In her bathroom, a young woman draws the tub water and flosses her teeth. Turning to the mirror, she is startled to see that her mouth has been sewed shut with the floss. As the tub overflows, some power lifts her body a few feet into the air, then smashes her skull against the porcelain sink. She’s the latest victim of the demonic forces in Ouija.
We go to the movies to laugh, to cry, to fall in love, to enjoy superhero shenanigans and (at least around Oscar time) to feel the social uplift of brilliant, tortured souls. But we also go to be scared witless. The theater lights go down for a horror film, and we are in an old dark house with only a screen full of dire threats to gaze at. Atavistic fear mechanisms kick in as the heroine–poor plucky, vulnerable girl–walks toward the awful menace awaiting her. We share her tremors, feel a clutching of the gut. We’d look away in terror, except that terror is why we’re here: for the lure of cinematic roadkill. We can’t watch; we must watch. Especially around Halloween, when every sick trick is a movie treat.
Horror movies are a rite of passage audiences never outgrow. And for that, Hollywood is grateful. Film genres come and go–the musical, the western–but horror is forever. The fright that silent-film audiences felt in watching Lon Chaney’s grotesque artistry in The Phantom of the Opera and that seized moviegoers of the ’30s at Universal’s Frankenstein and Dracula movies is the same dread impulse that packed multiplexes in Octobers of the past decade for the Saw and Paranormal Activity franchises. Because they can be made on the cheapest of the cheap, horror films are both a sensible way for ambitious directors to begin a career (Francis Ford Coppola’s Dementia 13, James Cameron’s Piranha II) and a smart bet for frugal producers.
Horror, with its visceral, not verbal, appeal, also travels well. “If you’ve designed a picture correctly,” said Alfred Hitchcock, whose Psycho in 1960 reworked the horror template, “the Japanese audience should scream at the same time as the Indian audience.” And so it does. Last year’s inexpensive ghostbusters drama The Conjuring scared up $137.4 million in North America and an oversize $180.6 million abroad.
Jason Blum, a producer of the new Ouija, is the current king of microbudget horror. He began in 2009 with Paranormal Activity, made for a ludicrously thrifty $15,000. The five PA movies so far, with a combined budget of $18 million, have earned $812 million at the global box office. Add Blum’s two Insidious films and two more in The Purge series and you have nine films that cost $36.5 million to produce and have amassed a theatrical gross of $1.27 billion, or 35 times the minuscule investment in them.
Yet the first nine months of 2014 saw a draining of moviegoers’ bloodlust. Except for The Purge: Anarchy, no horror film earned as much as $20 million in its opening weekend or $35 million in its full domestic run. For movie executives, that was pretty scary. So was the prospect of an October–the prime month for horror ever since John Carpenter’s Halloween in 1978–without an entry in the old, reliable, now exhausted Saw and Paranormal Activity series. Like fretful kids before Christmas, the moguls prayed that, somehow, this Spooktober would fill their stockings with cash.
Annabelle to the rescue. Costing $6.5 million to produce and billed as a prequel to The Conjuring–though it features no characters from that film except its possibly demonic doll–Annabelle scored a $37.1 million first weekend and within 17 days earned $74 million at North American theaters and an additional $92 million abroad. Supervised by James Wan, who directed the first Saw film and both chapters of Insidious, Annabelle made its money the old-fashioned way: not with a sado master inflicting severest bodily harm but with the hint of ghosts and devils.
Set in Los Angeles in 1969, this tale of a young wife battling satanic forces is an informal remake of Rosemary’s Baby, Roman Polanski’s 1968 horror classic–but with a weird twist. Screenwriter Gary Dauberman added aspects of the Charles Manson cultists, who in 1969 invaded the Benedict Canyon home of Polanski’s wife Sharon Tate, then eight months pregnant with the couple’s child, and slaughtered her and four others. The new movie’s Mia (Annabelle Wallis), eight months pregnant, survives an attack by a Manson-type gang; later, she and her baby are stalked by an avatar of the devil. The film has some effectively frightening scenes, but the pitch meeting must have been even creepier.
Toys R What Scare Us
In Annabelle, nobody says the F word. There’s no nudity or spilled guts. Yet the Motion Picture Association of America gave the film an R rating, “for intense sequences of disturbing violence and terror.” That’s not a warning; that’s a come-on. Annabelle delivers by following the genre’s Rule 1: waiting for the Thing is scarier than seeing the Thing–suspense trumps shock. The sight of a baby in peril on the floor as a malevolent specter pushes books off the shelves above her plays to a viewer’s two warring instincts: to protect the innocent and to envision the unthinkable. We waver between being Mother Teresa and seeing Mother Bates.
The horror month that began with Annabelle reaches its pre-Halloween fear quotient with Ouija, another movie that warns kids against playing with old toys. (Also: Don’t floss!) When teenage Debbie (Shelley Hennig) hangs herself after consulting a Ouija board, her lifelong bestie Laine (Olivia Cooke) thinks she can use the board to connect with Debbie. She gets the message “Hi friend,” but it may be from some other restless spirit–perhaps a child killed by her mother in the same house. As Laine’s friends die in generically gruesome ways, she finds it hard to believe what one of them had assured her: that “it’s only a game.”
Horror movies are a game too, and often the same game. Like Annabelle director John R. Leonetti, Ouija’s Stiles White renounces the faux-found-footage, shaky-cam style that began with The Blair Witch Project and has become discredited through overuse. It’s nice to see a horror film that doesn’t look like a home movie. But both Annabelle and Ouija dabble in many familiar scare tactics: doors mysteriously creaking open or slamming shut, chandeliers swaying, stove burners spontaneously igniting. (And a doll.) In a dark house, nobody thinks to turn on the lights or employ the buddy system when entering a room where evil lurks. Above all, why don’t the besieged heroines throw out the toy that causes such trouble? Because they’re in a horror movie.
After a below-par early summer, the North American box office sprang to ghostly, zombie life with Annabelle and other October chillers–not just Dracula Untold, which provided an origin story for the vampire, but Gone Girl, a horror story about marriage and arguably the all-time most haunting date-night movie.
That’s the coolest thing about the horror film: it’s a communal experience that its fans have to see in theaters. Sure, you can cuddle up with an Annabelle or a Ouija at home, but there you’re in charge of the remote. Better to be at the mercy of the projectionist, to be frightened en masse–in Japan or India or the U.S.–and feel the seismic jolt of your audience jumping with fear as one quivering organism. You’ve gotta be there to be scared.
This appears in the November 03, 2014 issue of TIME.