Bloodless Terror: Horror for the Squeamish

Horror movies can be… intense. I’ve been watching them for as long as I’ve been watching, well, anything, and even I can get a little overwhelmed at times. Especially now, in the wake of the “torture porn” wave of the early-to-mid 2000s which saw the rise of franchises like Saw and Hostel, violence and gore in horror movies can make some films downright inaccessible to those who are especially susceptible to that sort of content.

We all have different tastes, and some people don’t have a stomach for blood and guts. Which, of course, is totally understandable. I myself can’t stand the sight of blood in real life, and have a really hard time with some of the more over-the-top carnage that’s put front-and-center in a lot of today’s edgier horror films. Especially when it’s done in a hyper-realistic fashion, which seems to be very much in vogue right now.

Give me a zombie getting its head blown off, or a scantily-clad coed being decapitated by a man in a hockey mask, and I’m fine. Show me someone getting their fingernails ripped out, or their eyes poked with razorblades, and I’m shielding my eyes and asking you to tell me when it’s over.

But, luckily, horror is such a vast and sweeping genre that there’s a little something for everyone out there, even the squeamish. For those of you who love being scared but hate the bloodshed, here’s a few options for your Halloween marathoning that won’t turn your stomach:

The Orphanage

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is one of the stupidest, bottom-of-the-barrel terrible films I have ever had the misfortune of paying money to see in a theater. Imagine my surprise, during the credits, when I see a familiar name roll by as the director of that multi-million dollar dumpster fire: J.A. Bayona. And it just makes me so, so sad. Previously, Bayona had directed one of my favorite ghost stories of all time, the Spanish-language haunted-house drama The Orphanage. Released a good decade before Bayona ever decided to dip his toes into the prehistoric, The Orphanage is a hauntingly beautiful, heart-breakingly tragic tale of loss and pain centered on, as you can probably guess, a recently-reopened orphanage. Ambiance is the name of the game here, and the film has it in spades. It’s moody, it’s creepy, it’s complex and intelligent, and by the end, after you’re finished being scared, you’ll be bawling your eyes out. A little subtlety and subtext can go a long way, and in The Orphanage, it’s what makes the experience so magically effective. It’s horror in the classical, gothic sense, and is easily one of the best examples of why foreign horror often does things so much better than us Americans. If you’re a fan of del Toro-style dark fairytales, this is for you. Just don’t expect a happy ending.

The Babadook

This film got a fair amount of buzz back in 2014 when it was first released, and yet still seems to have flown beneath a lot of people’s radars. Which is a shame, because this is a fantastically tense and atmospheric little movie, which builds off of similar themes of emotional pain and loss as The Orphanage. The story of a widowed mother and her troubled, behaviorally-erratic son, The Babadook is one of those films that will have you guessing until the end the true nature of its malevolent supernatural antagonist. Is it really a villainous entity from a cursed children’s story, or is it simply the manifestation of repressed grief bubbling up to the surface and making the characters crazy? I won’t spoil it here, but its wonderfully complex and open-ended enough to allow for multiple interpretations, which in my opinion is the bets kind of ghost story. Amazing performances from both the leads as well as incredibly frightening cinematography and practical effects make this one of the most adrenaline-inducing and ultimately moving horror films in recent memory. Just maybe avoid this one if you can’t stand kids, because the young actor who plays the son here, while extremely talented, is a lot to deal with.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

I was pretty much as obsessed with horror as a kid as I am now, which probably goes a long way to explaining how frankly messed up in the head I turned out to be. Go figure. But while I adored horror films from a young age, I also loved literary horror. Before graduating to Stephen King, I spent a good chunk of my early years obsessing over R.L. Stine and another collection of creepy stories that anyone roughly my age will remember seeing: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. While the stories themselves may not be fresh in your mind, the artwork certainly should be. Featuring some of the most disturbing imagery my young eyes had ever seen, these short stories both fascinated me, and scared me to death. So imagine my delight when I hear that not only is the series being adapted into a feature film, but it’s being helmed André Øvredal, a Norwegian filmmaker who directed two of my absolute all-time favorite lesser-known horror flicks: Trollhunter and The Autopsy of Jane Doe. The result is a deliciously macabre, PG-13 horror bonanza that serves as an excellent introduction to the genre for younger audiences. Terrifying and suspenseful without an ounce of blood, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark cleverly keeps the design aesthetic from the books preserved almost 1-to-1, exposing a whole new generation to the freaky, nightmarish creations of artist Stephen Gammell. This is a great film to watch with the family, or simply alone by yourself. The rare “kids” horror film that really holds nothing back, and swings for the fences with its genre representation.

The Visit

I have… mixed feelings about M. Night Shyamalan, as I’m sure most people do at this point. While some of his early films like The Sixth Sense and Signs are bona fide classics, his output since then has been, shall we say, inconsistent. After releasing The Happening, The Last Airbender, and After Earth all back-to-back, I think everyone kind of wrote him off for good, assuming (with good reason) that the master of suspense that had existed earlier on had given way to a studio sell-out. But then he released The Visit, and it seemed like all hope was not yet lost. I was in college at the time, and Universal set up and early screening for us. I haven’t seen it since that night, but man, it was an absolute riot seeing it with a crowd.  Not a perfect film by any means, The Visit still manages to feel fresh and exciting after a sea of flops that had almost destroyed the director’s once-vibrant career. A simple film, shot as a found-footage series of vlogs, The Visit follows two siblings as they travel to visit their estranged grandparents, who their mother (the criminally underutilized Kathryn Hahn) has not seen in well over a decade. But, as you’d expect with the premise, everything is not as it seems. The kids document their grandparents and their increasingly bizarre behavior, before they descend into complete madness, culminating in a genuinely tense, extraordinarily fun movie that genuinely made me believe that Shyamalan was back. My optimism may have been slightly misplaced, if Glass is any indication, but it still doesn’t change the fact that The Visit is a great bit of PG-13 horror fun.

Lights Out

I like to think that, at this point, I have a pretty strong stomach for horror. It takes a lot to genuinely scare me. So believe me when I say that this short film is one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever seen. I honestly refuse to watch it again. It’s so simple, so economic, and yet so downright dreadful that I’ve spent the past few years forcing everyone I know to see it. So when it was announced that it was being adapted into a full-length horror film, with the short’s director David F. Sandberg actually attached, I was intrigued. And also scared out of my mind. The film adaptation only slightly waters down the terror of the original short, which still makes it an exceptionally fun ride full of clever spooks and scares. An evil entity who can only attack you in the dark plagues a broken family in this surprisingly well-shot film, which utilizes some impressively clever cinematography to make you truly scared of the dark for its entire runtime. Plus, it has perhaps one of the most satisfying conclusions to any supernatural horror film I’ve seen in quite a while, and features perhaps the most likable, “please let him survive” horror movie boyfriends in history. It’s got a few weak spots, as does everything, but all-in-all, you could do a lot worse than Lights Out if you want some Halloween viewing that doesn’t rely on over-the-top gore or violence to deliver the scares.

These are just a few of my personal favorites, but there’s a plethora of other options out there if you love being scared but hate guts and gore. The general rule of thumb is to stick to PG-13 flicks, but there’s an enormous library of R-rated films as well that only got the rating for language or subject matter, rather than hardcore violence. Pretty much any of the classics like The Exorcist or Poltergeist are also fantastic choices. Don’t let the stereotype of bloody horror deter you! It’s a massively inclusive genre, and there’s something for everyone.

Shout out your favorites in the comments!

Happy Halloween!

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