The scariest element of any horror story isn’t the rising kill count, graphic eviscerations, or misshapen creatures skulking through door frames. It isn’t the methodically molded mythology, the slow subtle turns, or the brain bending twists, it’s the element you might mistake for the weakest link. The scariest element of any horror story is hope.
Without hope an axe wielding maniac is just a kid tearing the legs off of spiders. If we know all the deaths are foregone conclusions we won’t be shocked when a film starts hemorrhaging cast members. Without hope the torture dungeon is just an autopsy room with screaming. If we’re exposed to too much gore our eyes will eventually adjust to the sight of red. Without hope there’s no point in rooting for anyone. The characters become sacrificial lambs that we’ve been conditioned to resent more than sympathize with. Continue reading The Scariest Element of Any Horror Story Is…→
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 Strangersclaimed 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.
Cinema therapy can help you escape reality, but reality is not always so easy to get back to.
Originally a guest post for rachelintheoc.com, this essay reveals my coping mechanism for dark times, side effects and all (follow Rachel on Twitter @RachelintheOC). This story explains why I can’t have a conversation about depression without pop culture references peppered in. It’s one of my best pieces, which is why I had to share it here.
Andrew: A Story About Cinema Therapy
From ages two to six, I spent my waking hours at a living room daycare center. My playmates were the caregiver’s three sons. Their principal forms of recreation were hurling rocks through windows, leaving milk jugs in the street, and beating the living snot out of me.
It was their home, their shield generator facility, and I was the rebel scum who’d broken into it. They had to make an example. Their mother turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to my side of the story. She had stories of her own to watch.
Her boys kept the den locked down, the only window of escape was through the TV. While they amputated action figures, I fled to a galaxy far far away. Watching Star Wars on an endless loop, something happened to me. Turning away from the screen, hyperdrive lines streaked through my vision. Out the window, I watched Tie Fighters chase robins. Looking at the night sky, I saw the moon was no moon.
I ceased to see Mark Hamill on screen. I saw myself. I had slipped into Luke Skywalker’s Velcro boots. I was mourning Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru. I wanted to go back to save Obi Wan. When my caregiver switched the TV off, I saw the world differently.
These boys weren’t my peers, they were storm troopers marching across my finger paintings, clones programmed to sit on my face. Seduced by the dark side of the force, they dragged me through the backyard, and pushed me into the Sarlacc pit. When I limped inside, Nanny Vader yelled at me for tracking mud across her carpet. She dragged me to the detention block by my ear.
This wasn’t a day care, it was a Death Star. I wasn’t clogging a laundry shoot full of toys, I was launching proton torpedoes into a thermal exhaust port. I wasn’t waving a tampon at my captors, I was slicing bad guys with a light saber.
When Nanny Vader told me to eat my peas, the ghost of Obi Wan Kenobi appeared beside her.
I wrote a guest blog for @RachelintheOC that’s currently up on her site. It’s about how I’ve always used movies to help me deal with tough times, and the side effect this coping mechanism has had on me. I talk about where expectation and reality split. It’s the closest I’ll ever get to writing a memoir, and far more personal than most of what I usually post here (if you can believe that).