The genre of horror movies has been steadily gaining popularity among viewers ever since Alfred Hitchcock had defined the classical principles upon which this genre is based. However, given the fact that there were so many horror movies produced in recent times, critics often have a hard time, while distinguishing really scary movies from those that merely contain a pretense of scariness. It will not be an exaggeration to suggest that a good half of today’s “horror movies” do not really horrify viewers, as they were originally intended to, but simply make them feel grossed out.
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Apparently, many producers have a hard time understanding that the scenes of people being murdered in the most bizarre ways do not necessarily increase movies’ horrifying appeal. At the same time, the viewing of movies that are based on Steven King’s stories usually makes people turn away their faces from the screen on a continuous basis, while being consumed by sheer horror, even though that the scariest moments in these movies do not feature the rivers of blood, as it is the case with “Friday 13th”, for example.
In his article “Elements of Scariness”, Mike Dellosso provides us with insight on what corresponds to the objective quality of horror movies: “So what makes a good horror story? One element of scariness is the unknown. Strange noises, eerie shadows, unexplained phenomena, mysterious happenings, unidentified sightings, and the like. Glimpses of the unknown build suspense… Another element of scariness is the anticipated. The unknown becomes a little more known and the imagination kicks in conjuring up scenarios and images that are best left in nightmares” (Dellosso,2007). We can only agree with the author.
However, we can also mention another crucial element, within a context of “horrifying quality” – unnaturalness. The metaphysical horror is strongly linked to denial the laws of nature. This is because, to deny these laws, means to commit the gravest sin of all, which cannot possibly be “redeemed”. Apparently, Steven King is well aware of this fact, which is why his stories often feature pieces of furniture that can move on its own, animals that can talk, cars that can love or hate, etc. In this paper we will analyze two movies that many people refer to as being particularly horrifying, despite the fact that no maniacs with chainsaws can be found in them, namely “Blair witch project” and “What Lies Beneath”.
The “Blair Witch Project” was released in 1999 and it instantly became a cult movie, even though it seemed like it had absolutely no chance to appeal to the wide range of viewers, being a low-budget film. It is a story of five students who decided to explore the myth of Blair Witch, which is being blamed by locals for the mysterious disappearances of children in Burkittsville, Maryland, over the course of two centuries.
During the course of their expedition to Burkittsville Forest, which had the purpose of exploring different aspects of the myth, these students slowly begin to realize that the misfortunes, which occur to them on a permanent basis and which eventually result in them getting lost in the woods, cannot be explained logically. In its turn, it prompts them to realize that the Blair Witch is not a mythical figure, after all. Even though that Blair Witch never manifests itself in front of students, they feel that she never leaves them and that she is just about to do it, which keeps viewers in suspense, throughout the movie.
We get to see how the members of the “filmmaking team” disappear, one after another, and we also get to hear some strange noises that sound like kids’ laughter, without anything truly horrible happening, right until the end of the film. But, this is about it. There is absolutely nothing truly horrible about the “Blair Witch”, in the classical sense of this word. Yet, at the time when the movie was just being released to the theaters, there were many instances indicated of people from the audience fainting, during the course of the matinee.
Therefore, we cannot agree with Robert Walker, who in his article “The Real Secret of Blair Witch” explains the movie’s success solemnly by the fact that it was being effectively promoted, prior to actual release: “It’s true that Blair Witch seemed to explode out of nowhere to become an overnight sensation. But upon reexamination, it appears that its success stemmed entirely from an Internet whispering campaign” (Walker, p. 326).
Apparently, there was much more to the movie than its artfully designed advertisement campaign. There can be no doubt as to the fact that film’s producers have applied a psychological approach, in order to make “Blair Witch Project” truly scary. It is the unknown that contains a potential danger, which terrifies people more than anything else does. And this “unknown” does not have to be mystic, in its essence. During WW1 and WW2, there were many instances of soldiers defecating in their pants, while they were waiting for the imminent enemy’s attack. However, after the beginning of the enemy’s attack, these soldiers would realize what they were about to deal with, which in its turn, would cause their fear to disappear into a thin air.
The reason why characters in “Blair Witch Project” find themselves being increasingly terrified, as the movie goes on, is that they simply do not know the essence of “hostile unknown”, which they face. At the same, they feel that this essence is being utterly unnatural, just as it is unnatural to hear children’s laughter in the middle of the night in deep woods. Therefore, we can say that it is the fact that viewers can easily associate themselves with the movie’s characters that scares them the most.
