Kindergarten.Snack-time.Children quietly convey Chex mix softly rattling across paper plates to their desks.And the one with a wooden chair on her head, a cup half-filled with orange juice balanced on the seat, dancing the Steve Martin “wild and crazy guys” shimmy?That’d be me.Minutes before, I’d told some joke the other kids laughed at.It was all the encouragement I needed to spring my inner funny on them full tilt, let loose and be the me I was at home, the me who invented the make-the-corpse-laugh game and kept a rubber-worm fishing lure in a box with holes cut in it.What could be funnier than that?Except maybe a five-year-old shimmying with a chair on her head balancing a cup of orange juice.

But no one was laughing.I didn’t notice this at first because I was busy whooping it up with my eyes scrunched shut. Then I opened them just enough to see Mrs. Kelly from between the chair struts, closing in fast.She snatched the juice, the chair, and then walked me out into the hallway with her hand clamped down on my shoulder.The lesson I learned while swooshing spit in my cheeks, whiling away my time in solitary confinement: when you try this hard to elicit one very particular emotion from your audience it just doesn’t work.

This is the very reason I’ve never been a big fan of contemporary horror movies, and it’s not for a lack of watching them.I’ve seen the Nightmare on Elm Streets and Halloweens and Screams and Saws and what have you.I give everything a fair shake.But instead of experiencing the stories in a way that could make me genuinely scared by them, all I can usually focus on is the huge effort put forth to frighten.The second I feel blatantly manipulated I cross my arms in resistance.What can I say?I’m a hard sell when it comes to horror. But since I also fancy myself a juice-balancing, chair-wearing life of the party, I can’t very well denounce this mainstay of Halloween festivities entirely.So I’m offering a sort of compromise, a list of five eerie not-necessarily-horror films on behalf of horror-movie deriders everywhere.

Pan’s Labyrinth

Guillermo del Toro’s twisted fairytale set in the chaos of Spain’s civil war made me wish I had a magic piece of chalk with which to draw a doorway to my happy place.The loping, snapping-jawed creature with the eyeballs in his palms still stalks my dreams.I’ve named him Bill.

The Cameraman’s Revenge and Other Fantastic Tales

I first learned of Wladislaw Starewicz from one of the Fantastic Mr. Fox animators, Brad Schiff, who included Starewicz on a list of stop-motion animators serving as inspiration for director Wes Anderson. There’s nothing creepier than seeing vintage footage of cockroaches packing a suitcase or taxidermy cats playing a mandolin through the eyes of someone who didn’t find it creepy at all.


Choose any one of Darren Aronofsky’s films if you’d like to be artfully disturbed, but I choose his first feature-length effort, Pi, because nothing scares me more than math.I really need no explanation as to why lead character Max, plagued by mind-bending equations, wants to drill a hole in his head.


My daughter was once so afraid of buttons I’d have to snip them off her clothes before she’d wear them.“They have a … buttony smell,” she’d say, her nose crinkled in horror.Imagine her delight at seeing the button-eyed Other Mother in Henry Selick’s adaptation of Gaiman’s Coraline! She didn’t sleep for days.In fact, you don’t have to fear buttons, nor be seven years old, to find Coraline unsettling in the best of ways.

Young Frankenstein

I showed this Mel Brooks classic to a group of students once, and on more than one occasion they turned to find me laughing until no sound came out and my mouth went perfectly dry.“How many times have you seen this, and you still find it that funny?” one of them asked me.Oh yeah. There are a handful of movies that definitively prove I’m still six (the age at which I first saw this movie when I probably shouldn’t have), and this is easily one of them.

Bonus Lightning Round:The Crow, Rebecca, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Others, and Let the Right One In.

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TNB Arts and Culture Editor CYNTHIA HAWKINS teaches creative writing at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Most of what she thinks she knows comes from movies, including how to tango, how to take someone down with a ballpoint pen, how to curse in French, and how to catch a moving train. Her work, on movies and otherwise, has appeared in literary journals and magazines such as ESPN the Magazine, Parent:Wise Magazine, The Good Men Project, New World Writing, Strange Horizons, and numerous alternative weeklies and anthologies. You can find Cynthia on Twitter and at cynthiahawkins.net.

