Sinister (2012): The most terrifying film of all time...
Sinister is the most terrifying horror film of all time. There’s no argument. Science has decided.
Yes. I’m being facetious—welcome to the Hermanos of Horror.
A study measured the heart rates of viewers watching a series of horror films to see which one got hearts pumping the most.
Let’s look at the top ten:
10. The Visit
9. The Descent
8. The Babdook
7. The Conjuring 2
6. It Follows
5. Paranormal Activity
3. The Conjuring
I’m not going to pull apart this list—and to be clear, I’m not ranting about it. The concept is actually very interesting. Horror is a genre which has a physiological response when we watch it—it makes us afraid, it makes us jump, it makes us scream or gasp with relief. Comedies might make us laugh and tearjerkers might make us…well, tear up, but I think horror hits us harder than any other genre.
So it’s interesting to see which films elicit the biggest response. It surprised me that A Quiet Place came in at number 12—I think it’s the film I’ve had the strongest physical response to, but then this study is looking at heartrate, not a row of cinemagoers all clamping their hands to their mouths in an empathetic silent scream (I imagine that would be hard to measure).
After reading this, I started to wonder how I measure horror films—obviously on the podcast we use our Hermanos of Horror Rating System (out of 10, but broken down into Is it a good film? /3 Did we enjoy it? /2 Would we recommend it? /2 and a Fear Factor /3), but in terms of horror films I’ve not reviewed on the podcast, how do I measure their quality?
One of the most visceral reactions I’ve had to a horror film at the cinema, was also the film that made me realise I needed to immerse myself in horror—not because it was a good film, but because I knew it was a bad film at the same time that it was scaring me silly. That film was The Exorcist: The Beginning.
I can’t explain why this hit me so hard—maybe it’s because I was only just starting to get into horror or maybe it was some deep rooted Catholicism—but I reckon if I’d been hooked up to a machine measuring my heartrate it would have been racing and spiking!
Does this mean I think The Exorcist: The Beginning is a good horror film?
No. It’s not.
Let’s compare it to the film I put at the top of my Top 10 of the 10s list earlier this year: Get Out.
In the study, Get Out came in at 34, nestled between The Shining and Audition (good company). With the exception of that moment towards the end where I felt that horrible stomach drop sensation (if you’ve seen Get Out I’m sure you know the one I mean), I wouldn’t say that my heartrate would have been especially high.
Does this mean Get Out is a less effective horror film than The Exorcist: The Beginning? Of course not.
What Get Out offers is something that I love in horror—it lingers. The horror of Get Out isn’t going away, but I couldn’t say the same for films like Sinister or The Conjuring. This isn’t intended as a slight on those films, I think they’re good. Often, on the podcast, we talk about the overreliance on jump scares, but Leigh Whannel made a good point on Twitter recently: a good jump scare is really difficult to do, it takes skill and truly great jump scares are few and far between.
Sinister and The Conjuring are much better films than The Exorcist: The Beginning, but while I think they’re good horror films, they don’t linger in my head in the same way as Get Out or The Exorcist (number 17) or The Thing (number 25).
Another film from my Top 10 of the 10s list was Hounds of Love and the unrelenting tension of that film I reckon would have made my heart rate shoot up (had I measured it), but while that was a strong reaction, I would say that what put this in my list was the impact it had on me long after the film finished. I’m not sure that there’s a way of measuring this, but I think it’s an important aspect of what makes a great horror film.
I suppose what I'm saying, in a very roundabout way, is that even monitoring how our bodies react to horror, doesn't give you the full picture. It comes back to those questions we talk about on the podcast; what makes a horror film a horror film? what makes a horror film good?
The annoying answer? There's no one thing. It depends on what you want from your horror...