Host: I’m 41 years old, but there’s a scene in director Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of “The Shining” that makes me want to close my eyes and cover my ears.
You know the one … little Danny Torrance is riding his big wheel bike through the claustrophobic halls of the Overlook Hotel, coming around a corner to find the Grady twins there waiting for him.
(Audio clip … “Come and play with us, Danny.”)
Nope. For some reason, I can’t deal with it … but I find myself eagerly awaiting having the bejesus scared out of me every time I watch the movie.
I’m not alone – scary movies are big business. Three of the top 20 highest grossing films of 2017 are horror movies … “IT,” “Get Out” and “Split” … four if you want to count the latest “50 Shades of Grey” film.
So why do we watch them? What’s the appeal of having a movie tap into our deepest, darkest fears?
I’m Scott Meeker, with the University Relations & Marketing office at Missouri Southern. On this month’s episode of MOSOunds, we check in with two faculty members – Dr. Michael Howarth and Dr. Conrad Gubera – to answer those questions and more.
Dr. Howarth – or “Howie” as you may know him – is the director of Missouri Southern’s Honors Program and a self-described horror movie buff.
Dr. Howarth: I think on some level we all like being scared. If you watch people who say they don’t like horror films, they’ll cover their eyes but open their fingers wide enough so they can still see and peek through. On some level we enjoy being scared and I think horror films supply an escape from our regular lives.
If you look historically at when horror films have done best in this country, it’s often during times of war. The Universal Monster films peaked during World War II, during the Korean War there was that huge influx of monster movies and radiation, like “Them” and “It Came From Beneath the Sea.” You can have a field day talking about the Vietnam-era films like “The Exorcist,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” the political dimensions associated with that as well, and then we saw a huge surge in zombie films in the early 2000s that coincided a lot, as many people talk about, with Iraq and Afghanistan and all that.
I think there’s something cultural, historical and social about horror films, but I also think what appeals to people is we all have a dark side. And I think sometimes we enjoy letting the dark side out a little and enjoy things we don’t get to normally see or do on a regular basis. When you watch a horror film, you’re safe and comfortable on your couch and you get to watch something terrible happen to someone else. So if you have a bad day, you can sort of unwind by releasing that emotion through a film, which is a lot healthier than getting an axe and taking it to somebody else yourself.
Host: Howie says that his interest in scary movies began at a young age. Probably younger than most others are exposed to them.
Dr. Howarth: My father watched a lot of horror films and I remember being 5 years old in kindergarten and he rented “Jaws” one night. We got ice cream sundaes, sat on the couch and watched “Jaws,” and it was awesome.
I was the only person I think in my kindergarten class who had seen “Jaws” and John Carpenter’s “Halloween,” which I also watched when I was 5 years old. There were a couple scenes where my dad made me close my eyes because of nudity. But I would say in elementary school, I had seen “Halloween,” “Halloween II,” “Halloween III,” I had seen Bob Clark’s “Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things,” I watched “Don’t Look in the Basement,” you know, a lot of those ‘70s exploitation flicks. I couldn’t get enough of them. I thought they were absolutely fantastic.
They were so different from what I was watching normally on TV, cartoons and all that. It was like looking through a mirror into another world.
Host: I asked him what he thinks are the essential horror films everyone should at least have a passing familiarity with.
Dr. Howarth: I think everybody should have an understanding of how important and influential “The Exorcist” was, say, but I’m not sure everyone would want to watch it because it is fairly disturbing and uncomfortable, and it still holds up well today.
I would recommend if people want to watch some horror films, I would say “The Exorcist” is a great movie, I would say some of the Hammer films with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee are great, like “The Horror of Dracula” is a classic that’s worth seeing. I think George C. Scott’s “The Changeling” from 1980 is a great ghost film … I think it’s underrated and not a lot of people have seen it and I highly recommend that one.
One of my favorite horror films is “The Blob,” the remake. I think it’s great. I think it holds up well, I think it gets better with age, the special effects are fantastic. I think it’s far superior to the original with Steve McQueen. To me, that’s an underrated film.
I like “American Werewolf in London,” for people who like a little comedy with their horror, that’s a good one. “The Omen” with Gregory Peck is a classic. If you want to do a double feature with that and “The Exorcist” or even “Rosemary’s Baby,” you can have a creepy children night, which I think would be fun.
When I talk about horror films, I go back even to the ‘20s, “Nosferatu,” the original Dracula, Frankenstein, I like them all. It just depends on what mood you’re into. Sometimes you’re in the mood for a slasher, so maybe you watch “The Prowler,” or “My Bloody Valentine.” “Terror Train” is one I recommend. Have you seen that one, with Jamie Lee Curtis? It’s great. It takes place on a train on New Year’s Eve and there’s a killer aboard. It’s fantastic.
