Haunted houses have always bemused me. Why do people do it?
The thing is, there is no "it." Haunted houses are not houses of horror. They are a ride, a simulation in the purest postmodern sense. A kind of simulacrum of a thing that never actually existed in the first place.
They appear to be assaults on your limbic system faster than your rational brain can remind you that you're on an amusement park ride. Boo! BANG! splatter! Zzzz. But they never do anything to you, they just do stuff around you. And yet people say they want to walk through "to see how much they can take." Before what?
And that's the point. How much you can take before...nothing. The haunted house might be a poor a simulation of horror, but it is a very real experience of no-defence. A haunted house is an exercise of enforced passivity. It's not the gore or scary face I don't like, it is how stifling and unreal everything is.
You literally have no freedom of action in those places. That's what's actually scary about them - the exhibits can do whatever they want to you and you can't do anything back. An unfiltered experience of fear is the id manifested in reality - the orgy of madness. A nightmare or fantasy that becomes real. But a haunted house only simulates the id through the characters and effects. It isn't a real nightmare, so there is no real collision between fantasy and reality. And so it sort of, just, fails.
The house is really an orgy of the superego. It is a representation of absolute control on the part of the spectator. No matter how much a person wants to instinctively react, the superego suppresses all action. Your body screams to fight or flee. The superego says to do neither.
And it's the denial of your bodies natural right to act on its own survival instinct that makes the houses terrifying. In the head of every spectator runs the instructions: I DON'T CARE HOW SCARED YOU ARE, DO NOTHING! Like a sarcastic neon sign. The manifestation of so much control over yourself to suppress the survival instinct is the real fight. We know the superego is correct, you can't punch the masked creep in the face because he's just an actor, it's all pretend. If you did punch him, the harm you cause is real. So the tension emerges from keeping the superego in charge at all times.
To want to subject yourself to this - let you superego run wild - is very masochistic. Think of the dominant-submissive sadomasochistic relationship. The part people desire is to be victimised in a real way. They want the submissive experience, which is a masochistic desire.
On the other hand, those who sign up to do the scaring want the dom/sadist experience. But that isn't what they get. The dom experience of working for a haunted house is only the simulation of letting one's sadistic id run wild. What's really going on is it's their superego run amok, just like the spectators: DO ONLY THESE THINGS AND ONLY TO THIS EXTENT AND DO NOT DEVIATE IN THE SLIGHTEST OR YOU WILL BE PUNISHED. It's the same instruction set.
Just like in the dom/sub relationship, the sub is really in charge of what the dom can ultimately do. The haunted house is a business operating within normal society and the rules of normal society still apply within it, including morality, norms, tort law, etc. The scary costume guy has to be constantly reigning himself in, supervising his own action, under the threat of dire consequences. Why would anyone want to do that? Because they aren't actually sadists, they are masochists, just like the visitor.
I think what really drives the participation in these places from both sides is the need to let the superego run wild. The haunted house is at bottom an extreme expression of the control and restraint we exert over our baser natures. They are not an extreme expression of our baser natures themselves. It's all about control.
Same goes for horror movies, of which I am not a fan, but the art does something to people.
"Scary" is an overly broad category for horror movies, in the same way that "class" is for politics. It's overexposed like a bad photograph negative. If you're not going for the BOO! shock type surprises, then you'll need to embrace a bit of psychoanalysis. It's all about bypassing the ego, unleashing the id and awing the superego. The audience should be introduced to an anxiety they can never resolve. The successful horror movie should end with the audience muttering: "But... but.... no..."
The best films merge the superego and the id because they show you that control is the monster. A good example is the calm and methodical psychopath Michael Myers, who never runs, never yells, never acts crazy. He is persistent and pacing. He is not ruthless and doesn't kill haphazardly. He is an agent of control that is under control, and yet you fear him. Another example is Hannibal Lecter. This monster isn't feral. He kills because he wants to, because he has concluded it's the logical action. The audience should want to find fault with his logic, but can't, and in this way, the viewer is pitted against himself.
Generic slasher movies in which the monster is a beast are the counterexample. A beast can't be ignored, but walls can be built both in the mind and around the forest. You can set up rules and controls for a beast. It's still fear, sure, but not staring-into-the-abyss fear that allows the audience to identify subconsciously with mutating control while still maintaining anxiety about it.
There are elements of suspense and tension, but those can be communicated effectively through photography as through dialogue. A horror movie should never say too much because information allows the audience to come to some conclusion.
But the social psychology of the audience is important too. The Exorcist doesn't work as well today because modern audiences miss the significance of the profanity. Ask yourself if you understand what makes the average 18-24 male anxious. What would humiliate them? What would crush them? What would dehumanise them? Do you know? What about the average 18-24 female? Is that the same as for the men?
Consider that in most "good" horror movies involving a female lead, even today, the setting is "the nest." The home or the children. When the lead is a male, the horror has to take place where he slays the dragon. Preferably the horror is the world and he typically forsakes the nest. Then there's the audience perspective, generally males. Do women see themselves in the context of the home and children, or is it the men who see the women that way? How much of the anxiety is sex or morality, or how much is it the conceptualised ideas like body image, integrity and isolation in a crowded world (as opposed to isolation in an empty world)?
I think horror movies are very difficult to pull off, maybe more difficult than any other kind of film, because you have to strip out the reason, intellect and civilization and get to the stuff that adults have moved beyond or forgotten. You need the photography to work in concert with the plot and characters and take advantage of the "uncanny valley" - of visual and auditory dissonance. Make it subtle.
The worst are the ones that disgust the audience with gore because then the filmmaker becomes the attacker and the audience becomes the victim. To paraphrase Stephen King, take the audience by the hand and lead them gently around the corner into the Dark.
Did you not find "Lost Highway," "Mulholland Drive," or "Inland Empire" disturbing? What about The Ring? Or The Shining? How about books? Read Jack Ketchum's collection "Peaceable Kingdom." Read Joe Hill's "20th Century Ghosts."
When you get to the scary parts, ask yourself why you are scared by it. What about how the scenes are shot or the sentences written upsets you? If you can understand why something scares you, rest assured that same thing will scare millions of other people for the same reason. We all have similar upbringings and are part of the same culture.
What attracts you to them? Is it some taboo, or the idea that you will cross some line and see things you have not seen before, and explore some dark side? Why do you want to explore your dark side? Have you explored your "light side", your compassion, love for you fellow man? Do you find yourself attracted to a movie such as "Life is Beautiful" because it reveals the inner beauty in all of us? For true insight, you have to ask: What is it about me that ...?
A lot of people who want to explore their darkness only ever explore their darkness, but never ask why they only want to explore that side, and why they lack a desire to explore their other side/s.
Any work of art is worth seeing because it illuminates the human condition intellectually, emotionally, or both. Viewing horror movies reveals to us that there are people who enjoy making them because they like to simulate and show violence, or because they will do anything for money. It also reveals that people really want to see this kind of violence, to see humans depicted as little more than bags of meat for the amusement of other humans.
Maybe for you, this will be troubling, or maybe it will make the beautiful things you see shine that much brighter. But just as a beautiful work of art can inspire you, illuminate your mind, and enrich your experience of the world, an ugly work of art can have the opposite effect.
And my dad told me years ago: remember that some things once seen cannot be unseen.