‘Sinister’ and the Science of Scares

About a year ago, Forbes reported on a study that was conducted which supposedly sought out to test, objectively and scientifically, what was the scariest horror movie of all time. The experiment was fairly simple and straightforward: Subjects were hooked up to heartrate monitors  and subjected to over a hundred hours of horror films, ranging from classics like The Exorcist to more modern films like Hereditary. The heartrates of each viewer were measure, noting whenever they spiked and how much over the subject’s resting rate the difference was. The average heartrates of each film were then averaged, and they were sorted based on number of factors, including highest overall average heartrate and highest spike from a jump scare.

This wasn’t exactly hard science, as the test was conducted by a broadband advocacy group, of all people. It was also a pretty limited sample size, with only 50 test subjects and 50 films from IMDB’s top rated horror films being selected as potential candidates for the top spot. So the claim of ‘scariest horror film ever’ is probably a bit of a reach.

But the results of the study were pretty unanimous among the pool of viewers, as you can see from the handy infographic they created:

Of all the films tested, Scott Derrickson’s Sinister came out on top in nearly every instance. This means that, according to the study, Sinister is scarier than Alien, The Conjuring, It Follows, and The Descent. It, claims the advocacy group, is unequivocally the scariest movie ever made.

I’ll admit, at first I was skeptical. I’ve seen Sinister, and I certainly don’t remember it affecting me more than Hereditary. But objective data doesn’t lie, so I decided to rewatch the film and refresh myself on it to see if it was as scary as this particular experiment claims it to be.

And after a viewing of Sinister late one Saturday night, I have to say, it’s pretty darn scary. But the scariest film ever made?

Well, maybe.

Sinister is certainly effective. It has a sense of foreboding and dread unlike most anything else in the contemporary horror landscape. It’s got all the subtle, creeping tension of a film like The Exorcist, but coupled with the high-octane moments of release like Insidious. It feels wrong watching this film.

If you haven’t seen it, the premise is this: A successful crime author and his family move into a house in which some grisly deaths occurred some time before. Pretty standard, really. The father finds a box full of 8mm film reels in the attic, alongside a projector, and finds himself viewing the documented murders and suicides of multiple families over the decades. He uncovers a plot involving a malevolent Pagan demon and a deadly curse, and fights to free his family from the twisted fate that awaits them.

On the surface, it sounds like a fairly straightforward, run-of-the-mill haunted house film. Which, in its simplest form, it is. But it’s the way that Sinister goes about showing the audience its supernatural elements that makes it so, well, sinister. The gimmick of the tapes allows almost an anthology aspect to creep into the films basic structure, giving enormous variety to the types of scares and violence that are shown on screen. Each tape feels dirty, almost illegal, like watching a real-life snuff film, and that unease lingers throughout the film’s tightly-paced runtime. And even when it’s not showing us dirty, grimy murder-tapes, it’s peppering us with jump scares from the film’s star villain, the demon Bughuul, who’s presumably summoned by the tapes.

It’s like The Ring on steroids.

But that alone doesn’t necessarily constitute a record-breaking amount of scares. What I’ve just describes could fit a number of modern horror films, from The Conjuring to Insidious (shout out to James Wan, by the way, who has more films on the list than anyone else). What makes Sinister so effectively scary, so adrenaline-pumping and heart racing?

Well, the short answer is: Because Sinister cheats.

I don’t really say that in a derogatory sense, mind you. There’s nothing inherently wrong with relying on cheap tactics to frighten your audience. If it works, it works. But man, does Sinister have a lot of cheap scares in it. All the way through to literally the final frame, Sinister throws jump scare after jump scare at the audience, over and over again. According to Wheresthejump.com, a handy little site that, obviously, warns potential viewers of exactly how many jump scares are in a film and precisely where they’re located, reports seventeen different major instances of the trick in Sinister. Seventeen. That’s an insane number.

By comparison, The Conjuring has twelve, and they’re ranked as being severely less impactful overall by the site, a consensus that I largely agree with.

And what happens when a jump scare comes screaming out of the screen at a viewer? That’s right: Their heartrate spikes. So, naturally, the more jump scares, the higher the average heartrate of the audience.

It’s not that Sinister is really the scariest movie ever made. It’s that it tries very, very hard to scare you. And frankly, it succeeds pretty consistently.

Now, to be fair, Insidious, The Grudge, and It all had a higher number of jump scares than Sinister, and yet scored lower overall in average heartrate, according to the study. So it’s effectiveness isn’t just the product of the jumps alone, although they almost certainly contribute.

Then why is Sinister so objectively, medically unrelenting? Well, I think it has to do with just how much it coasts on the energy from its scares. The Conjuring, for instance, has a lot of downtime with the Warrens and the family that they’re aiding in the film. These are light, fun scenes, often touching in tone, that help endear the characters to the audience and make the stakes feel higher later on. Sinister doesn’t really have that. Once the scares get going, the film harnesses that fear and that heightened emotion and rides it out until the ends, never really giving the audience a chance to come down. So it makes perfect sense to me why the test subjects in this experiment kept such high heartrates throughout.

So does that make Sinister actually the scariest movie out there? Again, maybe. If your definition is as clinical as theirs is, being a biological measure of stress, then I don’t see why not. There’s a compelling argument to be made, for sure. But for me, “scary” means more than just the in-the-moment thrills. To me, it means a lingering, “can’t sleep” feeling that persists long after the film has finished rolling. And maybe for some, Sinister scratches that itch. But despite being an atmospheric, stressful viewing experience, I never thought much of Sinister after the fact.

I can guarantee my heartrate was through the roof, though.

What about you? Do you think Sinister deserves the mathematical top spot for scariest horror film ever? Let me know in the comments!

Happy Halloween!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s