Could it be The Exorcist? The Shining? Nosferatu? La Casa Dalle Finestre Che Ridono? No. Apparently, it’s actually puts on my glasses and frowns at my notes with an air of peevish confusion 2012’s Sinister — a film about Ethan Hawke deliberately moving his family into a house where a series of terrible murders happened (as you do) and incurring the wrath of a long-haired demon called “Bughul”, who looks like a member of Slipknot.
Few horror fans would argue that Sinister is the scariest film of all time. According to Metacritic, it met with “mixed or average reviews” at the time: Plenty of people found it well-executed, if somewhat soulless and uninspired, but it was met with a fair share of hatchet jobs. One critic seethed, “Sinister is pretty much everything to hate about modern horror in one mixed bag, a ramshackle teardown of jump-scares and creaky tricks, saw-it-coming "surprises" and the lead-footed thud of inevitability as it tediously places one clumsy foot in front of the other, plodding towards a finale that comes far too late.” Ouch! Daniel Edelstine of Vulture wrote, “Sinister did something I thought would be impossible: It made this lifelong horror freak abhor horror movies.”
So how was this bizarre conclusion reached? The study, titled “The Science of Scare Project” was conducted by “broadbandchoices” (a hallowed scientific institution that’s presumably an offshoot of Yale or somewhere). Fifty people were asked to watch over 100 hours of horror films with their heartrates monitored throughout. Sinister was found to increase the participants’ heartrates more than any other film—the average BPM was 65, which rocketed to 86 during Sinister.
In a further damning indictment of the study, the runner-up was Insidious, another jumpy but not particularly good noughties affair. This also took the prize of “best jump scare”—during one moment, participants average heartrate leapt to 133 BPM. The rest of the top ten were: The Conjuring, Hereditary, Paranormal Activity, It Follows, The Conjuring 2, The Babadook, The Descent, and The Visit. There are some great films on this list (Hereditary, It Follows, The Babadook and The Descent are all excellent) but it’s pretty suspect that not a single film made before 2000 made the grade. Broadbandchoices has spat in the face of our cultural heritage.
The study is interesting but it does seem to reflect a limited sense of what ‘scary’ means. There’s more to horror films than jump scares, loud noises and a raised heartbeat. Many of the scariest films of all time don’t play those kinds of games at all, in favour of a lingering, slow-burning dread that stays with you long after the credits roll.
And to the scientific community we would say: maybe you guys should spend a little less time forcing people to watch mediocre noughties horror films and a little time more working on a vaccine for the Novel Coronavirus—just a thought!