by Jen Doll
I am terrible at watching scary movies — even when they’re not that scary.
As a result, I don’t watch many horror movies. I don’t know what happens in Saw 1 or Saw 2 or Saw 6.5 (though I can guess), or any of theHostels or Final Destinations, which frankly seem a bit too much like tempting fate to me. Forget Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer(unless you’re talking about the Lois Duncan book) or even any of those parodies of horror films — too close for comfort. I had to watch John Wick, which isn’t even a scary movie, more just full of suspense and revenge, from behind a pillow, peeping up at times to keep up with the plot. Sometimes while watching a particularly thrilling Law and Order, I have to turn off the TV and open up a book.
Yes, books! Books have never made me run upstairs to hide during a graphic scene or when the music became unbearably nerve-wracking. Books have never caused me to jump out of my seat and try to pretend that I did it on purpose — I’m totally chill, I promise — though they might leave me feeling like I’ve sustained mental whiplash, in the best way possible.
Look, I like books and movies. I believe they should both exist, not that anyone would listen to me if I said they shouldn’t. But right here, right now, I’m going to throw down the gauntlet and say that scary books are better than scary movies, for these reasons:
1. No one gets to see you act like a total wimp with a scary book
When watching something in a theater or group setting, your howls and screeches and OMGs and chair-writhings can’t be hidden, and you may feel a certain amount of shame for yelling “Noooooooooooooo!” when that evil woman tries to kill the dalmatians in that one extremely scary movie. And while you certainly can watch a scary movie alone, we almost neverread books with someone else reading right along with us, unless it’s a children’s book we’re reading to a child (stick with Pat the Bunny). So, when reading one of the many very scary adult books, you can be as scared as you want without ever getting mocked for it, because it’s just between you and your book.
2. With a book, you can stop anytime
When watching a movie, you’ve paid money, and you’re hardly going to walk out of a theater, or maybe you’re with your friends who are not as easily frightened as you and want to see the rest of the night’s chopping-people-up-and-wearing-their-faces ilk. But with a book, as your adrenaline begins to pump at levels you find uncomfortable, you can put your book down, take a break, let your pulse return to normal, and turn in for the night — or, revived, pick up the book again. The pace is yours, and the book is contained (mostly) to the book, providing a combination of comfort and anxiety that’s perfect for good scares. “To really enjoy a scary situation, we have to know we’re in a safe environment,” Dr. Margee Kerr told The Atlantic. “It’s all about triggering the amazing fight-or-flight response to experience the flood of adrenaline, endorphins, and dopamine, but in a completely safe space.” What could be safer than curled up with a good (scary) book?
3. But the premise haunts you long afterward — in a good way
The story in the scary book you’re watching doesn’t really end just because you put the book down. Sure, movies do this too; we continue to think about the good ones after we leave the theater. But since we’ve devoted so much brain energy to picturing things we read about, and since books aren’t confined to two-hour periods of experiential time, they generally do live with us a bit longer, taking twists and turns along the contours of our particular brains. As author Megan Abbott, who does suspense like no other, says, “I think scary books are better at prodding and provoking the unconscious, getting under your skin and staying there. Reading is a more intimate experience, and more attenuated, so it’s a deeper, more tentacled scary.”
Writer, editor, and crime aficionado Sarah Weinman explains, “Unless they are done spectacularly well or also leave plenty of room for the imagination — this is why Hitchcock was such a master, after all — movies visualize everything, and too often it becomes about shock value and grossing the audience out instead of creating a truly suspenseful, scary story.” She adds that while she reads scary books she finds it difficult to watch horror films because, no matter how fake she knows it is, “I have an aversion to watching someone die on camera.”
Or, as Maris Kreizman, editorial director at Book of the Month, says, “Things that are imagined are way better and more scary than things that are seen. Books allow me to interpret what I read in my own head, which is maybe the scariest place on Earth.”
4. You can create your own atmosphere while book-reading
Yeah, yeah, you can dim the lights and add peeled grapes (aka “eyeballs”) to the bottom of your popcorn bowl for creepy movie-watching effect, but your book can go with you anywhere, including to a nice restaurant. Reddit has a fascinating thread that asks “Can books be ‘scary’ in the same way as horror movies?” User egg_song463 points out, “If you want that horror movie feel when you are reading a scary book you have to partially create that atmosphere yourself. Read alone, it doesn’t have to be night but somewhere you can really get into the story and won’t get psychologically pulled out by normal distractions. Reading a scary book alone in the woods is just as bad as watching a horror movie.” You can’t take your scary movie to the woods or to a nearby haunted house, but you can bring a book! Or an e-reader, for that matter. (Chills!) But scariest of all is the fact that you don’t even need an atmosphere for book reading, if the book is good enough. It will do that for you ALL ON ITS OWN.
5. Books came first
Not to get all chicken/egg about this, but how many scary movies have become books? I can’t think of any, but examples of the opposite are all over the place. And while first doesn’t mean better, it does mean the egg was evocative enough to lend power to numerous chickens on the silver screen (this metaphor is getting scary). Plus, when you think about scary books, you can be doubly afraid that one person probably made up that terrifying tale with their solitary messed-up brain. After all, authors are some of the scariest people of all, just after chainsaw-wielding cannibals, zombies, ghosts, vampires, demons, diabolical maniacs, crazed fans, internet commenters, narcissists, bad drivers, and people who leave one-star reviews on Amazon.