With horror a must-see genre again, what's a scaredy-cat to do?

  • Evan Alex, left, Lupita Nyong'o and Shahadi Wright Joseph star in "Us," written, produced and directed by Jordan Peele.

    Evan Alex, left, Lupita Nyong'o and Shahadi Wright Joseph star in "Us," written, produced and directed by Jordan Peele. Courtesy of Claudette Barius/Universal Pictures

 
By Elahe Izadi
Washington Post

My anxiety began eight days before the advanced screening of "Us," Jordan Peele's latest horror movie.

Willingly sitting in a dark movie theater so that horrifying surprises can mentally and emotionally terrorize me? Not my idea of a relaxing time! While it's very cool that I get to watch movies as part of my job, when that involves watching scary ones -- well, I think I deserve some hazard pay, is what I'm saying.

Avoiding the horror genre has become increasingly difficult for anyone into movies and pop culture. In recent years, several films classified as horror have topped critics' lists and won Oscars, sparking talk of it as the new prestige genre. The films have inspired ubiquitous memes, turned into think-piece fodder and received the "Saturday Night Live" treatment.

Between "Get Out," "A Quiet Place," "Hereditary," "Bird Box" and the forthcoming "Midsommar," "Ma" and now "Us," horror has once again gone mainstream.

"As a horror fan and creator, all of us are singing in the streets," says author and university lecturer Tananarive Due.

Meanwhile, us wusses are cowering under our sheets.

"Why am I creating more anxiety when I have enough just getting in my car and driving to work?" wonders Aisha DeBerry, 39. "And then to pay for that? It doesn't make sense."

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Amen. Have you even looked at Twitter today? (It doesn't matter which day you're reading this.)

"The world is kind of a trash fire," says Kelsey Cooper, 26, a John Krasinski and Emily Blunt fan who can't bring herself to watch "A Quiet Place."

"I personally struggle a lot with anxiety," she says. "My brain is constantly telling me to be scared, so seeing a movie where people are dying in horrible ways? My brain is already doing that to me."

"There's plenty of scary things in the world," says Lev Rickards, 37. "Black people get shot by the cops, climate change -- why deliberately go out and seek it?"

People have sought out these thrills for decades, and the genre has had a star turn before, with celebrated films such as 1968′s "Rosemary's Baby" and 1980′s "The Shining." But this time around, the intensity and rapidity of the discussion has been amplified because of the internet, says James Kendrick, a Baylor University professor who teaches a class on horror.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The conversation also includes how to classify these movies. When "Get Out" earned Golden Globe nominations under the comedy category, Peele subversively declared that the movie was actually a documentary. "'Us' is a horror movie," Peele tweeted Sunday, a message that star Lupita Nyong'o reiterated.

"There's become an effort to redefine horror films that are actually critically acclaimed," Kendrick says. "(As though) if they're that good or well-made or thematically prescient they can't be horror, they must be something else."

John Krasinski plays Lee Abbott in "A Quiet Place."
John Krasinski plays Lee Abbott in "A Quiet Place." - Courtesy of Jonny Cournoyer, Paramount Pictures

Horror is more than gore and slasher films, says Due, who executive-produced the documentary "Horror Noire" and teaches a course on "the Sunken Place" (from "Get Out") at the University of California at Los Angeles. "This is a genre that can really help us as a society confront anxieties, fears, transitions, obstacles."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Due loved horror as a child, when watching it was a fun way to be scared within a safe context; with age, it became a therapeutic method to deal with heavier anxieties. It's a lesson she gleaned from her mother, the late civil rights activist Patricia Stephens Due, who was a horror fan; the genre served as an outlet for the racial trauma she endured.

"Headlines scare me. True crime stories scare me. ... Real, human monstrosity is not fun for me to watch," Due says. "When those people are supernatural or when there's a fantasy element, when there's a monster, now I'm ready to watch because the monster in a horror movie can be a stand-in for real-life monstrosity that lets me engage with it from a distance, but also leech out that trauma and expel it in a way that can feel fun."

