It promises to be as frightening as a dive into the Black Lagoon, an expedition to Skull Island, or a night in the woods at Camp Crystal Lake.

And that's how people like it.

The fifth annual Terror Film Festival opens Thursday, presenting three days of the creepiest independent films to be found this side of the Borgo Pass.

"People like being scared," said festival director Felix Diaz, who is also a producer, writer, and performer. "There are a lot of levels and shadings, and academic intellectualism, but in the end: It makes your heart race."

Horror films have been scaring people since before actors could talk - from the day Dr. Caligari opened his diabolical cabinet in 1919, and, three years later, Nosferatu proved himself a pain in the neck.

The Philadelphia festival embraces and expands that tradition, offering new filmmakers the chance to live their dreams - or perhaps, as the organizers suggest, their nightmares.

This year's festival will show 37 movies culled from more than 500 submissions. Fifty filmmakers will take part, along with a few hundred fans - among them baby boomers raised on Universal Studios classics, and toddlers brought by parents who really ought to know better.

Screenwriters and filmmakers have a chance to share $15,000 in cash and prizes, and to vie for the festival's top honor, the coveted Claw Award.

That's claw as in curved, pointed appendage.

In 2008, Hollywood composer and sound designer Alan Howarth showed up to accept a lifetime-achievement Claw, having already won team Oscars for Bram Stoker's Dracula and The Hunt for Red October.

The festival takes place at the Ethical Society building on Rittenhouse Square. During screenings, screaming is acceptable, although a certain decorum is otherwise observed. Drinking the blood of fellow patrons is discouraged. As is howling at the moon.

It is after all a film festival, not a fan convention. Nobody shows up in costume. Or throws popcorn at the screen.

Among the anticipated films this year is Mold!, whose title tells you most of what you need to know. The movie evokes The Blob, the 1958 Steve McQueen film, with green mold replacing red gelatin. Another film is Recreator, in which a group of teenagers stumble upon a secret lab and encounter faster, stronger versions of - (wait for it) - themselves.

Many films shown at the Terror Film Festival - that's TFF, for short - achieve wider distribution, showing up on places such as Syfy, formerly the Sci-Fi Channel, and for sale on Amazon.com.

Diaz said the idea for the festival came to him at the time and place when most good ideas arrive: at 1 a.m., in a diner. What started as a small summer event has grown into a regular pre-Halloween celebration.

People come from everywhere. Two years ago, a guy flew in from France. The year before that, a woman came all the way from Australia to present her six-minute film.

"Secretly, inside, we love the thrill of being scared," said Princess Horror, a festival cofounder and spokesperson - or is it spooksperson? - who declined to provide her real name. "We get to face our fears, but in a safe spot."

The theatrical pomp of the princess is part of the attraction. She describes herself as part-time actress, sometime filmmaker, and full-time intergalactic visitor who traveled millions of miles to Earth.

She also studies French and Russian ballet.

Among her favorite films: The oeuvre of Vincent Price, particularly The Tingler, a happy little film about a spinal parasite.

Of course, back then, in 1959, horror meant horror. The same was true in the 1960s, when the early Universal films appeared on TV, fueling a monster revival led by Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Creature From the Black Lagoon.

In the 1980s, slasher films such as A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th, wherein Jason Voorhees gorily executed Crystal Lake teens, became established enterprises that spawned sequel after sequel.

When the 2002 remake of The Ring - originally a Japanese hit called Ringu - earned $128 million at the box office, it triggered a continuing torrent of redos of films from Japan, Korea, Spain, and elsewhere.

"Horror has to reinvent itself," said Kendall Phillips, an associate dean at Syracuse University and author of Projected Fears: Horror Films and American Culture. "A kiss may always be a kiss, to paraphrase Casablanca, but a monster isn't a monster once you get used to it. It becomes funny. Horror has to continually push boundaries."

One result is that the genre has become more diverse. Ask for a horror film at Blockbuster, and the clerk may wonder which kind you want: Slasher? Thriller? Demonic possession? How about "horromedy," a comic version of the horror film?

It's possible to enjoy them all.

For instance, festival director Diaz - who prefers to be called Claw - cites RoboCop as a favorite film. But he also loves Hitchcock and anything starring Michael York.

"I like thrillers, old horror, some zombie movies, but not gore," he said. "In the end, the actor in me wants to do drama. The person in me wants to have fun."

Terror Film Festival

Screenings: Programs begin at 4 p.m. Thursday and Friday and at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Philadelphia Ethical Society, 1906 Rittenhouse Square. The Claw Awards program begins at 9 p.m. Saturday.

Tickets: VIP admission for the entire festival is $30. Daily admission is $10. Admission to Claw Awards is $10. All seating is general admission.

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Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 215-854-2415 or jgammage@phillynews.com.