The movie “What Lies Beneath” is often being referred to as a “psychological horror film”, which sets it apart from movies like “Night of the Living Dead” or “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”. However, under no circumstances can we talk about it as being less horrifying, simply because it features a comprehensible plot. Just as it is the case with the “Blair Witch Project”, the success of “What Lies Beneath” can be explained by the good knowledge of human psychology, on the part of its producers. In it, Claire Spencer (Michelle Pfeiffer) slowly becomes aware of the fact that there is someone else being invisibly present in the house, where she lives with her husband Norman (Harrison Ford).
Slowly but surely, Claire grows to realize that she actually deals with the ghost, which for some reason would not leave her, as if trying to tell her something. This eventually leads Claire to discover the horrible truth – Norman is the one who had murdered his former student Elizabeth Frank because she had threatened him to tell Claire an affair with Norman. Elizabeth’s ghost begins to haunt the couple to the extent that Claire becomes convinced that she needs to start seeing a psychologist, in order not to lose her mind completely. The movie’s plot culminates when Norman tries to drown his wife, in the same manner as he did with Elizabeth. However, he fails at this because Elizabeth’s ghost is being fully committed to bringing Norman to justice.
Despite the fact that this brief description of the plot might cause people who have not seen the movie to think that “What Lies Beneath” is another “ghost flick”, which only has the potential of scaring teenage girls, the majority of those who have watched it, refer to the movie as one of the scariest films ever. The partial explanation as to movie’s horrifying appeal can be found in Thomas Gliatto’s article “What Lies Beneath”, where he discusses its cinematographic properties: “Elegantly shot and teased along by small, sly touches of humor, Beneath aspires to the kind of sophisticated psycho-horror associated with such sick-puppy maestros as Alfred Hitchcock and Roman Polanski” (Gliatto, p. 33).
Apparently, the movie exploits people’s subconscious fascination with “unnaturalness”, in the best tradition of Hitchcock. The more Claire finds out about her husband’s past, the more she becomes terrified. At the same time, this prompts her to pursue her agenda with even greater dedication, as she becomes subconsciously attracted to death and decay, which is being emanated by Elizabeth’s ghost. This is the scariest thing about the movie. We can say that the essence of “What Lies Beneath” is closely linked to Nietzsche’s famous suggestion that – if we look into the abyss for long enough, the abyss begins to look back at us.
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One of the movie’s most memorable scenes is when Claire absorbs the existential identity of murdered Elisabeth, which changes Claire’s very appearance. She becomes fully “transformed” and her new appearance does scare us a lot because we get to recognize it as the way death reveals itself in the world of the living. There is something utterly sickening in how “transformed” Claire smiles. The fact that “What Lies Beneath” is a very scary movie, despite its seemingly banal plot, has been recognized by many critics, even though that they often have a hard time substantiating their point of view, in this respect.
For example, in her review article “What Lies Beneath”, Lisa Kincaid says: “When people ask me how the movie was, I can’t seem to find enough adjectives. I’ve over-used ‘terrifying’ at this point. ‘Frightening’ seems too soft… You probably think I’m kidding. I’m not. I was really, really scared. People actually screamed in the theater. And these weren’t cheap thrills, either” (Kincaid, 2001). In its turn, this serves as the best proof of “What Lies Beneath” value as a horror movie, because this movie brings up people’s subconscious fears, without letting viewers rationalize them.
The example of two movies that we have analyzed earlier provides us with a better understanding of what the genre of cinematographic horror stands for. It is only when a particular horror movie is able to trigger our animalistic anxieties, which sit deep in our subconsciousness, that we can say refer to it as being worthy of viewing. Steven King would wholeheartedly agree with this statement, as he used to suggest on many occasions that the true purpose of a horror movie is to set viewers on the course of facing their unconscious fears.
These fears derive out of our suspicion that there are maybe more realities than the one that surrounds us. Coming in touch with these realities can only cause us harm because it would render all our previous knowledge useless. Experiencing potential danger brings people pleasure, for as long as it does not threaten their lives in an immediate manner. This is why we often feel like watching horror flicks. Apparently, one can only experience the full range of existential sensations, if he balances on the sharp edge between life and death. Horror movies provide us with the surrogate for such sensation, which is why we get thrills from being scared while watching these movies in the theater.
- Dellosso, M. “Elements of Scariness”. 2007. Writer Interrupted. Web.
- Gliatto, T. (2000). What Lies Beneath. People Weekly. v. 54 no. 5, p. 33.
- Kincaid, L. “What Lies Beneath”. 2001. The 11th Hour Web Magazine. Web.
- Walker, R. (2000). The Real Secret of Blair Witch. Fortune Magazine, v. 142 no. 6, p. 326.