Jess' Scary Scale

As anyone who listens to Reel Insight or used to read my old blog, Insight into Entertainment, knows, I don't really like being scared.  But I feel like I'm constantly breaking that rule, so I thought I would explain in a little more detail how I rank scary movies and what really turns me off that often appears in "scary" movies.   I'm such a nerd that I have been thinking about the whole thing as a series of decisions and points (I'm a professor so grading rubrics have become a fact of life).  Ultimately, a movie has to have a score below about 20 before I'll consider seeing it, but a low score in some categories can offset a high score in others.  Also, note that I'm not really talking about movies that would show up as just horror movies (Saw, Hostel, etc.), I won't be seeing those at all. These are for movies that involve at least a little bit of each of these categories. What would your scoring be?

Thrills (1-5) - This is the only category I can handle a 5.  This category usually involves a fair amount of plot in order to keep it going, even if there is a ton of suspense and tension.  That can offset a lot of the other categories because there is something I can focus on other than being afraid.  A movie like Se7en would get a 5 in this category, but Jurassic Park would too and few people would consider that a scary movie.  Se7en has a TON of plot with the investigation and biblical connotations to keep me thinking while they're showing me other scary things. Also, the thriller aspect is not continuous for the entire film - moments of humor or calm are necessary to drive the number down - I can handle it.  That's why I don't think I would like something like Halloween or Nightmare on Elm Street too much sustained suspense.

Violence (1-5) - There are huge differences in what different people find awful about violence.  Some people can't watch any violence against animals.  I have trouble watching sexual violence for very long (that's what did in Monster for me), and scenes with a lot of stylized torture aren't my bag either (there's a scene in Pride and Glory where he stabs someone down the throat and holds it there, ewwww).  So this is a fairly odd category with lots of wiggle room.  Talking about various torture techniques can scare me more than watching it (the trailer for Silence of the Lambs gave me nightmares for years, the actually movie only for 3 nights).  Most "scary" movies I like don't tend to have a lot of violence.

Gore (1-5) - I can actually handle a fair amount of gore.  Cabin in the Woods only bothered me when the "Redneck Zombie Torture Family" actually did a lot of their torture.  The rivers of blood that flow later didn't phase me much.  Also, the nice thing about most gore-filled scenes is that they can be blocked out by closed eyes or sped through with fast forward.  If there's too much gore - or if that gore becomes a creature (see below), it will turn me off.

Creatures (1-5) - I'm fairly unique in the fact that creepy puppets or strange monsters will often scare me more than serious gore or even violence.  I can't watch most of Guillermo del Toro's creatures from Pan's Labyrinth or even Hellboy without getting the hibbie jibbies.  Ghosts and the thrills and jump scares they provide don't often bother me, but when that ghost is actually a little girl with no face and creepy skin, I'll have trouble watching at all.  "The Gentlemen" from Buffy creep me out big time.

Jump scares (#) - Basically, if a movie has more jump scares, the kind where someone actually jumps back or up in their seat, possibly grabs the person next to them or puts up a hand to avoid the screen.  This happens when something unexpected shows up and the director has decided you need to be given a huge dose of adrenaline as you fight the urge to leave the theater.  If there a  lot of these kinds of moments, eventually I can't stand it and likely won't finish the movie.  I don't like being startled enough to make that worth it.  My gold standard here is Jurassic Park: watching the dinosaurs jump out and startle you is offset well by the music and running away that follows it.  There are about 5 jump-scares in this that in a dark theater will raise you out of your seat a bit.

Example Movies I've actually seen:
Jurassic Park - Thrills (5), Violence (2), Gore (1), Creatures (2), Jump scares (5) = 15
Se7en - Thrills (5), Violence (5), Gore (3), Creatures (0), Jump scares (3) = 16
Prometheus - Thrills (4), Violence (2), Gore (2), Creatures (3), Jump scares (2) = 13
Underworld - Thrills (3), Violence (3), Gore (3), Creatures (3), Jump scares (2) = 14
The Others - Thrills (5), Violence (1), Gore (1), Creatures (1), Jump scares (5) = 13
Sean of the Dead - Thrills (3), Violence (3), Gore (4), Creatures (2), Jump scares (2) = 14
Silence of the Lambs - Thrills (5), Violence (4), Gore (3), Creatures (1), Jump scares (3) = 18

Let me know what about these movies bothers you, or why none of this bothers you.  Sometimes it doesn't bother people at all.  I'm just one of those it does.  Maybe I'll grow up someday and it won't scare me anymore.  Stay tuned for a second installment of this post looking at strategies I use to get through really good movies that I think will be really scary.


  1. Good post. There are only two movies I really had a hard time watching and that is "Jaws" and "Irreversible" I get the heebie jeebies whenever I think about either of those flicks.

    1. Thanks! I liked Jaws a lot - Thrills 5, Violence (mostly implied) 3, Gore 2, Creatures 1, Jump Scares 4 = 15

      Haven't seen Irreversible.

    2. I don't want to recomend "Irreversible" because it will highly disturb you. It's a very well directed and acted flick, but it will mess you up. I couldn't sleep for two days after seeing it because every time I closed my eyes I saw the worst parts. It's a very brutal movie

  2. For me, it's almost never about the movie I'm watching. I'm always concerned with how my subconscious will take it. I can probably handle anything (except for the extremely violent items) because I am capable of forcing myself to be removed enough from the viewing to realize it's all fake. I can't always do the same for my subconscious.

    Some of the movies that really let me know that I don't like horror are Psycho and The Shining. Neither one is over-the-top violence and gore, but both have scarred me quite a bit.

    Trying to process limits on your rubric for myself:

    Thrills- less than or equal to 5
    Violence- less than or equal to 4
    Gore- less than or equal to 3
    Creatures- Spiders and demon children force me to say less than or equal to 3 (and believe it or not, I like to avoid vampires, zombies, and anything that even slightly resembles a cannibal when I can)
    Jump Scares- No limit

    Still, I don't know how your rubric can account for why Psycho and The Shining were too much for me since both are well within my limits. I think I'd have to add a category for psychological disturbance for myself.

    1. I was trying to break that apart, but Silence of the Lambs isn't really horribly scary, but it really freaked me out for ages - only movie I've had to sleep with the lights on after as an adult.

      I think perhaps it would be reworking the Thrills category into 2 - one for suspense and one for psychological trauma.


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