts to the person or thing, giving the viewer no time to adjust to the new information); overwhelming images; shiny, glowing, or otherwise evil-looking eyes; creepy faces; odd- or dangerous-looking people; swarms of insects or rodents individually or in infestations; and children (dirty children, silent children, oddly placed children, etc.).

On the subject of sounds, we think a frightening musical score, as in The Omen, can do a lot toward accomplishing a good creep-out. Well-done Horror films usually invest money in scary music to help make the story a bit more creepy. As much as disturbing visuals, sound can really enhance the level of fright and tension in the viewer. Among the scary sounds (aside from the score) that we count as factors on the Creep-Out Scale are: voices disattached from bodies (especially if they are threatening); strange giggles (usually creepiest when coming from children); little kids chanting nursery rhymes for no reason; shrieking, screaming, yelling, shouting, and pleading; crying, sobbing, and whimpering; cackling and/or sinister laughter; growling and other menacing animal sounds/monster noises; various types of scratching; footsteps, creaking, knocking, or bumping; mumbling/whispers; weapon sounds—knives, guns, chains, axes, or other implements of destruction; and whistling. This is only a partial list of visuals and sounds, but all of them are indispensable factors in amping up the level of terror in a Horror film.

And finally, probably the creepiest of all Creep-Out factors, disturbing objects/places. As we argued from the outset, the engine of a good creep-out is unknowability. As long as you can sustain elements of the unknown, you've got your audience on the edge of its seat. Certain objects, even familiar ones, can be great creep-out devices. For example, if you're among the odd people who actually thought The Blair Witch Project was a good film, you were probably drawn in because of the strange symbols that were left before and after scary things happened. What were those things? What did they represent? Are they supernatural, or is some nutcase just fucking with us? (Recalling Žižek, the tension comes not from what the symbol represents, but its defying stable anchors of meaning.) We believe that Blair Witch was disappointing on so many levels, but we'll give it credit for going with the unknown symbol to heighten the tension of the film. As with the talismans of the unknown, familiar symbols can also be quite creepy. C'mon, even the religious among us must be able to see the cross as a bit scary, not to mention the conventional use of pentagrams [2] in Horror films—any symbol with a religious or occult attachment has potential for use as a Creep-Out factor.

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Aside from strange symbols, there are a variety of other objects Horror filmmakers rely upon to freak us out. How about mirrors, huh? Aside from the fact that they usually tell us things we don't want to know about ourselves, they have a place in the Horror genre as gateways to parallel universes and backward realities, and they often find use as objects that show us that ghosts or killers are after us (not to mention that they are a trump card against vampires). And don't forget about shower curtains (or drapes/curtains in general). Though we do not consider Psycho a Horror film per se (we would instead categorize it as a Thriller), we do believe that it is partially because of this film that other movies can use the shower curtain to play on our feelings of vulnerability. One of the staple scary objects in this genre is, of course, the gargoyle. Sometimes they come to life, sometimes they don't, but they are usually creepy looking—monsters frozen in stone, yuck! A newer device for a good creep-out is the recorded image—so banal in today's world, right? Whether conveyed by clunky videotapes or high-tech digital recorders, in a Horror film, it's definitely a message you don't want to receive. One of the creepiest aspects of the Ring films is that the audience knows that a character will die at a specified time once he or she has been unfortunate enough to view that evil videotape.

Probably the creepiest of objects currently in use in the Horror genre (aside from strange symbols) is the mask. Masks are just plain creepy. You can't see who is behind them (and judging by the reveal in most Horror films, you don't want to get a peek at the uggo underneath)—not only for the purpose of identity, but because it doesn't allow you to see any kind of expression. These devices are creepy for the same reason robots are creepy—they constitute faceless faces that make the desires of the other difficult to read and understand. We could list any number of mask-wearing killers, but certainly Michael Myers is chief among them, as are all of the murderers of the Scream films (which speaks to the consistency of the fear of the mask—a device that can be used by various characters in three different films and still remain effective).

