Can I watch this show that's scaring me?
January 23, 2023 4:03 PM   Subscribe

The first episode of the new HBO TV show The Last of Us creeped me out for hours. I started the second episode last night, but I was so stressed, I ended up turning it off. Is there any way to make it easier for me to watch it and other similar things? [Spoilers for this and likely other media within probably]

I am a big fan of apocalyptic fiction, in novels and short stories as well as TV and film. However, I am more interested in the "how we survive" element than anything horror-like. I'm not scared of all horror movies and shows, but I am pretty scared of zombies (it's been a tough few decades) after watching Dawn of the Dead (I know, right?) at an impressionable age. A friend suggested exposure therapy, so I actually read World War Z and then even watched the film. I read some other book that turned out to be a zombie book, too. I enjoyed the books and the film was tolerable.

I like the dystopian aspect of The Last of Us, and I'm a fan of good sci fi generally. But I was stressed even at parts of the show without zombies (like when the scientist was examining the body in episode two). I couldn't even go finish my laundry in my basement last night because of the dread, and I was creeped out letting my dog outside and back in. I stopped watching when the protagonists were walking into the museum.

I don't have to watch this show, of course. But this did get me wondering if there's any way to desensitize myself to zombies or horror suspense more generally. There are some scary movies that make me tense and jumpy but don't linger with me for too long (aliens and vampires, for example, as long as the vampires aren't too zombie-like, which happens sometimes).

Any tips?
posted by bluedaisy to Media & Arts (20 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Maybe you could watch old zombie movies, like Night of the Living Dead. It’s tense because the writing is excellent, but visually it’s not scary. It could be a stage play, really.

Or try behind-the-scenes footage. It’s harder to be scared if you’ve seen the actors goofing around in their makeup.
posted by Comet Bug at 4:10 PM on January 23

Best answer: Oh, another idea: watch on mute. A lot of tension in scary movies comes from the sound.
posted by Comet Bug at 4:12 PM on January 23 [11 favorites]

Best answer: I have to watch during the day with the windows letting in all the light.
Not a guarantee though. Donnie Darko still scared me this way.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 4:17 PM on January 23 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Something that I've heard works for some people is, when you get too freaked out, start counting the cuts / edits. Something about focussing on the technical aspects of the film/show can bring you back to reality and keeps you from getting TOO too engaged in the story. I've never tried it for scary movies but I have had success with using that tactic for getting through really cringey parts of shows (like the british office for example)
posted by capnsue at 4:21 PM on January 23 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I do 'dry runs' of shows that are way too intense or graphic for me to watch blindly, just so I'd know when a jump scare or gory scene is coming up at my second, 'actual' viewing.

Basically I keep them playing on a small screen on my computer monitor whilst I'm doing something else, glancing over only when something in the audio catches my attention (usually in time to see a zombie gnawing on someone, or a jump scare). When I get around to actually watching it with my full attention, I more or less already know when to steel myself.

I would also admit that there are some movies that I've never watched full screen on the computer, nevermind on a bigger TV screen.
posted by seapig at 5:50 PM on January 23 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Do you know what aspect scares you the most? The prospect of jumpscares? The creepiness of the zombies? The worry on behalf of the protagonists? That might help isolate a strategy for how to acclimate yourself to the show somehow.
posted by space snail at 6:23 PM on January 23

Best answer: If it's the zombies themselves, maybe you could try a documentary/special about how they do the makeup? That would give you a look at a less realistic, intermediate stage of the zombie makeup, plus probably some of the actors in full makeup behaving like regular people when the cameras aren't rolling.
posted by space snail at 6:27 PM on January 23

Best answer: When I’ve been curious about a film but don’t want to stress over music, surprises or content - I turn on captions/subtitles and play the suspenseful parts at slightly fast forwarded speed to decide if I want to rewatch the section as-is.
posted by childofTethys at 7:06 PM on January 23

Best answer: I like reading Wikipedia entries for movies that I think I won’t enjoy watching—I wonder if spoiling yourself would help take some of the sting out and let you focus on the actor’s performances or whatever it is you want to get out of the viewing experience?
posted by tchemgrrl at 7:53 PM on January 23 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Various recaps might be a way to stay with the action without watching the show. I used to read Walking Dead and Bachelor recaps just because I wanted the drama without the actual time to watch it. Then if you do watch it you know exactly what's happening and when. This would work for other scary media as well (video games, movies, novels, etc).
posted by fiercekitten at 8:26 PM on January 23 [1 favorite]

Best answer: When I was first getting into horror but was too scared to actually watch things, I’d read detailed summaries of the plot. Then I worked up to reading the summaries and then watching the thing. Now I can enjoy watching things first without knowing the beats ahead of time, but I always recommend spoiling it for yourself first if needed. It really eliminates a lot of the anticipation dread for me.
posted by notheotherone at 8:31 PM on January 23 [1 favorite]

Excellent desensitization suggestions above.

