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Fear Factor

Halloween is the perfect time to investigate filmic phobias

By Phil Morehart · October 22nd, 2008 · Movies

Halloween and cinema were made for each other. Open your door to the waves of trickor-treaters or head out to any costume party and you’ll find a mad mass of horror movie monsters staring back at you. And the season isn’t complete without watching and re-watching horror favorites both classic and contemporary to get in that spooky mood.

This year, instead of rolling out the tried-andtrue Halloween horror favorites to get your fright on, try something different and potentially scarier — a filmic phobic immersion.

According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, 19 million people are afflicted with a phobia of some kind, ranging from common fears of heights, flying, spiders and rats to wacky, obscure aversions to everyday things like dolls, children or getting peanut butter stuck to the roof of your mouth (really!).

If you have a fearful predilection, embrace it this Halloween season. Get down in the dirt with your phobia by watching a flick that encapsulates it. The exercise will prove more frightening than the garden-variety vampire, zombie or axe-wielding slasher flick and more immediately real. It might be cathartic, as well, purging or possibly lessening the fear by confronting it face-to-face … or face-to-screen, rather. Triggers inducing such phobias can be found in almost every film. They’re innocuous details for some, but for sufferers of a particular phobia, they’re hellish moments scarier than those found in any horror flick.

For those with acrophobia, or a fear of heights, the first choice is an obvious one. Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Vertigo (1958) perfectly captures the physical and social effects of a phobia — and it’s incredibly entertaining to boot. James Stewart stars as a cop who resigns from the police force after his intense vertigo — an acrophobiclike condition marked by swaying dizziness and disorientation — leads to the death of a fellow officer. He doesn’t stray from detective work for long, as a new case is presented that pushes his phobia to the limit.

Hitchcock’s representation of being trapped in a state of vertigo is so jarring thanks to the forward zoom, or “vertigo affect,” named thus for its use in the film.

By adjusting the zoom lens while the camera dollies toward or away from its subject, foreground and background objects change perspective to create a feeling of falling or extreme disorientation. It’s a trick of the trade employed often in cinema, but it finds its zenith in Vertigo.

For a more contemporary — and arguably more frightening — blast of acrophobic cinema, Man on Wire (2008) fits the bill almost too well. The documentary details French daredevil Philippe Petit’s very illegal 1974 tightrope walk between the World Trade Center’s twin towers, 1,350 feet above the ground sans safety line or net. The footage is gripping and guaranteed to get the heart racing and palms sweating, whether you’re acrophobic or not.

Claustrophobics, people with a fear of being in closed or narrow spaces, already have it rough when going to the movies, as the experience forces them sit in dark theatres often surrounded by masses of people. For those willing to push the limits even further, director Neil Marshall’s stellar horror film The Descent (2005) is a must.

Terrifying for both claustrophobics and everyday viewers alike, The Descent is a harrowing account of a spelunking excursion gone wrong in which a group of female friends stumble upon a clan of blind and
deformed cannibal mutants living deep in an Appalachian cave system.

The creatures are a fright, but it’s the setting that has the most impact. The winding subterranean caves are unyielding, forcing the explorers to cram, crawl and jam themselves through all sorts of tight spots, first for adventure and then to escape certain death. The enveloping darkness only adds to the suffocating sensation, both or the victims and the audience.

Aerophobia, or fear of flying, is one of the most common phobias, and a plethora of cinematic options exist for those under its wing. United 93, Airport 77, Red Eye, Twilight Zone: The Movie and Con Air all depict various degrees of airline turmoil. But, since this is Halloween, inject the phobic with the campily horrific by watching Flight of the Living Dead: Outbreak on a Plane (2007).

Though a groaner, the straight-to-DVD feature about an intercontinental flight from hell still elicits an effective one-two punch. Thunderstorms and turbulence are ominous signs that all is not right with this Los Angeles to Paris jump. But if they aren’t enough to rattle, the passengers-turned-super zombies who make messy meals out of fellow travelers finish the job.

How threatening can a kiss be? If you have philemaphobia, you know the answer to that question. As strange as it might sound, a fear of kissing is a very real phobia. And, as the kiss, kissing or any variation thereof is near inescapable in the movies, philemaphobics should jump straight into the deep end to watch the longest on-screen kiss in film history.

Lasting five minutes and 57 seconds, the kiss between Gregory Smith and Stephanie Sherrin in the high school dramedy Kids in America (2005) is cinema’s longest smooch fest, consciously breaking the three minutes and five seconds set by Jane Wyman and Regis Tommey in the 1941 film You’re in the Army Now. Occurring during the end credits, the liplock is found easily via fast-forward if you’d prefer to skip the predictable teenagers-take-on-the-system preamble.

Fear cuts a large swath. While heights, flights, caves and kisses might not be the things of typical nightmares, their scare potential is undeniable. So, move over from Dracula, Frankenstein, Leatherface,
et al, new monsters are in town this Halloween — and they’re more frightening than you think.



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