Fun, you know, like how a roller coaster is supposed to be fun. "You're putting yourself in a situation where your mind and body feels it is in constant danger," Kendrick says. "You're out of control and you're at the mercy of this machine that you strapped yourself into. ... For those who like it, it's the relief at the end that you got through it."

But some of us are roller coaster people, and some of us (myself included) are not.

Many of the faint-of-heart had a childhood horror movie experience that scarred them for life, such as when Abby Green saw "Poltergeist" at age 8. "I don't think I slept for two months," Green says, and horror has been off-limits since. But then "Get Out" came along. Her boyfriend promised to see it with her, but they broke up before she got the chance.

"I think about it all the time," Green, 32, says of the movie. "I feel like I'm one of the only people who hasn't seen it."

Ian Hopper also saw "Poltergeist" in the theater when he was 9 years old (his friend's dad sneaked him in), and he hasn't watched a scary movie in a theater since. "There's a limit. Suspense or thriller movies are fine. But when it gets to the point where I think, you know, I'm probably going to have a nightmare about this, I just figure, why do that to myself?"

And this is a guy who would rather go sky diving twice in one year -- "In the end, it was very short: five minutes of terror, not two hours" -- than plop down in an AMC and watch a horror movie. "I'm aware of how dumb that sounds."

The in-jokes and memes you're missing out on and the proliferation of horror movies with high-profile celebrities make watching them more tempting. "You know it's going to be amazing," warns Betsy Abraham, 29, "but once the movie ends, you're by yourself and you're not left with John Krasinski to defend you."

And it's great that filmmakers are excited about their craft and igniting deeper cultural conversations through horror movies. But it can be a little frustrating for us wimps. "People are saying really interesting and important things -- maybe making important social commentary -- that's hard to watch because I'm a wuss," Rickards says.

Many self-described scaredy-cats will face their fears, particularly with Peele's films, because of the critical buzz and the cultural importance of a black filmmaker creating horror movies starring black people and tackling weighty issues.

"I have this conflict because I want to support Jordan, but I'm completely scared of this genre," says DeBerry, who has been nervous about "Us" for three months but plans to go on opening night with her girlfriends anyway. "Even though I don't know the industry well, I want to send the message that we appreciate you, and that you're breaking barriers and blazing a trail in your own right."

Plus, "so many of my friends are talking about it, and because we're all followers of him, I feel like I'm going to be left out if I don't see it."

Fatemeh Fakhraie, 35, saw "Get Out" in the theater despite her aversion to horror. "I made a conscious decision to vote with my wallet. I wanted to support Jordan Peele and I wanted to help it become a success."

So she "snuggled up against my husband as much as I possibly could, and I just let myself scream when I needed to, and gasp."

That's one way to get through it. Another popular strategy among those with delicate constitutions: reading the entire plot on Wikipedia before stepping foot into a theater. Some of us don't want any spoilers, though -- Hopper wants a website that warns of the severity and nature of the horror within a particular film without giving anything away.

The setting is key, too. Some insist that the movie theater, far from home and among a crowd, feels like the best place to watch a movie. Others say your living room, where you can walk out or hit pause or blast the lights, is the ideal setting for cowards.

Due has her own tips: Constantly tell yourself, "It's only a movie," employ the "tried-and-true trick of covering your eyes at key moments" and binge on scary, real-life news on the day of viewing.

I gave it a go: Driving to see "Us," I listened to NPR stories about Venezuelan sanctions and economists' efforts to place a statistical value on a human life. During the movie's many frights, I looked away, covered my face with a scarf as needed and burrowed my face into my co-worker's shoulder (sorry!).

Two hours later, my nerves slowly settled as I got back into my car. I didn't have to warn anyone about the creepy doppelgängers and scissor-wielding weirdos in "Us" because there were none around. This is real life and that was just a movie.

I turned the car back on and the radio played headlines about a cyclone's death toll and an obscenely expensive sports deal.

The feeling of dread I had while watching "Us" returned, but now it was about the world -- the actual one where I have to live. Are we those blinkered dummies, who don't see the monsters until it's too late?

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