Scare Tactics: An interview with Matt Glasby

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Scare Tactics

An interview with The Book of Horror's Matt Glasby

Author Matt Glasby’s latest book delves into the scariest movies ever made and examines what makes them so indelibly terrifying. The Book of Horror: The Anatomy of Fear in Film is out on the 22nd September and available to pre-order now. Horrified‘s Ellis Reed caught up with Matt for a chat about the book and the horror genre in general.

(Horrified) I loved the use of symbols and infographics, especially the line charts. Where did that idea come from?

(Matt Glasby) Thank you. I can only take a tiny bit of credit there because the publishers came up with the idea of using symbols to denote different “scare tactics”, or ways that films seek to frighten us. Then my horror-critic friends Rosie Fletcher and Josh Winning and I spent a fun evening whittling all the possible categories down to just seven.

As well as the “scare tactics”, each of the main films mentioned in the book also has a “scare rating” line chart. This takes the form of a heart-rate monitor measuring the intensity of scares against time elapsed, giving you a sense of what it’s like to actually sit through the film. So for something like It Chapter Two, you’ll get lots of peaks and troughs due to all the jump scares. But if you’re watching something more subtle, like Ring, there are huge spikes when Sadako appears, but the rest of the graph shows a rising sense of dread. All this took ages—but it seemed like a good way to give a 3D picture of how each film works.

The problem when you’re writing about cinema is how to replicate the movie-going experience, so we decided to use lots of symbols and infographics to help achieve that. Obviously, the main visual elements are Barney Bodoano’s fantastic black-and-white illustrations, which are beautiful and terrifying in equal measure.

(H) What kind of reader was at the front of your mind when you wrote this book? For instance: horror fans or film students?

(MG) Horror fans. They’re the most loyal and engaged audience you could ask for. I studied film myself, and I loved it, but if I were to write a book hoping lots of film students would buy it, I’d be in big trouble.

But I also think the best film writing is accessible—because the best films are accessible. It’s a populist medium. Anyone can read Shock Value by Jason Zino, Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman or Your Face Here by Ali Catterall and Simon Wells (three of my favourites), and engage with the ideas inside. It’s the job of a writer to distil things to their essence, to make them digestible. I’ve read all the film student textbooks, and I probably won’t do it again. On the other hand, I must have read Your Face Here ten times.

(H) What’s more important to you as a writer: that someone agrees with your analysis of a film or enjoys reading what you’ve written?

(MG) A very good question, but the most important thing is that people enjoy reading it. Film criticism is closer to an art than a science, so there are no right answers. When you try to collect together the scariest films ever made, it’s a subjective endeavour, however you justify your choices.

For example, in real life I’m probably more scared of ghosts than I am of serial killers—which is pretty stupid when you think about the likelihood of me being attacked by either—so the book reflects that. But I would also argue that supernatural films like The Haunting do more to try and scare us in terms of lighting, sound and set design than something like Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer, so perhaps that’s why I find them scarier. I totally understand if someone disagrees with that and I welcome – polite – debate. That said, if someone I care about disagrees with me entirely, I’d be a bit pissed off.

(H) In your introduction, you describe yourself as an obsessive horror fan for thirty years. Was there a particular scene or scare that really piqued your interest in the genre?

It was more of a slow dawning than a eureka moment. I was a pretty intense child, and I was into things like Stephen King, James Herbert and Alice Cooper way too young. But I do remember videoing Friday the 13th: Part 6 off the TV one night and then watching it the next morning with my poor gran. I don’t think either of us were prepared for quite so much carnage, but I still love that film to this day. Back then it was often a case of reading about horror films before you could see them, due to strict censorship laws and poor availability, so I remember devouring novelisations of things like The Hills Have Eyes 2, then not seeing the film for years. In that case, it was probably a blessing, but I guess it drilled into me that writing about horror films was a valid way to spread the love to people who couldn’t see them.

You also talk about the daunting task of choosing films to include. Were there any you felt bad for not including?