In tandem with these frightening objects are disturbing places that can garner quite a few points on the Creep-Out Scale. Almost any place that is dank, dark, and deserted will do. Closets are always good. Who is that in there with the couture? Michael Myers, Freddy Kruger, Jason? For some reason, slashers seem to think that closets are the best places from which to launch an ambush. Supposedly deserted warehouses, mental institutions/hospitals/prisons, sewer systems, caves, bodies of water (particularly still ones), houses and/or rooms, miscellaneous empty buildings, and places known to have been inhabited by serial killers or monsters (including nests and lairs) seem to be quite commonly used—after all, you never know when the creature may return. . . . And for the pièce de résistance, attics and cellars. Does anyone actually enjoy going into an attic or a cellar? Even those converted for offices, dens, or extra bedrooms always seem to have a very Ted Bundy feel about them. And just forget those attics and cellars simply used for storage. Maximum Creep-Out! Do you know what kinds of things infest these places? There are usually insects, spiders, and rodents down/up there under the most ordinary of circumstances, but in Horror films, they seem to attract hiding aliens, nesting monsters, ghosts, and various deranged murderers. Hey, they have to have someplace to hide the bodies aside from the backyard—they do tend to stack up after a while, and one doesn't want prying neighbors to ruin all the fun. For our money, these places have a strong Creep-Out factor in and of themselves, let alone the additional factors (monsters, aliens, murderers) that can make them extremely frightening places to be.

Applying the Creep-Out Scale

As we stated at the outset, this scale runs from -10 all the way up to 10. Like the Gross-Out Scale, films are assigned numbers not simply based upon the quantity of creep-outs they contain, but also on quality. In addition, the wild card on the Creep-Out Scale which can earn you bonus points is any thematic device or object that heightens the terror of the audience through innovation. If you can give us something scary we haven't seen before, you'll at least get points for ingenuity.

At the level of 10, what we call "I've fallen into a trance of fright and I can't get up" scary, are films that have good production values/special effects, interesting stories, a good number of shocks/reveals, and the ability to sustain a certain level of terror (at the very least unease) in the viewer throughout the duration of the story. The films below are listed here because they found ways around the obvious (or made new twists on it), brought a certain level of innovation to the genre, and were overall good movies. In the 10 area of the Creep-Out Scale, we list the following: Night of the Living Dead, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Hellraiser, The Exorcist, Halloween, and like the Gross-Out Scale, our topper is Se7en.

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The next category, "take a dump in your pants" scary, includes films that rate in the 8 to 9 range. Though they are quite good, they are not singularly frightening like those in the 10 level. At this level, we include the following films: Scream, Carrie, Rosemary's Baby, When a Stranger Calls, Friday the 13th, An American Werewolf in London, The Shining, Gothika, and the Ring films.

Among the good but not great creep-outs, the "Oops! I peed my pants a little" scary films, those in the 5 to 7 range, are those films that might have a couple of good shocks or reveals, possibly even some good special effects, but are simply not as good as the above. The Howling, The Skeleton Key, The Grudge, Jeepers Creepers, Madhouse, for example. Most decent, but not great, Horror films fit here.

At the 1 to 4 level, you're not dealing with creep-outs per se, so much as you are dealing with failed attempts at them. This type of film is usually seen as "what a letdown" or "it could have been much scarier". The prime example in this category is a film we would assign a 1 on the Creep-Out Scale, The Blair Witch Project. Such a disappointment. Actually, the only reason we even give it a 1 is for the fact that the ending had potential for a good creep-out, and their use of unknown symbols throughout the film was a good attempt at ingenuity. There were a number of factors that ruined this film. Chief among them was the "acting"—it was so bad as to make the movie nearly unwatchable. Normally, we cheer for the Horror movie girl to escape victorious; in this film, if the creature/entity/witch/killer/ghost didn't get her, we were going to have to do it ourselves. Also, the lack of a story showed the film for what it really was: a bunch of hype. It never delivered on the promise of a good creep-out, and we are sad that it didn't because we thought it could have been a good movie.

At the level of zero, films that leave you absolutely flat on creep-outs, are those we put in the "I think I fell asleep for ninety minutes but I'm not sure and I don't care" category. Unfortunately, we are forced to include a film from one of our favorite Sci Fi/Horror franchises, Alien^3. Sadly, it was a bit boring and rarely gave the suspense we've come to expect from this cluster of films. Even the camp follow-up Alien: Resurrection had more suspense (and a better story) than Alien^3's serious attempt at being a Sci Fi/ Horror film.

