balboni films

Horror and the Spectator (part 2)

[Please review the introduction in Part I for context]

But graphic violence and brutality are not at all the only means that horror filmmakers use to manipulate the spectator’s senses. On the contrary, an equally popular trend takes the complete opposite road: A cinema of the unknown. In this mode, the film leaves much up to the viewer’s imagination; rather than show you the monster or killer slicing up their victims, the content is only implied, and the spectator’s own mind fills in the gaps.

One of the most notable entries making use of this effect is The Blair Witch Project, released in 1999. The film is presented as “lost footage” shot by three filmmakers who disappeared into the woods of Virginia while searching for the legendary Blair Witch, and from start to finish, nothing breaks that illusion (unlike Cannibal Holocaust, there is no inherently fictional storyline being cut to between the footage). The basic plot within the footage has the team getting lost after a few days, hearing and seeing increasingly strange events, and eventually deciding that someone or something is following and harassing them, ultimately leading to their deaths. (20)


The Blair Witch Project (1999)
The methods used to create horror in Blair Witch take a very minimalist approach, relying more on sound design than visual elements. Early on, when the trio attempt to sleep in their tent, they hear crashing and cracking from deep within the woods. When they investigate, they do not venture away from their camp, and the only visual element the audience is presented with is that of the camera’s headlamp pointing into the dark forest (with the sound still occurring). There are several more instances of this throughout the film, with the only true “visual” scares coming in the form of mysterious rock piles and occult-like symbols dangling from trees.

More recently, Paranormal Activity (2009) used the same methods of minimalism in order to create atmosphere, in fact using an even simpler method: A couple thinks they may be experiencing ghostly encounters at night while they are asleep, so they set up a video camera in their room at night to monitor activity. This activity escalates from singular noises in the dark to full-on possession by the end, and the view never leaves the single camera (which does become handheld at certain points). (21) Whereas Blair Witch implied a two-camera setup and the use of a DAT, thereby breaking the illusion somewhat and offering a more “cinematic” feel, Paranormal Activity never does. In fact, the film goes so far as to eschew end credits (again, unlike Blair Witch), so there is even less relief that it was “just a movie” at the end.


Paranormal Activity (2009)
In doing this, the filmmakers are able to achieve two things, suspension and atmosphere. The suspension comes from an expectation that something should be seen, when in fact it is not. Part of this is likely entirely psychological, but it could also be looked at in the context of spectatorship in general: Audiences, especially those attending horror films, are conditioned to see “money shots”- the monster jumping out, the killer with the knife, etc.- after tension. Here, the filmmakers prey on that conditioning by using up tension and giving it no release, instilling a sense of unease that, as a result, never lets up. This then effectively creates the atmosphere for the audience.

In order to not clutter the point with strictly cinéma vérité films, it is worth noting some more traditional narratives that follow this same vein, but allow for more release, making what would otherwise be small visual moments become ones that are quite definitive.

M. Night Shyamalan’s “Signs” (2002) follows a family at a remote farmhouse during the course of an alien invasion. (22) By most standards, it is fairly traditional in terms of narrative and cinematography. What makes it psychological horror, though, and not just a thriller, is Shyamalan counts on your fear of the unknown. The fact that there are alien beings running around is introduced narratively, not visually, shortly before most of the encounters with them occur, which has a definitive effect on the viewer’s perspective.

For example, there is a moment where the main character is running through his crops at night, when he drops his flashlight. He picks it back up, turns it on, and points it just in time to glimpse a leg moving back into the stalks. (22) In a traditional sense, this “money shot” would be very poor- we see next to nothing. But the viewer is so conditioned up to that point with the atmosphere- newscaster talking about aliens, crop circles, shots that linger on seemingly empty spaces just a little too long- that they are effectively, already scared. By introducing just a small element of the unknown (what was that leg from?), Shyamalan is able to further frighten viewers.

Two other films play more literally with that fear, via an actual obscured view: The Fog (1980) and The Mist (2007). The Fog is a basic ghost story- every one hundred years a fog rolls over the town of Antonio Bay, and in the year that the plot takes place, it brings with it the ghosts of a shipwrecked crew. Over the course of two hours, the most that is ever shown of the ghosts are outlines, glowing eyes, and part of a hand, leaving their actual physical presence almost completely ambiguous. The Mist takes place in a small town after a mysterious thunderstorm knocks out power, and follows a man and his young son as they go to the supermarket to get supplies. As they do so, a mist rolls in and engulfs the entire town, with strange, alien creatures lurking inside of it. In the real world, water particles are not often considered in themselves, scary. But in film, it heightens the sense of not knowing what is coming, by shrouding it in a veil.


