Brian Matus has posted a short article at Fangoria.com asking, "Are Horror Films Supposed to Be Scary or Fun?" There are already a number of responses, which you can read there, and there are responses elsewhere on the web, such as Marc Patterson's thoughtful article. I'll let those responses take care of exploring the question directly.
As is my wont, I'll take this in another direction. Last week, I went to Borders and purchased a copy of Stephen King's new tomb -- I mean, tome -- Under the Dome. I'm not an automatic buyer of King's books, but I have found them to be absorbing and well-done, so I bought the book. As I was paying the cashier, he asked, "Have you ever actually been scared by any novel Stephen King has written?"
The question was just check-out counter conversation, and I don't think he meant it as a criticism of King nor of me as a buyer. But it made me think. I've read a fair number of King's books: The Stand, Firestarter, Salem's Lot, The Shining, The Dead Zone, Danse Macabre, Pet Semetary, Thinner, Misery, The Tommyknockers, and Cell. Did any of them scare me?
Thinking about the question, I had to consider what "scare" means. I have never had one of those scary jolts of shock in a King book that you get in some films, where the cat jumps out of nowhere or the villain suddenly appears from the shadows. But that's too narrow of a definition. Most of the time in my life when I've experienced fear, it has been a dread of something that might or might not happen. And I've certainly felt that in King's novels (especially in my favorite, The Shining), and in the best horror films. (The best parts of Alien, in my opinion, were not the shock parts but rather the incredible scene-setting at the beginning, where we get to see and experience just how isolated the Nostromo is, then just how isolated the shipmates are -- including from each other -- and then just how isolated the alien ship is.)
I enjoy a well-done book (or film) that is able to create that sense of dread, of fear-inducing atmosphere. I've got a lot of books in line to read before Under the Dome, but when I get to it, I'll let you know if it scares me. Or something better.