So an awful lot of people are flocking to Jordan Peele’s new movie “Us.” Let’s talk for a minute about all the people who want to watch “Us” but are too scared to.
Is there a more anxiety-provoking cultural phenomenon than the must-see horror film? Among the infinite ways we can divide humanity into binary camps is the fright-vs-flight dichotomy. Some people just love a good, terrifying movie experience. Gets the adrenaline going, makes a person feel alive, allows for socially acceptable date-clutching. Others feel ill at the very prospect of two hours in the dark waiting for the ax to fall and the severed hand to start crawling around.
You know where you fall on the graph, and you know where your significant other falls, and they’re often in different time zones. In my late 20s, I took a date to “From Beyond,” an H.P. Lovecraft-derived follow-up to “Re-Animator” that involved various melting body parts. The date spent 90 percent of the movie in the lobby. She married me later, though, so there’s that.
And like her, many people have been approaching “Us” with dread, having enjoyed and appreciated Peele’s “Get Out” two years ago and not wanting to miss out on the cultural conversation around the new film. They’re the opposite of horror fans but they know this one’s a thing, so they’re bucking up and going, watching through fingers and exhaling with relief when the lights come up. Or they would really like to go but haven’t yet worked up the nerve. I know, because I’ve been having this discussion with acquaintances all week.
This isn’t remotely a gender issue. One of my Globe colleagues, a witty and wise manly man, sat near me at the “Us” screening in a fetal ball of distress, most definitely not having a good time. By contrast, one of the more knowledgeable horror authorities I know is the estimable Dede Crimmins, a formerly Boston-based movie critic for outlets like Rue Morgue and Hi-Def Digest. She’s hardly alone.
Nor is it a generational thing. The heck with your modern fright-fests like “Hereditary” — when I was a boy, we walked uphill both ways to see “The Exorcist.” We had “Psycho,” “Halloween,” “Jaws,” “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” and “Night of the Living Dead.” A decent scary movie can be a way of testing one’s nerve, resolve, stomach lining. As hard as it might be for some of us to acknowledge, it can even be fun, especially when consumed with friends.
But maybe experiencing other people’s pain, even across the distance of the audience/screen divide, just isn’t your bag. Whether you’re able to articulate it or not, you know whether you enjoy being creeped out, grossed out, or mildly chilled — held in the spine-tingling limbo of suspense, or dropped through the trap door into sheer terror. So for those weenies who want to work up a little scar tissue before venturing into “Us” (which, honestly, isn’t that gory, except for one scene. . .), I offer the following crash course in Scary But Not Bloody.
“The Babadook” (2014) — A mother starts to believe her child’s boogeyman is real. Or maybe she’s going crazy? Deft psychological suspense from director Jennifer Kent and a linchpin of new indie horror.
“The Birds” (1963) “Psycho” is the classic horror Hitchcock, but his avian eco-revenge apocalypse is somehow creepier for remaining inexplicable.
“Carnival of Souls” (1962) A lost drive-in classic rediscovered in the 1980s, about a woman wandering a surreal, poetic Middle American limbo.
“Cat People” (1942) A no-budget marvel in which the matter of whether Simone Simon turns into a murderous panther is only suggested — but terrifyingly. (Avoid the 1982 remake.)
“Diabolique” (1955) A man’s murder is plotted by his wife and mistress, and then the games begin. The ending of this diseased French classic still shocks after all these years. (Avoid the 1996 remake.)
“Freaks” (1932) In which real-life sideshow attractions play fictional freaks enacting revenge on “normal” society. One of the most unnerving movies ever made, and zero gore content.
“Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956 and 1978) Aliens are coming to turn your friends and relatives into pod people and you’re next. Both versions work on the primal fear of one’s personality being erased and replaced. (Avoid 1997, 2002, and any future versions.)
“It Follows” (2014) More creeptacular new indie horror, about a homicidal curse that spreads through sexual contact. Smart and unsettling.
“Let the Right One In” (2008) The original Swedish version of this tale about a lonely little girl vampire is less bloody but just as frightening as the acceptable 2010 Hollywood remake.
“The Orphanage” (2007) One of many elegantly directed, non-explicit, utterly chilling ghost stories from Spain, this one about the spirits that haunt the title institution.
“The Others” (2001) And another one, with Nicole Kidman as the head of a reclusive family contending with what may or may not be ghosts.
“Paranormal Activity” (2007) One of the few good things to come out of the found-footage genre pioneered by “Blair Witch Project.” Are there poltergeists in the house? Let’s turn on the nanny-cams and find out. The sequels are cheap yet bloodcurdling, too.
“Rosemary’s Baby” (1968) Feel free to boycott on Polanski grounds, but this coven’s-on-the-West-Side/Satan’s uptown suspense classic is one of the first modern shockers, with minimum grue and maximum paranoia.
“The Sixth Sense” (1999) Right, you’ve seen this one already. So see it again. Haley Joel Osment, we hardly knew ye.
“The Uninvited” (1944) Wonderfully atmospheric haunted-house chiller from the Studio Era, served with style, thrills, and the scent of mimosa.
“Wait Until Dark” (1967) Absolutely nerve-rending suspense drama that features a blind Audrey Hepburn trapped in her apartment with three hoods, one of them a natty and surprisingly menacing Alan Arkin.
Yes, yes, I missed your favorite one. Do tell. And make it creepy.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.