In film, certain paranormal plot devices have overstayed their welcome: exorcisms, found footage movies, forbidden objects sold at the mall, and the claim that there’s a true story behind them all. We used to find these themes intriguing, until we did our research.
Now we know that sleep paralysis causes hallucinations that look like ghostly visitations, that sleep deprivation turns shadows into forms, and that night terrors are a product of neurology not demonology.
We know that the regression techniques used to uncover alien abductions relied on leading questions. A hypnotherapist would ask, “How high is the light off the ground,’ and their patient imagined it in the sky, based on the implication.
We know the same techniques caused the Satanic panic that had patients crying “Cultists!” at their family and friends. In the 1980s, many women claimed they were forced to sacrifice their children, until medical examinations proved they were still virgins.
Our suspension of disbelief has dropped. Our intellect has adjusted to scare tactics. Our tastes have become too refined for cheap thrills. We want to be scared, but our bullshit filter keeps catching everything Hollywood throws at it. That’s why these clichés must be upgraded if they’re going to frighten us again.
When The Exorcist premiered in 1973, audiences were fainting in the aisles, forty-one years later, audiences are falling asleep for other reasons. The mystique is gone. We’ve seen so many demons get dispatched, we’re questioning their intelligence. Why break out of hell, when they can be sent back with a few measly blessings?
As Hollywood keeps telling variations of the same story, we keep piling on the questions.
What if the demon isn’t allergic to holy water and crucifixes? What if it doesn’t speak Latin? What if Catholicism isn’t the cure every time? What if it responds to protestant prayers? What if the Kabbalah is its kryptonite? What if it takes a Wiccan spell to send it back to hell? Would polytheists call on a pantheon of Gods to deal with it? Would Scientologists audit the evil out? Would Buddhist’s even bother?
NBC’s new show Constantine gets around these questions by having the hero recite the ‘co-exist’ bumper sticker of exorcism prayers, name dropping elements of all the world religions. It’s a solution that doesn’t address the real problem.
The problem is assuming the rite of exorcism still resonates with audiences. Not everyone wets themselves at the mere inclusion of a demon, we weren’t all raised to believe in possession, we expect our scares to come from better storytelling.
In The Exorcist, the demon Pazuzu tricks young Regan into texting him through a Ouija board. After a month of flirting, he moves all his stuff into her brain. Soon Regan’s dropping F-bombs on her mom and directors on the pavement, practically begging for an MRI scan. Crab-walking down the stairs, coughing up blood, levitating furniture about, Pazuzu wants to get found out. He wants Mrs. MacNeil to call on the clergy. Pazuzu’s insidious goal is to consume a holy man’s soul.
The Exorcist works by humanizing these confrontations. Father Damien isn’t just reciting verses, he’s grieving over his dead mother, he’s finding his faith again. The director gives the audience the feeling that it’s not Damien’s words hurting the demon, it’s his newfound belief in their meaning, and the lesson he’s learned through the course of these events.
Recent exorcism movies abandon the message in favor of the creeds. They put symbology over substance. These are films that started strong but ended with the same tired chant.
The Rite spends so much time setting up Anthony Hopkins’s possession, but when his student figures out what’s going on, the demon is dispatched with a quick round of tongue-fu. The Exorcist: The Beginning does the same thing. In The Conjuring, the demon flings things at the Warrens, to keep them from getting through the exorcism. The tension comes from how fast they can read before they get hit with something.
After seeing the same scene play out so many times, it loses its impact. Yellow contact lenses, flaking skin, and dated obscenities just don’t have the same effect on me. Possession could be a frightening theme, but these incantation evictions have gotten underwhelming.
I’d love to see more demon possession movies where the traditional methods don’t work, where the demon has a calculated goal, a long con revealed in a third act twist, and an ending that favors an emotional encounter over a dramatic reading. (See The Exorcist 3 for a great example of this).
Found footage movies are a guilty pleasure of mine. While most film critics have given up on the genre, I always find a few examples that redeem it. VHS showed me the direction grind house movies are going, Afflicted showed me what turning into a vampire is like from the vampire’s point of view, and Trollhunter showed me just how serious Norway is about pest control.