The Mist (2007)
As shown in the preceding examples, the cinema of the unknown asks the spectator to actively engage in the viewing experience, thereby actively participating in their own fear. Without their own experiences and their own fears, none of these films would be even remotely frightening. This also tends to generate more controversy in terms of “what is scary?” than gore-centered horror films do: with Paranormal Activity, many simply found it dull. Lori Hoffman of Atlantic City Weekly wrote “…One has to sit through nearly 80 minutes of mind-numbing tedium before the payoff, a payoff that isn’t really worth the wait.” (25) The relationship between horror and the viewer within this mode is much more subjective- it may scare you, or it may not.

These are the two largest modes of horror, and many of its subgenres operate within them. There are some, though, that play on slightly different fears. “Slashers” such as Friday the 13th, Halloween, and A Nightmare on Elm Street fall somewhat into both categories, but rely on societal fears of serial killers to achieve their goals. Occult-based films like the aforementioned The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Omen all deal with demonism, a fear firmly rooted in religion, especially Christianity. There is also a more recent trend in American cinema of remaking or imitating Japanese horror, with films like The Grudge, The Ring, and The Eye. Stylistically, these films prey upon an aversion to the supernatural without any specific religious connotations, which likely offers a much broader appeal.


We live vicariously through movies, and it is certainly one of the greatest strengths of the art form. But with horror, that vicarious experience is different. For instance, if one watches a film about an expedition to the top of Mt. Everest, they might think “it’s so beautiful, I would love to see that view” or “what an accomplishment, I wish I could do something like that”. On the other hand, nobody wants to be eaten by cannibals. Nobody wants to find themselves lost in the woods, starving to death while something harasses them every night. Nobody wants to experience extreme psychological stress on the level that most main characters in horror films do. But, films are not real life.

“People go to horror films because they want to be frightened or they wouldn’t do it twice,” says Jeffrey Goldstein, a professor of social and organizational psychology at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands. (26) A recent article by the National Science Foundation also suggests that our attraction to horror may be due to “enjoying the adrenaline rush, being distracted from mundane life, vicariously thumbing our noses at social norms, and enjoying a voyeuristic glimpse of the horrific from a safe distance.”(26)

This does not seem far from the truth- after all, anyone that has ever been scared in real life has experienced that rush of adrenaline, and the only difference between that and the scare had in a theater is that in real life, most people are too worried about whatever the catalyst of that rush is to enjoy it. But within horror- especially the cinema of the unknown- the spectator enters the theater knowing they do not have to worry about the consequences of what is occurring on screen, and as a result can take pleasure from that rush.

But is there a point where it is no longer entertainment? Films in the cinema of revulsion category are notorious for being banned and earning intense critical scrutiny, often because many seem to be designed to shock, and not to tell a story. Nev Pierce, of the BBC, says of Hostel, “beyond its ‘How far can I go?’ attitude to violence, Hostel has no reason to exist.” (27) Concerning Cannibal Holocaust, Eric Henderson of Slant Magazine wrote, “Cannibal Holocaust … [is] foul enough to christen you a pervert for even bothering.” (28)

It would appear, then, that the viewer does not have to engage in watching cinema with the intent of “seeing a good story”, typically the main draw of films based within a narrative. If the set-pieces these films are intended to be the moments of gore, as they seem to be, then the viewer understands exactly what they are getting themselves into. When the viewer enters the theater with the intent of watching culturally unacceptable acts, the result is that the entertainment becomes less about the story and more about memorable moments of brutality, thus the very definition of what makes a “good film” changes.

Horror provides a unique challenge to the spectator by asking us to so fully suspend our disbelief as to instill otherwise unpleasant emotions: That of fright and/or disgust. While the disgusting elements of gore may be less visceral on the screen than in real life, they are demonstrably unpleasant for many, and exquisite entertainment for some. Fright, such as that found in more minimalist films like The Blair Witch Project and Signs, provides some with a safe way to experience intensely scary events, much like a thrill ride, while completely boring others. What all of this demonstrates is that horror relies intensely on what the spectator is able to draw from their own life while in the cinema (what scares them?), making it a genre of film that, ironically, embraces the very audience it is trying to horrify.

[Sources omitted for brevity, but in the exceedingly unlikely event you would like them, contact me]