I just wanted to hop on and add another voice to yours, offering you permission to not watch stuff that's upsetting to you. In Nomine Felicia, et Amelloides, et corpus animatum, amen.

We don't do scary stuff in our house, and we've never found ourselves staring at the walls for lack of options. Worse comes to worst, you can always watch The Princess Bride again.
posted by adekllny at 7:34 AM on January 24 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I read the episode recaps before watching each episode.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:45 AM on January 24

Best answer: A lot of good suggestions above.

Just out of curiosity, are you the type of person who typically binge watches a TV show, or are you okay with spacing out the episodes over time?

One thing that's worked for me in the past is limiting myself to watching one episode per week. (This can be difficult if the narrative is really compelling). I've found that binge watching an intense TV show can overwhelm my nervous system, but spacing out the episodes gives me enough time to recover in between.

Another thing that helps when I (very occasionally) watch horror movies is giving myself permission to close my eyes or look away from the screen, during particularly intense or gruesome moments. Some horror movies are so predictable that the cinematic cues (music, change of camera perspective) can adequately warn you when something really intense is about to happen. Or, as others have suggested, you can read a plot summary on Wikipedia or an online recap beforehand.
posted by carnival_night_zone at 8:23 AM on January 24

Best answer: If it helps at all, i love the last of us, enjoy horror, know the games inside out, and this (second) episode scared the piss outta me! I was so braced for a jump scare in the examining room and the tension in the museum built so high i about snapped. So, you are partially the victim of some excellent emotional manipulation from very skilled tv folks.
posted by Iteki at 8:54 AM on January 24

Best answer: Don't watch shows cold. Wait until there is a detailed precis of the show on line and read that before you watch it. That way you know when the suspense is just creepiness and there won't be a genuine danger, just dramatic jump scares. You also will know enough not to get too invested in any character who will be killed off. You can also look for clips of the scenes that look worrying and watch them without any context so that they lose the power that comes from the build up.

Watch it with the sound off.

Get someone who has already seen it recently to watch it with you. They can alert you to being startled or if the next scene is going to be gory.

Take timed breaks. Whenever you notice you are getting tense, pause the show or turn it off every twenty minutes, walk out of the room to ground yourself and then come back in again and re-start it.

Focus on the details of the way the film was made, rather than immersing yourself. Noting things like make up, costuming, setting, and music and asking yourself questions about them as you go will both make you appreciate the film more, and be less immersed in the story. If a grey faced man is screaming in panic, pull back enough to admire the acting and make up that goes into making the scene intense. Speculate if that is really the actor's own hair and notice if the background to the screaming close up is in focus, and if it in anyway has been chosen for camera angles to draw you farther in.

Watch it in shorter installments. Twenty minutes every day will give you time to process anything traumatic as opposed to a two hour binge.

Get familiar enough with the techniques they use that the more blunt ones are ever so mildly annoying. Okay the music is building tension... with no music this scene would be boring and pointless. It's probably even just another filler action shot. If they had cut it the show would have been shorter, but been an equally good story.
posted by Jane the Brown at 8:56 AM on January 24 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Put on the subtitles, turn off the sound, and skip forward through scenes that disturb you.
posted by ninazer0 at 2:44 PM on January 24 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Lifehacker had this, this morning: 16 Post-Apocalyptic TV Shows, but Zombies Had Nothing to Do With It

I realize this is answering a different question, again, but you have options.
posted by adekllny at 8:30 AM on January 25 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Hey, all, thanks so much for chiming in! It was quite validating to read that so many of you have come up with specific strategies for this very thing. The thing is that I do want to watch this show because I find it compelling in other ways (so far at least).

lteki, your comment was particularly helpful, as it's good to know even veteran horror-enjoyers were feeling the build up and tension that was (at first) too much for me.

I'm taking a bit of most things here. And I am pleased to report that, inspired by seapig, I watched the second half of the second episode while washing the dishes. The ipad was in the window with terrible glares, and I was able to keep up with the basic plot without feeling the tension in the same way. I also heard the music in a different, more abstract way ("Oh, this must be a moment of building tension," etc).

And it's been good for me to think about what was scaring me so much, and the musical score and pacing and other techniques that contributed to that.

For future episodes, I'll definitely read the plot recap first. That's an excellent approach as well.

Thanks, all!
posted by bluedaisy at 1:22 PM on January 25 [4 favorites]

I have young daughters and they want to watch scary movies. When they wanted to watch the recent "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark" movie, I showed them some behind-the-scenes footage of the special effects and costumes. It seemed to help them separate reality from entertainment.
posted by tacodave at 4:03 PM on January 25 [1 favorite]

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