With All Hallows’ Eve approaching, the Gazette checked in with members of the Harvard community to find out which scary films they love, or love to avoid.
Here are their unsettling choices:
Chair of the Department of Art, Film, and Visual Studies and Professor of Visual and Environmental Studies
“Even today, if I think about the film too long, I become short of breath.”
Bridget Terry Long
Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Saris Professor of Education and Economics
‘Carnival of Souls’
Publicist and Designer, Harvard Film Archive
“Mary is accused of alternately being weird, cold, or hysterical — a hallmark of many horror films in which the woman is the only one aware of the supernatural forces at work.”
One horror film forever lodged in my heart is Herk Harvey’s “Carnival of Souls” (1962): a low-budget, black-and-white chiller in the vein of “Twilight Zone” — a menagerie of socio-psychological terrors using the simplest of means. Its creepiness is only heightened by the awkward acting, odd digressions in the dialogue, barebones sets, and on-location production shots. The film’s eerie silence is punctuated by the suspenseful strains of organ music — recalling old radio plays — and the only special effects are the ghoulish white makeup of those who stalk the lead character, Mary, the sole survivor of a car accident. Played to haunted perfection by Candace Hilligoss in one of her few movie roles, Mary is accused of alternately being weird, cold, or hysterical — a hallmark of many horror films in which the woman is the only one aware of the supernatural forces at work. Yet in this film, she also undergoes a series of beautifully composed, dissociative episodes in which she is completely invisible to everyone she encounters. Unaided by religion or psychoanalysis, she experiences a loneliness and despair reminiscent of those depressed or grieving, ignored or dismissed by the dominant culture, or experiencing existential anxiety in an alienated civilization. Whether hers is a crisis of the undead or one of a lost soul still living, it’s a stark, poetic illustration of the horror of being a modern human … at some point.
‘Carrie,’ ‘Friday the 13th,’ ‘Nightmare on Elm Street,’ ‘The Shining,’ ‘Get Out’
Professor of History, Race and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and the Suzanne Young Murray Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study; Radcliffe Fellow 2019‒2020
My mother was the biggest fan of horror movies and so most of my childhood I had no choice but to become a fan. The earliest scary film I can remember is Stephen King’s “Carrie” (1976), and although I was 4, I’m afraid I may have actually seen it in the theater. That’s how serious a fan she was. The ’80s ushered in a kind of golden era for major Hollywood horror films, from the “Friday the 13th” films to “Nightmare on Elm Street” and its long run. Many of these films were not critically acclaimed, though the first “Nightmare” (1984) by Wes Craven was a New York Times Critic’s Pick. Partly what made them so much fun was sitting in a huge, 1,000-seat theater, sharing the experience of fear and suspense collectively on a gigantic screen. With home viewing and smaller theaters today, watching a horror film is not the same anymore. I’ll also add, looking back, the horror genre played on the Cold War anxieties of the period. These movies fixated on innocence and child murder and the repressed fears and vulnerabilities white suburban kids felt in the safest of places — at home or away at camp. I still watch, but with a more discriminating eye. And I’m introducing classics like “The Shining” (1980) to my kids. My most recent favorite is Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” (2017), which inverted the genre by centering black millennial vulnerability to post-Civil Rights racism.
‘Night of the Hunter’
Jeffrey T. Chambers and Andrea Okamura Professor of History of Art and Architecture
This is an easy one: “The Night of the Hunter” (1955). The film comes as close as anything I have ever seen to an evil fairy tale, filled with what the Romantic poet Gérard de Nerval called “the screams of the fairy.” Robert Mitchum, an ex-con himself, is terrifying as the preacher-villain, and toward the end there is a long, nocturnal chase scene along the river that is one of the more haunting, slow-paced, frightening, and yet somehow magical sequences you will ever see in a film.
Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature
‘The Shining,’ ‘The Exorcist’
Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics
I am too scared to watch horror movies. I still haven’t recovered from “The Shining” and “The Exorcist” (1973) 40 years ago.