67 responses to “Halloween Lite: Same Great Taste, Less Eye Rolling”

  1. Zara Potts says:

    I’m not a big fan of horror movies – my sister made me watch the very worst of them when I was still young and impressionable and I’m afraid I now find horror and blood and guts just a little soul destroying.

    But I do like a good scare.

    ‘The Shining’ still makes the hair on my neck stand up.

    ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ was scary for so many different reasons. That creature was brilliant. Have you seen Del Toro’s ‘The Orphanage?’ – Ugh. That scared me silly.

    I remember when I was much younger, having a boyfriend of similar sensitive nature to myself, and we stumbled across ‘Silence of the Lambs’ one afternoon. We had heard nothing about it and saw Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins on the marquee and thought: “Oh, this will be a nice period drama – Jodie and Anthony and sheep.” How wrong we were. I still remember him leaning across and grabbing my hand during the final moments and asking me to feel how fast his heart was beating. Ha.

    Oh and the biggest horror of all time? Clive Owen.

    • I considered putting Children of Men on here just for you! 😉 I wouldn’t walk to my car alone in the dark after seeing Silence of the Lambs. Every time I see Ted Levine (Buffalo Bill) in anything else, I can only hear him saying, “it puts the lotion on its skin,” in that creepy voice of his. There are several popular ones like that one I’d include on the “scary but not horror film” list, like The Sixth Sense and Seven. The Shining, one of my faves — those spooky twins!

  2. It’s funny how the scariest movies aren’t necessarily the scariest, or even particularly good, but the ones that hit us at our most vulnerable moments. For me, I was absolutely terrified, through a combination of an older sister and a lazy babysitter, by having to watch the following films at far too young an age:

    Horror Hotel, The Gargoyles, Them, Martin, The Birds, Don’t Be Afraid of The Dark (1973), The Fog, and almost every episode of Fantasy Island. (Isn’t it incomprehensible, btw, that a beyond-terrible remake of Fantasy Island has yet to be made?)

    Post-pubescent scary: The Shining, Don’t Look Now, The Tenant, Rosemary’s Baby, Safe, the Dutch version of The Vanishing (Spoorloos), Gothic, and REC.

    • Zara Potts says:

      Older sisters can take the blame for many things, I think.

      I’m still nervous about eating kababs because my sister made me watch ‘Happy Birthday To Me’ where someone gets a meat skewer through the back of the throat…

    • That’s a great list, Sean! I love The Birds — all the Hitchcock films, really, except for reasons I can’t quite figure out I’ve never been fond of Psycho. I wasn’t allowed to watch “Fantasy Island,” but I was allowed to watch films like The Shining. Go figure. My sister and I used to obsessively watch all of those Disney-produced scary movies as well like Watcher in the Woods w/ an aged Bette Davis. Do you remember those?

  3. Stefan Kiesbye says:

    Wrong Turn. You’ll never leave the highway again…

  4. Greg Olear says:

    There’s also the category of horror films that fail and cause you to laugh. What was that movie with Dustin Hoffman as the military guy, Donald Sutherland as the villainous general…OUTBREAK, I think? I watched that with my dad, and he HOWLED with laughter. I mean, Dustin Hoffman in fatigues is pretty damned funny. He’s more believable as a woman. And unlike some slasher flicks, OUTBREAK was not intended to be at all funny.

    Love the new Gravatar!

  5. Richard Cox says:

    Excellent list. I loved Pan’s Labyrinth! And Darren Aronofsky is one of my favorite directors, but I found Requiem for a Dream more disturbing, personally. I loved that you included him, though.

    Although The Shining film is not the novel, or even fairly close, it succeeds in a different way. It was spooky. I saw that was mentioned in the comments above. As an adult the scariest scene to me is the zoom in on the guy in the plushie suit blowing the guy in the tuxedo or whatever, and then they look straight at the camera. Yeesh.

    But honestly, as an adult, I can’t remember ever being frightened while watching a film. Which is too bad. I hate that I’ve lost that particular sense of wonder, but I have. Even Silence of the Lambs just seems like a good thriller to me.

