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What movies should you watch this Halloween? A horror scholar shares her favorites

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A lot of things can be really scary, like, for example, a double-booked Airbnb.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BARBARIAN")

GEORGINA CAMPBELL: (As Tess) This is 476 Barbary, right?

BILL SKARSGARD: (As Keith) Yeah. I'm renting this place.

CAMPBELL: (As Tess) No, I booked it a month ago.

SKARSGARD: (As Keith) Are you sure you have the right place?

CAMPBELL: (As Tess) Yeah.

CHANG: Or a phone call from an unexpected phone number.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MR. HARRIGAN'S PHONE")

JAEDEN MARTELL: (As Craig) A person shouldn't call out unless they want an answer.

CHANG: Even a party game gone wrong.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BODIES BODIES BODIES")

LEE PACE: (As Greg) So how do you play?

AMANDLA STENBERG: (As Sophie) If you draw the piece of paper that has the X on it, you are the murderer.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Let's go.

CHANG: All of these frights can be found in horror movies that came out this year. And to help tell us which of these movies are worth watching during the spookiest time of the year is filmmaker and horror scholar Rebekah McKendry. Hello.

REBEKAH MCKENDRY: Hello. How are you doing?

CHANG: I am so good. And can I just say - like, I am someone who loves watching scary movies but only when I'm with somebody. And then when they go home for the night, I immediately regret it because I'm lying in bed all by myself, totally freaked out for hours. And that is why I've now drastically pared down the number of scary movies I will watch. So you tell me. Like, what defines this year in horror? I have no idea. Like, what are the movies everyone else seems to be obsessed with right now?

MCKENDRY: Well, I'll start by saying that I like to think of it as, if you watch horror movies, you feel like you're never really alone. It's kind of a beautiful feeling to always feel like there's something there.

CHANG: Yeah, yeah, like evil spirits. OK.

MCKENDRY: Right - constantly. But this year has been honestly, like, a huge year for horror. Like, we have had eight horror films open at No. 1 in 2022, with an average...

CHANG: Wow.

MCKENDRY: ...Opening of 26 to $27 million. Like, horror is hot right now. In 2022, we have seen everything from low-budget indies to massive, massive movies.

CHANG: Why do you think this year has been such a huge year for horror?

MCKENDRY: You know, there's a lot of different theories on this. Like, you know, it takes a lot to get people to go to theaters now. So it's got to be something that is really going to be different, that is kind of a group viewing experience. So where we're really seeing people still head to theaters is kids' movies, Marvel movies and horror. There is something about that communal viewing experience with horror. And then there's also kind of - if you look back historically at horror, horror has always done really, really well - had our best times right after there's a national tragedy. Our first really big surge of horror happened during and right after the Great Depression. We see horror surge right after Vietnam. We see another surge right after 9/11. And so it makes sense kind of psychologically.

CHANG: So interesting.

MCKENDRY: Yeah. There's been a couple of books written about national trauma and how a lot of people are really able to kind of mitigate what they have just been through by watching horror films, by kind of watching that safe scare.

CHANG: Maybe I need to go back into horror movies to work through my problems. OK - good to know.

MCKENDRY: It surprisingly works for a lot of us. Somehow it makes you feel better at the end.

CHANG: Well, let me ask you this. Like, are there some really cool, boundary-pushing horror movies this year?

MCKENDRY: So we have seen a lot of really boundary-pushing horror films this year, like, ones that are really just trying to hit buttons, ones that you're just like, oh, my gosh. That's just going there. Like, I have to give props to "Smile."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SMILE")

CAITLIN STASEY: (As Laura Weaver) I'm seeing something that's smiling at me but not a friendly smile. It's the worst smile I've ever seen in my life. And whenever I see it, I just get this god-awful feeling like something really terrible is going to happen.

SOSIE BACON: (As Rose Cotter) Do you see it right now here?

