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What makes a movie scary? One of the greatest of all theoreticians of human terror, Sigmund Freud, defined fright — as opposed to fear or anxiety — as “the condition to which one is reduced if one encounters a danger without being prepared for it; it lays stress on the element of surprise.”
The scariest movies are therefore the ones that surprise as the most.
Some of them do it cheaply and easily, using jump scares — a guy popping out of a door with a knife and a mask — that rely on enhanced sound design and music cues to make us leap from our seats. But the truly scary films, including all of those on this list, are the ones that surprise us with their originality and audacity, whether in taking us toward the unknown and the unsettling, toward something horribly new, or else by taking things so far that all we want to do is stop watching — although we can’t.
Freud’s definition comes from his seminal book Beyond the Pleasure Principle, in which he described the death drive that is as much a part of human nature as the need for pleasure. Scary movies seem to inhabit both desires at the same time: We drive toward death while taking pleasure in the fact that it’s only happening on screen, which is why people both scream and laugh at a film’s most frightening moments.
And yet, the scariest of all movies go one step further, crossing the border between fiction and reality to make us believe that what we’re seeing is not only real, but that it could happen to any of us.
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