As you approach EMP’s new exhibit, Can’t Look Away: The Lure of Horror Film, you feel like you’re descending into the bowels of hell. The staircase spirals down to the basement, with photographs of people mid-scream lining the walls like they’re hell’s denizens, frozen for eternity. You almost expect a guy in devil horns to greet you at the double doors, but let’s not forget this is an EMP exhibit. It’s an understated, academic approach to horror that opens with the philosophical question “What Is Horror, and Why Do We Like It?” emblazoned on the wall.

Because it deals with taboo subjects?
Tests our courage?
Reflects the landscape of nightmares and dreams?

Or is it just the rush? “Guillermo del Toro calls it a roller-coaster ride for the soul,” director John Landis (of Blues Brothers and American Werewolf in London fame) said during a Q&A at EMP yesterday. “I don’t know what that means, but I like how it sounds.” Other nuggets from Landis: “Monster lore was mostly created by screenwriters.” “I don’t believe in ghosts or the supernatural—but The Exorcist scared the shit out of me.” “The last true grindhouse movie was Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.

Landis, along with Hollywood fright flick mavens Roger Corman (Little Shop of Horrors) and Eli Roth (Hostel), curated clips from their favorite horror films to screen inside cleverly constructed viewing rooms that look like creepy forest groves. If you, like me, wouldn’t set foot in the Ringu/The Exorcist room, check out the original typed manuscript of Bram Stoker’s Dracula instead, complete with a handwritten cover page with the original title The Un-Dead.

Also on display: a series of props from classic horror films, including the alien in Alien, Freddy Krueger’s glove from Nightmare on Elm Street, and the “Gill man” mask from Creature from the Black Lagoon.

This isn’t a haunted house with teenagers hired part-time to jump out at you wearing Jason’s hockey mask, but the exhibit is plenty eerie, especially if you let your imagination run a little wild. View the slideshow for more. (Warning: It’s rated PG-13.)

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