Yes, hundreds. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of great horror films that aren’t included because they just aren’t scary enough. It doesn’t make them bad—often quite the opposite. I love David Cronenberg and David Lynch, but their films simply didn’t fit into the definition of horror I needed to make the book work. However, there’s something very democratic about including films based solely on whether they’re scary or not. It opens up the field to things like Lights Out, which lacks subtlety but really does get the job done. Plus, there are tons of books about “important” horror movies, so they’re not being forgotten.

I loved the “further viewing” suggestions, which, being light on spoilers, were a really nice complement to the detailed analysis of the main text. Are these basically films that didn’t quite make the final list? Or did you have a different thought process for choosing them?

The book was originally meant to represent the 100 scariest films ever made, with 25 main picks, and 75 minor ones. We needed to expand it, so now there are 34 main films, each with three suggestions for further viewing: a not particularly round number of 136. In a different year, some of these secondary films would have made the main list – and I did swap some round after rewatching them – but they’re all worthy of inclusion on their own merits, just a little more obscure or hit-and-miss. This allowed me to shine a light on some great films from around the world that I’d never heard of before, which hopefully makes the book a more useful resource for hardened horror fans.

I definitely share your opinion of the Ring climax, which I saw as a young adult and thought was terrifying. One of my friends just thought it was silly. Why do you think horror is so subjective?

Your friend is either a massive badass, or they’re lying. Just my subjective opinion. It’s interesting because I would have said that you could argue Ring isn’t a great film—there’s some awkward performances, and a lot of the plot relies on people having psychic abilities—but not that it isn’t scary. Besides your friend, it’s difficult to imagine who could watch the climax and not be scared. She’s coming out of the fricking TV for Christ’s sake! I’d be interested to know the circumstances in which your friend saw the film, and what actually does scare them. I remember seeing The Exorcist at a party as a teenager, and everyone was laughing, and I’ve never been able to engage with the film the way everyone else seems to. So maybe the context is more important than the film.

Do you have a favourite and/or least favourite scare tactic?

My favourite “scare tactic” is probably dread. You see it in everything from the ghost stories of M.R. James, which I adore, to films like It Follows, and it’s really powerful. If you can get viewers into a state of dread, you can do anything to them—that’s how The Blair Witch Project manages to be terrifying without showing a single supernatural element on screen. On the other hand, I find that jump scares (which I called The Unexpected in the book) tend to dissipate quite quickly. Still, some of them can be incredibly effective. I leapt out of my seat at the witch-on-the-wardrobe moment in The Conjuring for example. But if your film relies solely on jump scares, it’s probably not going to stand the test of time.

Some modern UK productions and co-productions get mentioned, including three of my favourites: The Borderlands, The Devil’s Doorway and A Dark Song. Given that Horrified will be covering a lot of homegrown horror, do you have any thoughts on the UK industry in particular?

Well, it must be a very tough time to be a film-maker right now. How do you make cinema when the cinemas are closed? I guess we can be cheered that things like Host are happening. I love how quickly horror reflects the times it’s made in. As for those three films you mention, they’re all exceptional, and have lots of things in common. They’re all about how the spectres of ancient faiths affect ordinary people, but they all go in very different directions. The ending of The Borderlands is incredible. I loved the social commentary in The Devil’s Doorway. And A Dark Song was really affecting and original. If we’re making a list of great modern British horrors about the perils of religion, I’d add Saint Maud by Rose Glass to that list. It’s only just coming out now—it’s actually the latest entry in the book—but holy shit it’s scary.

Finally: what’s next for you as a horror critic?

I’m just working up another book proposal: another deep dive into genre cinema, but not horror. Honestly, after watching around 500 horror films over six months, I’m all horror-ed out. But I’ll be back. 

Matt Glasby writes for a number of publications including Total Film and GQ. He’s also the author of The Book of Horror, Britpop Cinema and A-Z Great Directors. Click the image below to pre-order The Book of Horror: The Anatomy of Fear in Film

Ellis Reed

Ellis Reed

To pass the time during lockdown, I decided to write some English ghost stories, which you can read for free on my blog.

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