If you’re making a found footage movie, commit to the bit. If you want wide shots, have your characters place those cameras in the location, don’t cut from crane shots back to hand cams and expect us not to notice. If the characters can’t see from that perspective, then we shouldn’t either.
If you want to sell us on the idea that this footage was discovered, then leave it somewhere where it can be found. If all the camera operators end up in the belly of a demon, then how are we even watching this film?
Soundscapes can be used to great effect, from the chorus of babies crying in The Blair Witch Project to the thunderous footfalls in Paranormal Activity. Don’t break the suspension of disbelief by adding a score. Linking the look of cinema vérité with mood music is like making a chicken omelet, the pairing feels funny.
The Last Exorcism did this, opening as a talking head documentary, before devolving into series of low droning strings and chord stabbing jump scares.
Anyone who sets out to make a found footage movie needs to deliver on their promises. If you mention the possibility of a ghost, alien, or cryptozoological entity, show us something by the end of the movie.
Ouija, Hasbro’s spiritual sequel to Battleship, follows a group of teens who try to contact the ghost of their friend with a spirit board. The trailer cycles through a switchboard of stock horror movie sound effects, filtering every shot through the same old color palette. The only new thing it brings to the table is a toy that has been debunked over and over again.
We know how spirit boards work when tested under scientific conditions. With a stack of chips tied to the planchette, we should see them lean away from an invisible hand, instead we see them lean from the direction of the living participants. This is a trick of the subconscious. Ideomotor actions cause the participants to push the planchette without even realizing it.
Just watch the experiment in action.
(If you want to see mentalist Derren Brown take this Ouija board scam to a whole other level check out his Seance Special).
Still, Time magazine says, “the terrifying seance-conducting game will finally be getting the starring role it deserves.”
Does it deserve it? For me this Parker Brothers plaything is just as frightening as a Magic 8-Ball, or a pile of fortune cookies. How scary can something filed between Apples to Apples and Yahtzee really be?
The smart way to make a mystical MacGuffin work is to draw attention to the evidence against it. Say what you will about M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, but the film points out that crop circles could be made by hoaxers with boards and string.
The X-Files did this all the time, hanging a lantern on a dispelled myth, only to reintroduce it with a sophisticated new bag of tricks. Agent Mulder gave the audience a refresher on an urban legend, while Agent Scully explained it away with science. What they were looking for was always something in between.
Maybe this new Ouija board movie does just that, but judging by the trailer, Jumanji was scarier.
Based on Actual Events
Every trailer ending with the words “based on actual events” needs an asterisk beside it, followed by a screen full of annotations.
The Strangers claimed to be based on actual events citing the Manson family murders as inspiration. That’s insulting to the victims, their families, and the audience’s intelligence.
The Quiet Ones ends with a still shot of the real researchers the film is based on. Turns out the people in the photograph are actors. Everyone involved in the study that inspired the story is alive and kicking.
The Fourth Kind ends with footage of a talk show that happens to be hosted by the film’s director.
Though the caption “Based on actual events” brings in box office revenue, the phrase itself has become worthless. If I can dismiss your premise with a quick Wikipedia visit, then you’ve lost me before the opening credits.
The true claims these films make aren’t always harmless, especially when they further superstitions that impact people with mental illness. The Exorcism of Emily Rose altered the facts to make its Priest more sympathetic. The impression it leaves the audience with is that epileptic seizures might be caused by something demonic.
Before you go writing that found footage based on actual events exorcism picture with the prominently placed Ouija board, ask yourself: how long will these elements frighten audiences? How could you upgrade them to work in this century? How could you scare skeptics?
We want you to psych us out, to subvert our expectations, and give us something more terrifying than we could possibly imagine.
For more on horror clichés, check out my articles on overused monsters and how to reinvent the jump scare. To see how I’d reimagine the classic exorcist scenario, check out my short story Eviction Notice.
Feel free to completely disagree with me in the comments, or better yet, suggest horror movies that use these themes right.