And sometimes you’re in the mood for something that’s a little more vintage, like an old black and white movie with Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi. If you don’t like a lot of blood, a black and white horror film can be just as suspenseful and thrilling.
Host: Howie’s interest in the film world goes beyond just simple enjoyment. His appreciation of the works of the “Master of Suspense,” Alfred Hitchcock, has become an academic pursuit.
Dr. Howarth: I took a film class in college, I have a minor in film studies, and so I studied a lot of Hitchcock in that class. We studied specifically “North by Northwest,” “Psycho” and “The 39 Steps.” I kept watching Hitchcock after that. And when I came to Missouri Southern, I became the area chair for the Alfred Hitchcock panels at the annual Southwest Popular Culture Conference every year, which is in Albuquerque. My job is to basically put out a call for papers, look through the papers, select which ones are chosen to be presented at the conference, put them together by panels.
It’s a lot of fun, because every time I go to the conference, and I hear all these papers about Hitchcock, who is still just as big as when he was alive. You can’t say that about a lot of directors, I think. But I learn so much from the films and from the people who talk about them. Somebody will talk about “Psycho” and how the three floors of Norman Bates’ house represent the three parts of the mind, according to Freud.
A lot of people still borrow heavily from Hitchcock. You talk about “Psycho.” “Psycho” is the granddaddy of all slasher films. John Carpenter’s “Halloween,” that ushered in the ‘80s slasher films we all know, but “Psycho” was a huge part of that. And so is Bob Clark’s “Black Christmas,” which is another film I think a lot of people aren’t familiar with and haven’t seen, but I highly recommend. That was one of the first to use the point-of-view shot.
Host: Speaking of slasher films … Chip Gubera, a former classmate of mine, from all the way back to elementary school, has directed several low-budget, independent horror films, including a zombie musical called “Song of the Dead” and last year’s “Slasher.com.”
The latter is a certain type of film … a romantic cabin in the woods, murderous hillbillies. From that description alone, you’ll know immediately if you’re in the intended audience.
Chip – who teaches at the University of Missouri – is the son of Dr. Conrad Gubera, a professor of sociology now in his 50th year of teaching at Missouri Southern. Not only has he watched his son’s interest in horror films grow over the years, but he’s found himself in front of the camera as well. In Slasher.com, for instance, Dr. Gubera plays Jimmy … a creepy shopkeeper who probably knows the horrific fates awaiting our two leads.
Dr. Conrad Gubera: My son, Chip. He was in junior high school or maybe even before, the sixth grade … and he was always involved in horror movies. One time we sat together when he was a little boy and watched a movie called “Motel Hell.” It was awful, about zombies coming out of the ground, but he had the most acute interest in it. He must have been 6 or 7. And when he was in high school he was really into “Friday the 13th” and you know … Freddy Krueger, “Nightmare on Elm Street,” 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 versions, what have you, and other lesser known films.
And I was like why, are you perverted? And he said ‘No, I just like the production of them. I’m very interested in how they make blood’ … he even listed a number of technicalities like lights and shadows, camera angles and the way bodies fall, and the way they come out of the ground and all that. And I looked at him in sheer amazement. This is a junior high school kid telling me all this. I had never saw it or had any appreciation for it.
So I began looking at horror films in a little bit different way. Forget what’s actually going on and look, for instance, behind the scenes so to speak. And I’ll be damned if he hadn’t enlightened me … I can see this, it’s just an art form. It’s a different art form, but it’s an art form in and of itself.
Host: I asked Dr. Gubera about what it’s like to play a role in front of the camera in his son’s films.
Dr. Conrad Gubera: It’s fun working for your son. When he tells you, when he cracks the whip in front of about two dozen people that are on the set, you know, crew members and so forth, handling the beams and the microphones and the lights and the cameras, and so forth …
When you screw up, he lets you know, he says “Professor, don’t do that.” He never calls me dad, which is good, I thought that’s pretty cool. He never says “Dad!” No, he says “Professor” you know … he gets that tone in his voice like my older sister used to say and I thought uh-oh.
It’s a lot of fun, for instance, just to watch him handle two dozen people at work. He has a clear idea in his mind what he wants from me, what he wants from them and what the outcome’s going to be.
I’m a pretty quick learner. I pretty much realize what he wants to do and then I add my own little things as far as the character is concerned. It’s fun.
Host: He said Chip is already at work on a new project, which will be a horror flick with psychic undertones set in a house in Columbia, Mo. He’ll most likely have a role in that film, as well. Like Howie, Dr. Gubera has his own thoughts on the enduring popularity of horror films.
Dr. Conrad Gubera: I kind of think that we put ourselves into the imagination and empower ourselves by the horror film. It’s good for a couple hours or however long the film lasts and get back to reality.
Host: And that’s it for this episode of MOSOunds. Thanks for listening, and we’ll be back soon with more stories from Lion Country.