MCKENDRY: There's moments in that that I've never seen in horror before. It is a ride, and it does not hold back on things like the level of scares and the gore, honestly. I also have to definitely give a shout-out for "Barbarian" because that was such a wild ride. The setup of "Barbarian" seems very much like some other horror films, where it is - two people show up at an Airbnb and discover it's been double-booked. But where it shifts in the second and third acts - they discover that there is something else up with this Airbnb. It feels weird, but it's a horror comedy. Like, it is a dark, satirical horror comedy, and it is what makes it work and be No. 1 at the box office. But it is that dark horror comedy that we are laughing that makes it so accessible.

CHANG: OK, I'm already fascinated. I want to check that out.

MCKENDRY: It's wild and so good. And I'm still, like, completely floored that that was put out by Disney.

CHANG: (Laughter) Oh, my God. Let me ask you, though, like, if you are someone who is so not into gory stuff or someone like me who does get super-freaked out really easily, specifically when it comes to ghosts - for some reason, I cannot do realistic-looking ghosts - what would you recommend for us wusses, like, if we want to get into a Halloweeny (ph) mood but we don't want to go into, like, cardiac arrest when we're watching the movie?

MCKENDRY: "Nope" is a really fun one that is very accessible, that - it definitely...

CHANG: That's Jordan Peele.

MCKENDRY: ...Has some scares. This is Jordan Peele. I also, on the indie level, have to give some love to "Deadstream." Now, "Deadstream" does have some scares in it and small amount of, I'll say, zombie-related gore.

CHANG: Oh.

MCKENDRY: But it is very...

CHANG: I can do zombies.

MCKENDRY: Yeah, zombies - most people, I've discovered from "Walking Dead," like, were a little more desensitized to zombies...

CHANG: Yeah.

MCKENDRY: ...Than we are a lot of other types of carnage. But "Deadstream" - it is very much a horror comedy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DEADSTREAM")

JOSEPH WINTER: (As Shawn Ruddy) I will be spending one night alone in a haunted house. Don't forget to smash that like button, smash that subscribe button and follow me on LiveIt!

MCKENDRY: And I will also give some love to "Prey" in that realm as well. And this one came straight to Hulu. It is part of the "Predator" franchise, but you can go in with no knowledge of any of the "Predators" that have come before.

CHANG: Yes.

MCKENDRY: It is lighter on the gore to a degree. I will say there still is some. But for - like, even my parents, who are much more into action films, watched "Prey" and absolutely loved it.

CHANG: Is there, like, such a thing as a comfort horror movie for you, like, one you return to over and over again the way, like, some people watch "When Harry Met Sally" over and over again? Do you have a horror movie like that?

MCKENDRY: Oh, my goodness. Yes. And that's what I've discovered that most horror fans will gravitate to around Halloween - is this is the season when we watch things like "Trick 'R Treat" or other kind of Halloween-centered films that really just give you the warm-and-fuzzies.

CHANG: (Laughter).

MCKENDRY: And what's interesting is I think that this year, some of the larger studios have really become aware of this because "Hocus Pocus" is one that I would have considered to be a comfort. It's what I consider gateway horror. It's, like, what I show...

CHANG: Yeah.

MCKENDRY: ...My 10-year-old daughter.

CHANG: Right.

MCKENDRY: And it's one of those, like...

CHANG: I'm right there with her.

MCKENDRY: It's what you show spooky kids who like spooky things. And Disney realized this and realized, like, oh, my gosh. Over decades, this movie has grown into a huge cult hit. And they - so this year, one of the biggest horror films of the year that I consider horror is "Hocus Pocus 2." And it is ushering in a whole new wave of horror fans. And I got to say it's just as good as the first one, if not better. It's great.

CHANG: Maybe that's going to be my genre of horror movie. That is Rebekah McKendry, a scholar and filmmaker whose horror movie "Glorious" was released on the streaming service Shudder this year. Thank you so much, Rebekah. This was so much fun.

MCKENDRY: Oh, my gosh. Thank you so much for having me. Please go watch something spooky this season.

CHANG: I think I will.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN CARPENTER'S "HALLOWEEN THEME - MAIN TITLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.