Horror movies are scarier when we can relate them to our own life in some way. That's why so many are set in familiar places, like suburban houses and forests, and hardly any are set on biplanes or in Amish communities. The terror comes from sensing that the world you think you know is full of secret danger. Jaws might make you fear the ocean; Alive might make you dread getting on a plane. But would watching these movies in those exact locations heighten the experience?
To test that, we decided to watch some horror movies in the locations they're set. Here's what we found:
Frozen (the horror movie about ski lifts, not the Disney one) on a ski lift
2010's Frozen is a survival horror about three people who get trapped on a ski lift. I watched it on a ski lift in Southern California. The operators were kind enough to let me ride it up and down a few times so I could watch the whole thing.
My main concern, at least at first, was that people passing by on in the opposite direction might think I was watching porn. There is A LOT of moaning in this movie. The characters do it constantly, whether they're shimmying across lift cables or picking frostbite scabs off their face.
But as it got darker, my mind started to race. Suspended alone, on a mountain, in the dark, with no phone signal, I started mentally cycling through all the terrible things that could happen to me. The lift could collapse. Or reverse really fast like that one in Georgia. A bear or mountain lion could climb up one of the towers and pounce on me as I passed by. Someone could shoot me from below. The operator could stop the lift and leave me overnight to fuck with me, causing me to freeze to death (the lift actually did briefly stop at the exact moment the lift stops in the movie, which was spooky).
But I'm not sure if the movie caused me to think any of those things. I am an extremely anxious person. I have zero waking moments per day where I'm not thinking about the worst possible things that could happen to me. Before I drove to the ski lift, I checked my back seat for the killer from Urban Legend. About two minutes before I typed this sentence I figured out my escape route from this office in case of an active shooter (for the millionth time).
Lone nighttime ski lift rides are just not a good match for my type of brain. I probably would've been panicking about ski lift collapses and getting eaten by bears if I were watching the Disney movie of the same name.
–Jamie Lee Curtis Taete
Alive on a plane
Going into my viewing, all I knew of the 1993 film Alive was what I’d gleaned from MAD magazine, Simpsons references, and other pop culture osmosis: that it tells the mostly-true story of a Uruguayan rugby team’s plane crash in the Andes, and the cannibalism they subsequently turned to in order to survive.
Correctly presuming that Lufthansa would not have the film in their on-demand seatback movie library, I pre-downloaded the film for a long international flight and waited until the sweet old lady sat next to me had fallen asleep to begin my screening at 40,000 feet.
At no point throughout the film’s two-hour runtime did I feel anxious about my own safety. Maybe it was because I was in a brand spanking new Airbus A350 and knew that crashing was all but a statistical impossibility and, were we somehow to go down, I’d be dead on impact or found within a few hours, presuming Russia wasn’t what (allegedly) grounded us.
Nor did I spend the film hemming and hawing about the ethical hypothetical of survival cannibalism. I would eat someone, without qualms, the second I had to. I eyeballed my snoozing seatmate to see if I could Looney-Tunes visualize her as a giant mutton chop. I could not.
Instead, I spent the majority of Alive relishing the bad acting, marveling at how much every other shot looked like a modern Ralph Lauren print ad campaign, and reeling at the thick schmear of god-praising slathered over every scene as if the entire film was a self-produced vanity project by the Lord Himself.
The Blair Witch Project in the woods
When The Blair Witch Project came out in 1999, my sister claimed it was the scariest movie she'd ever seen because it was based on a true story. Some years later, just before hitting my teens, I watched it and spent the entire movie with my eyes covered. TBH I'm not even sure if I got through the entire film. I was that shook.
I rewatched it when I was like, 20, and expected to be scared for my life. What I found was a mediocre film with more tension than scares and no real payoff at the end. Although Blair Witch paved the way for a wave of found-footage horror, it's just not that scary once you detach it from the hype and rumors that it was based on a true story. Which is why, when I was asked to watch the film again out in the woods, I was cool with it.
Because I live in New York City, I had to settle for a heavily wooded park. Which is basically the same, right? It was dark by the time I got to the park, and although I was told to stay safe by roommates and friends, I didn’t expect the park to feel so vast and creepy.
