"Mama" is the scariest movie I’ve ever seen.
Well, it’s really the only scary movie I’ve ever seen. Executive producer Guillermo del Toro lured me in, as "Pan’s Labyrinth" is one of my very favorite films. Actors Jessica Chastain and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (well, at least his cheekbones) added incentive to dig deep for some courage to get freaked out.
While it may seem natural that the horror film genre would appeal to what may appear to be my edgier tastes, I am really just a quivering baby when it comes to scary stuff, so I use the wussy technique of avoidance to cope.
I have early memories of my aversion to self-inflicted terror. I recall childhood visits to ToysRUs with my mother and brothers in early October. I would excitedly rush through the doors anticipating the Barbie aisle, ignorant of the calendar, only to be faced with a wall covered in gory Halloween masks.
I can still see the orange floor to ceiling corkboard; stabbed with holes for hooks to hang these twisted latex visages. I would instantly recoil in terror at the very sight of the chilling display, body overcome with shivers and face wet with tears. A magnetic force pulled me into my mother’s body, using her slight frame to shield me from the visual assault of twisted rubber faces.
The fright lasted for weeks, with me imagining floppy, gooey, dismembered body parts when I would open drawers and closets in what became to me (for a month or so,) my haunted childhood home.
"Mama" brought that all back.
Just as if a horror director set up the scene, I made the mistake of watching the film alone, in a dark, empty house late at night. The typical fog-flooded, spooky music filled scenes that elicit the following types of phrases echoed in my head, "No – handsome hero – don’t go in the woods alone on a cold night!" "No – pretty girl in tight sweater – don’t go into the rundown, cobweb-covered-abandoned Victorian mansion by yourself without a weapon!"
I ended up sleeping on the sofa with all the lights on and reminded my dog that her job was to kill anything that moved. No, I’ve never seen "Psycho," "The Exorcist" or "Halloween." I vaguely recall experimenting with "Nightmare on Elm Street" in the late '80s to satiate my brother’s more violent tastes, but my hands got tired from covering my eyes.
I am still disturbed by visuals and sounds from "Mama," which got me wondering, why would anyone want to deliberately scare the crap out of themselves?
Is there a pleasure that derives from the aftermath of the physiological and psychological response to fear?
Actress Calico Cooper, who has a bevy of horror films on her resume, gave me her expert input. The beautiful, lithe actor says, "I think people love horror films because whether they are terrible and funny or downright bone chilling, they fill our imagination tanks up. Scary movies are scary because we wonder ‘what if that were me?!’"
She had a similar experience to my "Mama" moment with "The Exorcist," which she volunteers wasn't a terribly intimidating movie visually, "like I didn't jump out of my seat every five seconds. BUT, it stayed with me for weeks on end."
"When I was by myself or going to bed, images and the storyline would come back to me and I'd think, "what if that were me? COULD that happen to me?’ And then I'd get up and switch all the lights on and read a Bible verse or two. I believe that type of movie is truly scary, the one that stays with you, messes with your thought process. Oh and the girl’s spinning head didn't hurt either."
I suppose I could Google it, but my general knowledge base and basic instincts tell me that fear releases endorphins, which ultimately are pleasurable. Humans seek endorphin rushes in a myriad of ways, including from – according to the perceptive Ms. Cooper, "the rush of a good startle."
She goes on, "I think humans like to be scared because it's adrenaline. We love it. Will something jump out? Is he gonna die? What is that thing lurking in the shadows?"
She continues, "We like [that rush] from a psychologically driven horror film just as much as the creep-out factor from gory ones. If a filmmaker can incorporate both into a work they become legendary like Wes Craven, Guillermo del Toro and James Wan, just to name a few."
Cooper is also a classically trained dancer and accomplished singer, of which both disciplines require the next ingredient that horror flicks bring about in our state of mind, something that chickens like me chase with yoga and meditation. She says, "Horror films also make us very present which in today's society is a lost state of being. When you are watching a great horror film you are focused on it completely. It commands to be watched or you might be next!"
Cooper’s favorite horror film she’s done is currently in post-production. "Thirty Proof Coil," is about a "a woman who is abducted camping and chained to a post in the middle of a barn. As she begins to starve and wonder why she is there, a mysterious creature lurks outside the door. Is it in her head? Is she being kept to be this thing’s dinner? Or is she even the good guy at all?"
I may have to really rear up some courage for watching that one. At the very least, I’ll have to view it with a group of people I love in daylight hours surrounded by glitter, rainbows and unicorns and then tell happy fairy tales afterwards to ward off any stay-with-me-for-weeks-scary-side effects.
And certainly, it can be terrifying to act in, not just view this genre of the cinema. Cooper has been asked to literally risk life and limb to get the shot for a scene. She recalls being uneasy for an experience with stunt work where she was required to jump through a window on the film, "13-13-13," available now on Netflix.
"I agreed to do it, and then the day came. They set the window up in front of the green screen and I got really nervous. I’m not a stunt woman, but I AM a little crazy, so the director leveled with me. He said, ‘it's sugar glass, but it can cut you. So commit to the jump hard, and don't hesitate.’ Visions of my pierced jugular and reconstructive face surgery danced in my head. But, when he yelled ‘action’ I felt cold tingles all over my body and the next thing I knew, I was crashing thru a window. I lived. But, man – was I scared to death!"
Clearly Cooper is cut from a different cloth. She has a true passion for bloodcurdling gore because the bottom line is; it’s just plain fun for her.
She tells me more about the filming process, "You do a scene where the backwoods axe murderer has just cut your stomach open, and then they call lunch. You have coffee with each other and talk about last week’s episode of ‘Saturday Night Live’ (usually re-enacting the sketches in the previous scene’s bloody costumes.) But, when the cameras are ready to roll again, you get back on the backwoods-axe murderer’s table and he continues to eat your guts while you scream your head off."
So, how does she not live and sleep in constant fright?
"You have to laugh, because if you don't, you WILL get nightmares. I did a movie called ‘Psychophobia’ that we shot in a real abandoned hospital in the middle of nowhere. I was terrified. That place was haunted as all get out. Nobody would leave the well-lit reception room alone. I tried to go into the morgue alone on a dare, and I'm pretty fearless, but when the elevator got to the morgue level, and the door opened, all I saw was pitch black. Then a cold wind rolled into the elevator. Something told me ‘don't you dare get out of this elevator.’ I listened. I went right back up. Whoa ... I just got the goose bumps again six years later!"
And so did I.
That story alone is going to keep me from peaceful sleep. For those bold enough to let Cooper’s extensive cache of films terrorize you this Halloween season, check out her full menu of fright here.
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