    P.S. Another film that scared the bejeebus out of me as a kid was the Donald Sutherland version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I’d never seen the other one, but as a kid when the woman finds him and he opens his mouth and hisses at her, that made my hair stand on end. I think I was ten or twelve when I saw that.

    • Two really good calls, Richard: Requiem was truly terrifying. And the Spock/Sutherland/Karen Allen Body Snatchers was great. I actually own the soundtrack to that, and it’s totally disconcerting all on its own. The creepy little dog with the guy’s face was a staple of my stay-out-of-the-basement years.

      • Richard Cox says:

        Thanks, man. I don’t own the Body Snatchers soundtrack, but I do own the DVD, and I couldn’t resist putting it in last night. I’m surprised how well that film holds up even now.

    • Did you like The Wrestler? That one surprised me by haunting me for days (I’ve decided Aronofsky just has that knack no matter what he tackles). So depressing, that guy and the whole second-tier (or is it more like fifth or sixth?) world of wrestling. I agree, though. Requiem wins on the scale of disturbing Aronofsky films so far. I figured Pi might be one of those that gets forgotten unless someone like me mentions it.

      • Richard Cox says:

        I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t seen The Wrestler yet. When The Fountain was released on DVD I purchased it sight unseen, convinced I would love it, and I didn’t love it. I don’t even think I finished it. So now I’ve had The Wrestler on my Netflix queue for a while but keep letting it slide.

        So I’ll go ahead and move it up now. If I could pick anyone to direct my books as films, it would be him.

        • Richard Cox says:

          Also, you can derive hours of entertainment from reading Amazon reviews. I was looking back at Requiem and in less than a minute I came across two great lines:

          “A guided tour through Hell.”


          “If you like this film, I recommend The Faces of Death series.”


        • Ha! Those are hilarious comments. Faces of Death, heh. I’ve actually seen one of those … in Speech and Debate class in the 8th grade (!).

          It took me awhile to get around to watching The Wrestler, so no shame in that. The Fountain, not his best but still really depressing and disturbing. Also, a gorgeous score by Clint Mansell and some great visuals. If I hadn’t had to see it for a review, I’m not so sure I would have hung in there for the end either.

    • There are four Invasion of the Body Snatchers films – the 1956 original’s pretty effective, the ’78 version is indeed mega – and that final scene, damn…I haven’t seen Abel Ferrara’s 1993 Body Snatchers, and 2007’s The Invasion, with Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman, is apparently rather dull.

      Donald Sutherland’s probably my favourite actor. Jack Bauer’s all very well, but Donald’s the daddy.

  6. Ben Loory says:

    i’d go the other way, into true horror– night and fog, grizzly man, capturing the friedmans, dark days, and, oh god, deliver us from evil. an inconvenient truth is pretty fucking scary, too. way too scary for halloween.

  7. M.J. Fievre says:

    I am a HUGE fan of horror movies. It’s a shame they’re getting to be so formulaic… I’m happy to see Coraline on your list. The book was fabulous, and the movie adaptation is quite good.

    • Love Neil Gaiman’s work. My daughter and I just finished The Graveyard Book.

      Okay, M.J., name names. Which horror films are your favorites? I tend to like the classics, the the better of the Stephen King adaptations, and … oh, you know which fairly recent horror film I did like? Death Proof. Its Grindhouse partner Planet Terror was abysmal, though, and I usually love Rodriguez’s schlockiness. I mean, how could a movie starring Rose McGowan with a machine gun leg go so very wrong?

  8. Gloria says:

    The first two paragraphs of this are genius, Cynthia. I’ve been away from these boards more than present lately, and I’m so glad I stopped in tonight!

    Your list is fantastic. I’ll probably not see Pan’s Labrynth. I’ve heard it’s brilliant, but it would freak me out. When my daughter was eight, she watched The Sixth Sense and it kept her awake at night for two months. Me, too. I’m no good with horror. But Young Frankenstein is so wonderful. Can I add Love at First Bite to this list. Man, I loved that movie when I was a kid.

    The story of your daughter describing her clothes as smelling buttony is god damned hilarious.

