Halloween is one of the best times of year — by default — to watch horror movies. Some would suggest that there is something about confronting what Jung would have called the shadow within us — that unseen aspect or aspects hiding in the shadows of our psyches, influencing us via our unconscious. Some would say that horror movies are cathartic because it is hard-wired within the human animal to need in moments some kind of adrenaline rush that many — unless they are soldiers, first responders, or are systematically exposed to trauma or violence—don’t often have: that heightened state of senses honed, synapses firing to a lesser degree — just activated enough without quite triggering a fight, flight, or freeze response that one would inherently feel in response to very real, mortal danger.
In other words, even the most normal human beings need something to release that natural adrenaline lurking within that sometimes could use a fright response to access it — and hopefully, such release is done in a healthy manner. Rollercoasters are one way — and especially this time of year, during Samhain, Halloween, Dia de los Muertos — horror films are another.
For this occasion, I’m offering some of my favorite films — some I discovered some time ago from the German Expressionist silent era — some from a classic time during the 1960’s and 70’s that bring back childhood memories of having seen them (willingly or unwillingly) thanks to my sisters and unbeknownst to my parents. I know some of these may not be familiar with most audiences, and film fans may agree or disagree, but they’re nevertheless worth a look in case you’re looking for something different than more recent, or more known, classics. Such horror films are effective because they offer a representation of truth — albeit from a dark lens. Whether about power dynamics and society punishing others because of its own paranoia or fear; about people or forces we cannot control and which thereby represent the darker, repressed side of human nature; or the subject of many horror classics — the fear of the supernatural — that which cannot be explained scientifically and thereby reveals aspects of ourselves in response to the unknown; these each tap some part of the human psyche in other moments we can’t or don’t want to see, whether we want to admit to it or not.
In this context, and in this medium — we can assure ourselves that it’s fiction, and we enjoy the release. Look a little deeper, however, and perhaps they pose essential questions that might be good at some point to ponder.
(As a note, some of these can be found on Kanopy.com, for which if you’re in the US and have a library card, you may be able to access instant membership with a series of film credits to watch these and other films.)
Silent Horror Movies
This is a silent film about witchcraft and the occult — and society’s response — through the ages. For those who are non-Christian and adopt a pagan perspective, this can be uncomfortable viewing. Both the perception of witchcraft and the occult can be hard to watch, but it’s worth seeing, especially in realizing how humanity’s inhumanity toward those not adopting “accepted” belief systems has not changed, creating the very kind of perception that incites paranoia and sometimes violence. However, the masterful storytelling here can be appreciated for itself — while forcing the viewer to ask certain questions.
According to the Criterion Collection:
Grave robbing, torture, possessed nuns, and a satanic Sabbath: Benjamin Christensen’s legendary silent film uses a series of dramatic vignettes to explore the scientific hypothesis that the witches of the Middle Ages and early modern era suffered from the same ills as psychiatric patients diagnosed with hysteria in the film’s own time. Far from a dry dissertation on the topic, the film itself is a witches’ brew of the scary, the gross, and the darkly humorous. Christensen’s mix-and-match approach to genre anticipates gothic horror, documentary re-creation, and the essay film, making for an experience unlike anything else in the history of cinema.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
According to Film Forum, this is “[t]he purest expression of Expressionism on film, and perhaps the first true horror classic”…a sentiment seconded by late film critic, Roger Ebert. This is truly an unsettling film from a cinematography and psychological perspective. The synopsis, from Google:
At a carnival in Germany, Francis (Friedrich Feher) and his friend Alan (Rudolf Lettinger) encounter the crazed Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss). The men see Caligari showing off his somnambulist, Cesare (Conrad Veidt), a hypnotized man who the doctor claims can see into the future. Shockingly, Cesare then predicts Alan’s death, and by morning his chilling prophecy has come true — making Cesare the prime suspect. However, is Cesare guilty, or is the doctor controlling him?
The Golem (1915)
While this film exists only in fragments, it was thought to be based on European folklore regarding the creature brought forth by Jewish rabbis to protect their communities from anti-semitism. But like any creature brought to life for one purpose or another by its creator, chances are it will have a will of its own, and the result may not be what was originally intended.
The best and simplest explanation of the plot, according to Wikipedia:
In modern times, an antiques dealer (Henrik Galeen) searching the ruins of a Jewish temple, finds a golem (Paul Wegener), a clay statue that had been brought to life four centuries earlier by a Kabbalist rabbi using a magical amulet to protect the Jewish people from persecution. The dealer resurrects the golem as a servant, but the golem falls in love with Jessica (Lyda Salmonova), the dealer’s daughter. When she does not return his love, the golem goes on a rampage and commits a series of murders.
1960’s and 70’s Horror Movies
Some of these, again, may be old favorites to some, but undiscovered to others. My primary condition in posting them: they scared the hell out of me as a child, often when my sisters were babysitting me and these were either 1) on television, or 2) I had been sneaked by my aforementioned sisters into a drive-in under a blanket in the back seat of the car and I got to watch them.
(One honorable mention: It’s Alive (1974) — which was playing at a creature feature double feature at the drive-in, and which freaked me out enough I had nightmares, after which my parents realized I had been sneaked into the drive-in by my older sisters.)
The Innocents (1961)
This is a classic in regards to its gothic atmosphere and the presence of children who offer a sustained tension and inherent creepiness; based on “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James (whom I will never forgive for the sleepless nights as a child because I read “The Jolly Corner”), a governess (Deborah Kerr) looks after a couple of children who may or may not be affected by supernatural forces.
Lets Scare Jessica to Death (1971)
This is one I watched as part of a double feature — again, you guessed it — while one of my older sisters was babysitting me. It was one of her favorites, so, of course, instead of going to bed, I watched with her. Like most films in which you have a sense memory that goes along with it, there’s still a quality to it now to this day that continues to creep me out (as does the next example, Burnt Offerings)
(Important note before the synopsis: Mental illness is a very real issue — it wasn’t often approached compassionately or well in the past, and today it still carries a stigma. This is why (like with the films Psycho, The Sentinel, or even The Silence of the Lambs) its depiction can be unsettling, especially when partnered with violence. But one thing to note: nothing is more horrific than poor treatment of the vulnerable, in any case. Empowerment can come not just from transcending the vagaries of one’s own illness, but also from transcending the judgment or reaction of others in response to it.)
Newly released from a mental ward, Jessica (Zohra Lampert) hopes to return to life the way it was before her nervous breakdown. But when Jessica moves to a country house with her husband (Barton Heyman) and a close friend (Kevin O’Connor), she finds a mysterious girl living in there who may or may not be a vampire. Jessica’s terror and paranoia resurface as evil forces surround her, making her wonder: Are the visions real or is she slipping back into madness?
Burnt Offerings (1976)
This is one that still has an effect: a haunted (perhaps?) house that seems to have an inherent, psychological effect on the families who rent it. What seems like the most idyllic possible home, it nevertheless slowly takes hold on the psyches of those within it; one’s deepest fears are exposed, amplified, and seem to manifest in the most horrific of ways. For those who know this film, some of the images are iconic and unforgettable — and can also haunt the viewer’s dreams if one isn’t careful.
K.J. Wetherholt is the Publisher/Executive Editor of MIPJ, Humanitas Media Publishing, and Humanitas. She currently also writes about war and humanity, a book about war correspondents on the Western Front during WWI, The Illumination: A Novel of the Great War, re-released Memorial Day, May 27, 2019. An upcoming monograph on the ELN in the Colombian civil war will be published later this year.