I’m not usually a fan of horror movies, and I certainly wasn’t expecting a movie set in a small town at Christmas to be scary. Yet as I watched Gremlins for the first time, I found myself growing tense, talking to the screen, and even jumping in parts. Afterwards, I went around the house and turned on all the lights.
I was eighteen years old at the time.
How does a film like Gremlins frighten a college student? How can such cartoonish creatures also be terrifying? Perhaps it’s because the film, and even the gremlins themselves, are perfectly designed to horrify.
Think about it…
We all have certain basic fears: fear of the dark, fear of the unknown, and fear of monsters under the bed or hiding in the closets. Gremlins are those monsters, hiding in places we least suspect. They lurk in the dark, and light is a weapon against them, making them part of the darkness itself. And we never see the transformed Mogwai until after a long, tense buildup and several unnerving glimpses.
That long buildup gives plenty of time for character development. We spend time getting to know real people with relatable lives, with dreams, problems, and flaws, just like us. Because we know and relate to the characters, anything that can and will do damage to them becomes terrifying, tapping into our fear of losing a friend. In a way, it’s even easier to put ourselves in their shoes, drawing us closer to the horror of their situation.
Another tool the film uses to scare us is the placement of sound and silence. It knows when to hold back on the music and use a mostly quiet room to make us uneasy, something that happens far too easily since we live in a world so full of noise. It also knows when to use everyday sounds for the perfect disturbing effect. When we know we’re not alone but don’t know who or what else is with us, a film projector, a Christmas record, and a PA system are enough to unnerve us.
In the end, that’s really all it takes for these little creatures to get under your skin. So go watch that movie again and tell me you aren’t checking your beds and closets for gremlins. Tell me they’re not haunting the dark corners of your house and your nightmares.
Happy Halloween, everyone.
Gremlins is owned by Warner Bros.