    I enjoyed this so much!

    • Oh, thanks Gloria! I was worrying about how those paragraphs were working. You know, being a natural born entertainer (ha!) I felt I had to have a snazzy opening act before starting in on the list.

  9. Something about stop-animation can be, when not being used for comic effect, incredibly creepy to me. It’s those jerky movements that are both blatantly artificial and very real at the same time. For instance, the Medusa from the original Clash of the Titans is infinitely scarier to me than the CGI Medusa from the recent remake. Though the eyeballs-in-hands guy (your Bill) from Pan’s Labyrinth or the button-eyed mother of Coraline are probably more frightening than either of them.

    So I’ll have to watch The Cameraman’s Revenge now too, if I can work up the nerve.

    • I agree, and the Starewicz films were made between 1912 and 1930, I think, so the dark, scratchy film quality makes them even creepier. The best one on there is “The Mascot” featuring his handmade puppets … which are supposed to be cute but skew slighlty more terrifying than cute. Oh you must see it if you want a good scare!

  10. D.R. Haney says:

    I too like Requiem for a Dream, though I don’t think of it as a horror film. In that department, I’m partial to Rosemary’s Baby (which has, I think, the best dream sequence I’ve ever seen), as well as Psycho. I also have a weakness for the old Hammer movies, such as Curse of the Werewolf, with Oliver Reed, and for Italian horror movies from the sixties, like Nightmare Castle, with the underrated Barbara Steele. Here’s a link to the trailer:


    And here’s a trailer for Curse of the Werewolf:


    I get a kick out of trailers for bad movies, especially horror movies. They’re much better than the movies themselves, just as the covers of old pulp novels are better than what’s inside.

    • These trailers are terrific! I am completely unfamiliar with Italian horror films of the sixties, but I just found Nightmare Castle on Netflix streaming so there’s hope for me yet.

    • Matt says:

      Hammer is staging itself to make a major comeback. Their English-language adaptation of Let the Right One In (which, according to both reviews and word-of-mouth, is actually pretty good) is apparently just the first entry; they have several more projects in various stages of production, including a remake of one of the Peter Cushing pictures.

      • I saw Let Me In and Let the Right One In back to back, and I really liked them both for different reasons. Did you see one or both? I’m curious what others think about one over the other.

        Above, I included Let the Right One In because there was less gore, more left to the imagination, which I thought might make it a little more appealing to those who just don’t like horror films. Strangely enough, when I was watching these I didn’t think of them as being horror films. Maybe because they were both more invested in the characters than in the horror aspects.

        Let Me In was definitely darker, more intense (the whole car crash scene left me breathless!), and there were such wonderfully narrowed, claustrophobic perspectives throughout. Also, I much preferred the boy actor in this one, though I preferred the girl actor of Let the Right One In. Chloe Moretz is fantastic, but her performance seemed to have a completely different vibe than Leandersson’s.

        I didn’t even catch that it was a Hammer production. For shame!

        • Matt says:

          I haven’t seen Let Me In yet. I was dubious, having loved the Swedish original so much, but all the positive word of mouth have convinced me it’s worth catching. Finding the time has just been difficult, but I might be able to manage it this weekend.

        • I was hesitant because it annoys me that people in general won’t read subtitles (thereby prompting the English-language remakes to begin w/, I’m guessing). But this one has a lot going for it.

  11. Matt says:

    I only have a moment, as I’m swamped right now, but I wanted to drop a note on this. Nice list, Cynthia.

    Pan’s Labyrinth is in my Top 10, for sure. Have you seen the companion film to it Del Toro made earlier in the decade, The Devil’s Backbone? It’s the “boy’s story” to Pan’s “girl’s story.”

    I saw Bram Stoker’s Dracula when I was about 12 or 13, and I’ll admit that at times it scared the daylights out of me. Not in the leap-off-the-couch kind, but because it was so damn eerie (environment was also a factor: it was autumn, and I was alone in a large dark house). This, coupled with the overt eroticism, made the the film an overwhelming sensory experience for me; I was simultaneously terrified and aroused – not a bad metaphor for the early pubescent experience, I suppose.

