"I don't wanna be sick, I just wanna be scared," the teen-age girl says.

Since she's waiting in line for "Re-Animator," she'll probably be both -- providing she doesn't shut her eyes. In the movie's first two minutes, a head explodes (decompresses?) -- something like that. It's that kind of fun.

This, the late show at the Circle West End, attracts a predominantly male, overwhelmingly college-age audience. They laugh, scream and scrunch down in their seats as they watch bodies get carved up like so many Thanksgiving turkeys, medical students run amok, and the dead being brought back to very grumpy life.

When the carnage is over the audience filters out, all smiles and shivers. "That was really gross," says an 18-year-old boy to his buddies. "Let's see it again."

Audiences seek out horror movies like "Re-Animator" for the same reason they ride roller coasters at amusement parks: They want to see how much of their stomachs will end up in their mouths.

"We use horror in order to feel pleasantly uncomfortable -- and if the book or movie is shoddy, we feel unpleasantly uncomfortable. Horror is a way of fantasizing the worst in a safe context," says Jack Sullivan, editor of the forthcoming Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural.

"Horror films offer a socially acceptable way to deal with and express violent impulses," says Stuart Gordon, director of "Re-Animator." "We're all capable of violence. Most people suppress those urges -- but they still exist. Repressing those impulses is unhealthy, and so is carrying them out on other people. But art is a safe way to deal with those feelings."

Ray Bradbury, who has been producing unsettling stories and novels for 40 years, goes a step beyond seeing horror as either dread-inducing or as a means of handling violence. He argues that through horror we prepare for our own deaths:

"It's like taking a little arsenic every day of your life, and so by the end of your life, you can take a huge dose and not be hurt. Horror films and stories prepare us for death in the same way: a little bit each day will make the end easier. Horror is a rehearsal for death, but at one remove."

Despite the popularity of author Stephen King and his imitators, and the convenience of the video recorder, the essential horror experience is still communal, in the movie theater. During lulls in the action, members of the "Re-Animator" audience look around, as if to say, Isn't this too much? or If you can take it, I can too.

The dark side of horror is the violence it often gleefully depicts: the decapitation, strangulation and bloody beatings in "Re-Animator," the serial murders in "Halloween" and "Friday the 13th," the wrathful zombies in "Day of the Dead." Stephen King has written that "I recognize terror as the finest . . . emotion, and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find I cannot terrify . . . I will try to horrify; and if I find I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out. I'm not proud." Neither are modern horror filmmakers, apparently.

"Most of the current horror movies provide sadistic instead of horrific thrills," says Sullivan. "A lot of the compassion the genre used to have has gone out, and we're left with pseudo-snuff films, cannibalistic zombies, 'ripper' films. They're movies about disgust, not horror."

That bloodbath is on the screen, says "Re-Animator's" Gordon, partly because directors are exulting in the fact that they now have the freedom to show whatever they want -- but his more important reason is that the audience requires it.

"In order to shock an audience now, you must show them things they've never seen before," the 38-year-old first-time director says. "The way to scare an audience is to go beyond the boundaries they've accepted. And as long as people have imagination, you'll always be able to go a step further."

Gordon defends the violence in "Re-Animator" as realistic: "The only kind of violence I don't like is where no one gets hurt -- the barroom brawl in the old Westerns . . . You have to show it realistically -- the pain, blood and consequences. Then it serves the very positive function of letting viewers know the results of violence."

Regardless of the recent fascination for the slice-and-dice approach, there are three eternal horror themes: Dracula, Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll/Wolfman. Most horror films rely on at least one.

"These myths have lasted because they attempt to resolve the anxieties of adolescents -- their primary audience," says James Twitchell, author of Dreadful Pleasures: An Anatomy of Modern Horror (Oxford University Press, $18.95). "They enable the audience to play out reproductive strategies that don't work -- and that's why they horrify."

In Twitchell's scenario, Dracula films are really about inappropriate sex, Frankenstein about inappropriate reproduction, and Dr. Jekyll/Wolfman about repressed and unrepressed desires:

*Dracula. This myth seemingly has everything an adolescent wants: Dracula parties all night and makes love deftly, without any false moves. So why is the story disquieting to teen-agers? Because, says Twitchell, this isn't just any older man and younger girl: she is a virgin and he, with his castle, suave manners and evening clothes, is a father figure. The girl's response to the vampire is a sexual response; this is a cultural warning about incest, and the dangers of letting your father manipulate you.

*Frankenstein. Two men, sealed off from women, create a living, breathing human. The creature proceeds to become monstrous, ravaging the countryside. The surface message here is obviously about playing God and overreaching yourself. But from the original 1818 novel Frankenstein to "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," Twitchell argues that this myth also shows the dangers of self-centered sexuality, as the mad young scientist attempts to do something that he can't complete by himself (in "Re-Animator," the serum to bring the dead back to life never quite works right). Teen-age girls see dramatized the anxieties of birthing and mothering (the creature becomes monstrous only because he hasn't been properly nurtured).

*Wolfman/Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Boy loses girl; to get her back, he turns into a wolf. In its original, Victorian sense, the subliminal message here was, "Repress your beastly Mr. Hyde side." Now, the more likely interpretation is: "If you repress your Mr. Hyde, he's going to come out anyway." Recent variations of this myth are "Halloween" and "Friday the 13th," where the homicidal maniac runs around slashing the sexually promiscuous. Here, transformation from man to beast is no longer necessary: the monster is evil incarnate, a tremendous social conservative from whom only a virgin is safe.