Finally are the "I can't believe I paid to see this piece of crap and I want to sue the filmmakers for stealing two hours of my life" films. These, of course, are the hideous travesties that rate in the negative numbers. You might think of these films as those that are campy without trying—the last thing you want when you're going to the movies for a good creep-out. As with the low end of the Gross-Out Scale, this part of the Creep-Out Scale is reserved for those films that actually prevent you from getting the terror you paid to experience. Among these stinkers are: Halloween III (where was Michael Myers?); Jaws 3 (don't you love a sequel that has virtually no connection to the other films in the series? And in 3-D!); Jaws: The Revenge (also known as Jaws 4, which must be the first film on record to have a shark ingenious enough to discover the protagonist's travel plans and follow her to the Bahamas just to torture her); and Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan. Please! As bad as the aforementioned films are, some of them have camp value if you are a fan of irony. However, probably the worst film in this category is Exorcist II—it is difficult to find the camp value here (though we think it certainly exists) because the film itself is just so boring. This is at -10 on the Creep-Out scale for several reasons: they name the demon "Pizazu" (the only people who should have been scared of that name are the producers—giving your monster a stupid name like that condemns you to a lot less money at the box office); the acting was terrible; it was a bad story and a shitty script; it flunks Realness at just about every turn; and it presents the most ridiculous scenario on the planet—trying to communicate with others through the uninteresting late-seventies fad, biofeedback (if you're looking for an ironic way in, we think this is it).

Some of our favorite creep-outs:

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  • When Sigourney Weaver is on the escape ship in Alien and you're not sure if the creature is there with her.
  • The first time you see Michael Myers in that creepy mask in Halloween.
  • Among many things, the voice of the Demon in The Exorcist.
  • Who can forget Jack Nicholson's "Here's Johnny!" in The Shining?
  • The first time "Clark" enters the secure ward in Madhouse (a quadruple creep-out scene: it's in a basement, it's dark, it's in a psychiatric facility, and the place is chock-full of homicidal weirdos behind doors with very rusty locks).
  • That awful videotape in The Ring!
  • Those shots of still water in Gothika when Halle Berry is hiding from security so she can make her escape from the nuthouse.
  • The final scene of Night of the Living Dead, when the zombies finally break into the house.
  • The first attack scene of An American Werewolf in London.
  • The shots of the underground lair of the creature in Jeepers Creepers with the human wallpaper.
  • Hannibal Lecter's affectless discussion of his cannibalism in Silence of the Lambs.
  • Every disturbing frame of Se7en.

Conclusion

In our Gross-Out Scale article, we gave admonitions to both Horror film producers and viewers. Because we enjoy this genre so much, we'll throw our two cents in about Creep-Outs as well. First, producers. Please, give us a good story! Don't waste our time with scary scenes with no narrative glue. And go easy on the shocks/reveals, okay? It's like pop singers who think they need to do glissandi in practically every verse—after a while it gets boring, and we are forced to wonder if you are simply trying to cover up for a lack of talent. To other Horror fans: Demand better! Just because something is popular, doesn't mean it's good. Too many people went to go see Blair Witch, so they made a terrible sequel! See? Actions have consequences. If you pay to see crap, they'll heap more on you. Let's have higher standards.

Notes:

[1] Slavoj Žižek, Tarrying with the Negative, p. 149, Duke University Press: 1993.

[2] We acknowledge that the pentagram is not an inherently evil symbol, that it is even sacred in some spiritual circles (such as in Wicca and other druidic belief systems), and we mention it because it is frequently used in Horror films as being associated with the dark forces.




Dr. Deems D. Morrione is a writer and scholar who studies political/cultural theory/philosophy and American Popular Culture; he has an article coming out in issue #63 of Cultural Critique.
Robert Morrione is an actor and writer in Southern California. They operate a website dedicated to sardonically analyzing the complexities of how Hollywood functions, hollywoodlistwatchers.com.
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