    I think the makers of many modern horror films have swapped substance for shock and gore; disposable characters getting acting stupidly so they can be splattered across the screen. They forget that the best horror films work in much the same way the best sci-fi does: as social commentary. I mentioned puberty just now; The Exorcist is, on a subtextual level, about how utterly terrifying puberty can be for both adult and child. Romero’s original Dawn of the Dead is a massive indictment of the then-fledgling consumer culture.

    A sense of internal logic is key, too. People have told me The Ring is the scariest movie they’ve ever seen, but for me the entire thing falls apart due to how utterly arbitrary every supernatural event in it is (this goes double for The Grudge). The best ghost stories – recent examples being The Orphanage and The Others – tick along the inexorable logic of an antique mechanical clock. Same with, say, Carpenter’s The Thing: it sets the rules for itself early on and follows them to their only logical conclusion.

    I still hold a huge place in my heart for the original Nosferatu (and it’s sly “homage” Shadow of the Vampire). I know no one one really watches old b&w silent movies anymore(and it’s foreign – an even bigger black mark!), but the utter, inhuman stillness of Max Schrek’s Count Orlock never fails to creep me right the hell out.

  12. Simon Smithson says:

    My (Peruvian) Spanish teacher was telling me how she and her husband were out at a busy Mexican restaurant and her husband, drunk and happy, wandered over to a table, double-took, and shouted out across the restaurant (in Spanish) to her: ‘Hey! Hey this guy looks just like Benicio del Toro!’

    The guy turned round and yelled ‘Benicio, o Guillermo, cabron?’

    Her husband looked again and yelled ‘Lo siento! Guillermo! No Benicio! Guillermo!

    ‘That’s better,’ Guillermo del Toro said, and then bought them drinks and took them on a studio tour the next day.

    I can’t remember the last time I saw a film that really scared me (a horror, that is). The Grudge, maybe. Or The Ring. But those were both a while back.

    The Lost Boys is one of my favourite Hallowe’en movies to see.

    There’s an old Disney Hallowe’en special I remember, where the creepy voice-over starts with ‘It was Hallowe’en, and some of… the boys… decided to get together for a blow-out…’ And then, of course, it’s ghosts and ghouls and demons flying through the air in that old-school (and incredibly spooky) black and white animation that has that strange kind of eerie fluidity.

    Having looked, I can’t find it, so, here’s this instead!


  13. Gregory Messina says:

    Hi Cynthia,

    From your list, I have only seen Young Frank so I best get my act together. I only glanced through the comments but gather people are telling you to see this movie or that movie. Well, have you seen a French film called ILS? It came out a few years ago and I loved it. Scary in a classically Hitchcock way, like THE OTHERS. If you can netflix it, I’d be curious to hear what you think.

  14. Irene Zion says:

    I’m terrified of horror movies.
    I’m sure I’ll get scared enough to have a heart attack!
    But I can always watch anything done by Guillermo del Toro.
    He’s a genius.

  15. angela says:

    i always love your movie pieces, cynthia!

    loved Pan’s Labyrinth, Coraline, and The Others. Let the Right One In is probably one of my most favorite movies of all time. i’m wary of the American version, but now reading Matt’s comment, I’m curious to see it.

    David Lynch movies usually succeed in scaring the bejeesus out of me for no good reason. like in Mulholland Drive when that creepy, kind of homeless guy pops his head out from behind the wall – why is that scary? it’s just dirty-faced dude popping out for a second. and yet it creeps me out to no end.

    The Shining used to scare me till i saw it in a theater for the first time a couple of years ago. everyone kept laughing at Jack Nicholson’s priceless expressions, which take away the horror for me.

    but those twin girls are still rather terrifying.

  16. I only saw Pi recently, and I’m glad I didn’t know anything more than “It’s a Jewish mathematical thriller” – because everybody who writes about it seems compelled to mention the head drilling thing. It’s the penultimate scene! It’s jaw-dropping! It’s fantastic – not gratuitous, fairly graphic, unexpected, and a strangely funny and triumphant solution to Max’s problems. I had to rewind and watch it frame by frame, thinking How did they do that? too. I think I worked it out.