Everything was smooth sailing at first. As Heather, Josh, and Michael interviewed people in the town and started their journey through the woods to find the Blair Witch, I was chillin'. I wasn’t even creeped out when they started to hear about all of the people who had gone missing in the woods.
When the trio started to hear branches snapping around their tent, things started to get a little spooky on my end, too. Although I was in a very public park in Brooklyn, things had gotten quiet—the joggers and dog walkers had all left.
After the group lost the map, I found myself looking over my shoulder a lot. I started seeing trees that looked kinda ominous, and convinced myself I could hear rustling in a nearby bush. When I got to the scene with all the stick figures hanging from trees, I had to pause the movie to collect myself.
Then suddenly, a loud branch snapped near me, I jumped and let out a small scream. I turned my phone flashlight on and stood to investigate. I heard another shuffle somewhere beside me. At this point, I was aware, that choosing to watch a scary movie in the woods at dark during the Halloween season was probably dumb. I was also aware that ignoring creepy sounds in the woods is how people end up dead in scary movies. With that in mind, I promptly closed my computer, packed up my shit, and power-walked home, looking over my shoulder the whole way.
Jaws in the ocean (sort of)
My plan was to watch Jaws with my phone in a Ziploc bag while in the ocean in Los Angeles. I was genuinely quite nervous to do this. People get attacked by sharks in Southern California. I was expecting to fully freak myself out.
Then technical difficulties hit: I rented the film from iTunes, but, for reasons I couldn't really figure out, I couldn’t get it to work on my phone. I had to settle for watching what I could find on YouTube instead. I watched some clips, and a few kill compilations from different films in the franchise, then switched to a compilation of shark deaths in other movies.
Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t massively scary getting knocked around by the surf, muttering to myself about how much I hate my phone, squinting to see the shark kills on screen. (I could barely see anything, I had to photoshop the Jaws title card into that photo up there so it wouldn’t just be a picture of my shattered iPhone glass.) I was more worried about stepping on a syringe or getting caught in a riptide than getting eaten by a shark.
Then, after maybe like, 20 minutes of watching stuff on YouTube, I noticed my battery had gotten down to 40 percent. Like many people with an "old" iPhone (I purchased it in February 2017), my battery is garbage. Once it hits 40 percent, there is no way of telling how much time it has left. Usually it dies at around the 20 percent mark. Sometimes at zero or in the high 30s. I abandoned my experiment and got out of the sea.
Despite hating my phone, the anxiety created by the combination of software not working, the smashed screen (which I already replaced once), and the shitty battery means I will almost certainly upgrade it to a new one soon.
And scarier than watching Jaws in the ocean is what's inside an iPhone. My former colleague Brian Merchant wrote a book about the origin of the various components of an iPhone. It was terrifying. From dangerous child labor to toxic waste to a mine so dangerous it's been nicknamed "The Mountain That Eats Men." The manufacturing of the device has had a hand in some truly horrific things. And I, and probably you, are partially responsible for this.
Like I said: terrifying.
–Jamie Lee Curtis Taete
Hotel Transylvania in a hotel in Transylvania
One of these films is clearly not like the others, but as I just happened to be traveling in Romania when asked to do this piece, there was no way I was going to squander the opportunity. Nestled in the breathtaking Carpathian mountains, the bright, charming Zabola Estate is a far more inviting Transylvanian hotel than the gothic, monster-filled titular one from Genndy Tartakovsky’s 2012 animated feature, Hotel Transylvania. My room for the night was a luxurious villa apartment built around 1900 to host Romanian VIPs only to fall into disrepair during the communist regime, before being renovated recently as a destination resort. If I was to wring an ounce of spookiness from a PG-rated kids comedy starring a vampire who never bites anyone, the creaky herringbone wood floors and fake candles on wrought-iron sconces of Zabola seemed a far better ambiance for it than anything I’d find at a Transylvanian Hilton.
I dimmed the lights, opened the door to the terrace (so that Dracula could fly in while I watched if he wanted to), pressed play on my laptop, and climbed into the warm claw-footed bath I’d drawn for myself in the center of the room.
Despite these efforts to set the mood, the film failed to tease any shrieks or jumps from me. In fact, the scariest thing to come of the whole ordeal was my pruned body when I emerged from my 90 minute bath like the old woman in The Shining. Gorgeous movie, though, and possibly the most tolerable one to star both Adam Sandler and Kevin James.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.