"All three of these myths are sexually very conservative: play around with sex and you'll pay. They articulate a very rigid sexual process," says Twitchell.

Like Dr. Frankenstein tinkering away in his lab, every generation reanimates these three myths with new ideas. If the Dracula theme seems to be playing itself out in parody, there has been a recent surge of films where the child is a monster -- "It's Alive," "It Lives Again," "The Brood." Twitchell attributes the popularity of this variation of the vampire myth -- where a woman is visited by an evil being and then produces a malformed, hideous creature -- to our culture's anxiety over children.

"A child is seen as no longer a gift from heaven, but also a burden to be assumed," he says. "Not only do we not want to have eight kids, we positively fear having eight kids -- whereas 30 years ago, it would have been great."

David Lynch's 1977 cult film "Eraserhead" -- about a couple that has a frightening, worm-like baby that won't stop crying -- may end up as a touchstone of modern horror:

"It conveys the sort of feeling we all have about our kids sometimes," says Twitchell, who has two daughters. "The parents in the movie treat the baby with love and concern, but it doesn't respond. The film makes the point that we often don't understand kids, and they don't understand us."

If horror is increasingly about children, its effect on them -- particularly in the slasher or ripper films -- remains a matter of concern.

"Teens see the violent horror films when they don't know anything about death," says Bradbury. "When they learn about dreadful death in real life, they don't want to see those films anymore. I never want to see anything like that -- it's enough if I have to see it occasionally on the highway."

But why are the parents and adults like Bradbury so concerned when the children don't seem to be? "I'm the one who tells my 12-year-old child to stop watching MTV," says Twitchell. "Yet she treats it as a cartoon. I act the same way my mother did. I say, 'Jeez, that's awful.' My visceral parental reaction takes over."

"Kids can handle violence a lot better than adults," agrees Sullivan. "But the effect of today's horror movies on teen-agers depends on the context -- when the violence is misogynist, as it is in the ripper films, that's harmful. You need movies that would terrify them without warping their minds."

The unrated "Re-Animator" is advertised as containing scenes of horror "too intense for anyone under the age of 18" because director Gordon feels that "the material would be too extreme for kids." But despite the film's goriness, he doesn't put it in a class with homicidal maniac stories.

"I don't like horror films that are too close to reality -- the crazy-killers-cutting-people-up type," he says. "That happens too often in real life. People like those films because they feel they can enter a dangerous situation and then triumph. But for me, a horror film is a success when it deals with the fantastic and makes that seem real."

For "Eraserhead" director Lynch, the matter of horror goes beyond that.

"A movie could never measure up to our deepest fears, but after seeing a horror movie maybe some will be more afraid and some will be less afraid," he says. "Our deepest fears have no name."

You don't even need to actually see horror movies to learn from them, Twitchell argues, and offers himself as evidence. Victim of what he calls a "deprived childhood" in Vermont -- "no gum, no E.C. comics, no state fairs until after the vaccine, no frightening movies, no pulp fiction, no sugar "Horror films offer a socially acceptable way to deal with and express violent impulses. We're all capable of violence. Most people suppress those urges -- but they still exist." -- Stuart Gordon, director of "Re-Animator" drinks," he notes in Dreadful Pleasures -- he nevertheless knew all about Dracula and Frankenstein.

"It's not the movie itself that helps you, it's the coded content, and you don't necessarily need the movie for the coded content," he says. "You know the plots of these stories without ever going to the Saturday matinee, because they're all over the place."

Twitchell, 42, researched Dreadful Pleasures for five years, spending a lot of time "running movies through on fast forward. I was interested in only when the movie separates itself from the myth, because then you can see where the power of the myth resides."

Dracula, for example, always speaks with a wonderful Transylvania accent, which comes from Bela Lugosi's 1931 version. "If Dracula talked now the way you and I talk, the audience would say, 'Hey, that's not right -- it should be "Gud eeefning. Velcome to my howse." ' Or throw a 40-year-old mother of three into the film in place of the beautiful virgin, and see if you can tell it -- there'd be no audience for it," he says.

Is the proliferation of horror a sign of the times?

"If we are really confronted with a threat, made-up horror will recede. We don't need a roller coaster then -- just getting through the day is enough," says Twitchell. "In times of stress, like a world war, the audience migrates to cartoons or musical comedies. There's less need for a stalk-and-slasher movie to warn us from promiscuity if we're already restraining ourselves because of fears of AIDS and herpes. Horror is everywhere today, so it seems we're in a period of relative security."

Not so fast, says Sullivan, who makes the opposite argument.

"Economic instability is a climate in which horror flourishes," he says. "A lot of kids go to horror films for sheer escape -- they feel threatened by what they perceive as a poor job market. The evidence is all around us: we do live in a very threatening world, and the horror genre's very popular."

Nonsense, says Bradbury. "People are always interested in horror, no matter what year it is, because we're each a human being, and each of us has to die."

It's a depressing conclusion, he admits, "but then death is downbeat. All you can do is be creative all life long, until they come and grab you off the stage."