    “…nothing scares me more than math.” – that statement scares me! To me, that’s like being scared of air. Math(s) is your friend. Math(s) is everywhere.


    The image with the Slinky spring – that scene’s not in the film, but it’s on the DVD box.

    Angela mentions Lynch. How about Eraserhead for a depiction of what nightmares are really like?

    I saw Jacob’s Ladder at the cinema when it came out, and that was quite frightening (rather than thrilling, tense, intriguing or disgusting). The scares relied on distortions of, or departures from, reality (not particularly subtle), and very fast (for the time) cutting; it invoked a strong feeling of uncertainty, a “What’s going on?” disquiet, which was exactly what the lead character (Tim Robbins) was experiencing. Highly effective on the big screen in 1990; probably fairly unremarkable now.

    Aaand…stop motion. Jan Svankmajer can be unnerving, the Brothers Quay can also produce a convincing dream atmosphere; but here’s an early ’90s British thing called Toxic. I saw it once and never forgot it; a few years ago I tried (unsuccessfully) to contact the director through IMDB – then it appeared on YouTube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HfDBFX8s4cY

    • Blargh! Sorry Steve. I debated whether or not to put that, actually, so I comprimised w/ myself by using the phrasing “wants to drill a hole in his head” instead of “drills a hole in his head.” I hate spoilers though. Sorry to all else! Glad you saw Pi unspoiled though 😉

      But I *am* afraid of air.

      I haven’t seen Jacob’s Ladder in ages. May add this to my queue.

      Thanks for the link! Checking it out now ….

  17. Becky Palapala says:

    I’m sooooo tardy to this, but I just wanted to say that I fell in love with Guillermo del Toro when I saw Hellboy II: The Golden Army.

    Ridiculous, I know.

    I’d heard of Pan’s Labyrinth a million times and never saw it because it looked too damn scary. I’m a visually sensitive movie-watcher, and for me, there’s a fine line between delightfully weird and total aesthetic terror leading to psychological derangement and/or neuroses. The worst horror movie in the world will absolutely terrify me if the images are disturbing enough (Silent Hill is a good example).

    Then again, the absolute worst movie period can also end up a cherished favorite of mine if it’s interesting enough to look at. (See: 300.)

    I always assumed Pan’s Labyrinth fell in the former category, but after I saw Golden Army (which sneaked in under my radar for being a comic book movie), I was converted. Now I just have to get around to watching the damn thing…

    • Thanks to Pan’s Labyrinth, I have trouble cooking with ginger root. That’s all I’m saying.

      I wondered about the Hellboys, particularly The Golden Army because it looks visually impressive. I’m not sure how I haven’t seen that. I usually see all of the comic-book/graphic novel related flicks. Even The Watchmen (ugh).

  18. Gloria says:

    I thought you’d be interested in this:


    Which brings up an interesting point for me: I hate horror movies, but I love Creepshow. I wonder why that is. You’re the movie lady, Cynthia. Maybe you can help answer this. See, I also love Alfred Hitchcock Presents and anything Twilight Zone or Outer Limits. I don’t mind being freaked out. I would even argue that these movies and shows that I love are superior to standard horror movies precisely because they’re able to freak me out with out cheap tricks or gore. I don’t know. It’s early. I had to be to work at 7:00. I’m tired. And I read this first thing and thought of you.

    Hi Cynthia!

    • Ooh, I loved Creepshow, Hitchcock Presents, Twilight Zone, and Outer Limits as well. I would agree that these go for the psychological scare over the gore — which is always bound to make a bigger impact on me. Whenever I think of Creepshow, I always think first and foremost of the “buried in the beach as the tide slowly rolls in” scene. Eeee. Being an enigma of contradictions myself, I’m sure I can’t figure either of us out, ha! I noticed most of Eli Roth’s choices were kitschy and dated. I think he wants to be Tarantino when he grows up.

      Hi Gloria!

  19. […] often writes about the cinema, hipping us on which new Westerns are worth seeing, which films you should check out on Halloween, and what you should watch instead of Charlie St. Cloud (other than, you know, […]

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