Just prior to the publication of Doctor Sleep 2013, Stephen King said in an interview that he was nervous about the reaction to the long awaited sequel to his classic haunted hotel story The Shining. People are more difficult to scare nowadays, he said, because “they have gotten a lot more savvy about the tricks that novel writers and film-makers use to scare them with.”
That set me thinking about those film-makers’ tricks, and about whether King’s statement was actually true. Nowadays the default device for unimaginative horror directors is to try and shock the audience with a sudden cut, accompanied by an abrupt burst of deafening music, as seen and heard in just about every dull horror remake of the past decade. It’s like someone creeping up behind you and yelling “Boo!” Perhaps it will leave you shaken, but not stirred, and definitely not scared. The best scary movies have more finely calibrated ammunition in their arsenal.
Any trick used repeatedly ceases to have shock value, like the “Phew, it’s all over… aagh no it’s not!” moment that once made entire audiences leap out of their seats at the end of Carrie, or whimper in fear as the apparently dead bogeyman sat up behind Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween, but which now induces groans of “Oh no, not again”. The first time I saw a Mirror Scare was in Robert Hamer’s segment of the Ealing portmanteau chiller Dead of Night (1945), in which a haunted mirror reflects not its actual surroundings, but a murder scene from the past. Roman Polanski also makes terrifying use of the effect in Repulsion, when Catherine Deneuve’s wardrobe mirror fleetingly reflects someone who isn’t there. But nowadays the Mirror Scare is just another “Boo!” device; there’s even a YouTube supercut.
Another effect that has been done to death is the Killer’s Point of View, first made popular in 1970s proto-slasher classics Black Christmas (1974) and Halloween (1978), but probably first seen in The Spiral Staircase, a serial killer thriller (directed by Robert Siodmak in 1945, before the term “serial killer” had even been coined), and given an even nastier twist in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960). Used well, it can augment tension and make audiences uneasy about their complicity with the killer; used thoughtlessly, it can dehumanise the stalked victims and turn them into disposable objects.
But there’s no end to what a good director can conjure up with framing, lighting and reaction shots. This is particularly true of ghost stories, in which less usually means more, since much of their scariness relies on giving the viewer’s imagination free reign to wander rather than jolting it with a shock effect that abruptly slams a door shut, rather than opening it up to endless corridors of uncertainty. The Innocents, Jack Clayton’s 1961 film version of the Henry James story The Turn of the Screw, is an elegant primer of what can be done with these basic ingredients. The ghosts in The Innocents never jump out and yell “boo!”at Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr), the governess who fears the two children she’s looking after are being “corrupted” by the spirits of two dead servants. Their MO is stealth, not shock – they leave you with the sense that they have always been there, but that Miss Giddens has only just seen them, which is far more frightening than any amount of jumping Jack-in-the-Box behaviour.
Indeed, her first glimpse of the dead servant Peter Quint breaks all the unwritten rules of when and where ghosts are supposed to appear. She sees him standing on top of a high tower, partially obscured by dazzling sunlight, surrounded by winged things that are probably doves but might just as well be bats. It’s a supremely unsettling vision, not least because this sighting, in the middle of a sunny day, is about as far removed from the more traditional shadowy manifestation as one could get.
At this point in the story, we’re not even sure if it is a ghost – but the glimpse is accompanied by an eerie silence as the sounds of summer fade away, making the moment intensely subjective, heart-stopping and ominous. Later on, a childish game of hide-and-seek (there’s one of those in one of the stories in Dead of Night as well) takes a turn for the terrifying when Miss Giddens hides behind some curtains and sees Quint staring through the window at her, almost indecently close. The only sounds are Quint’s and the governess’s breathing, which subliminally (and aptly, given the ambiguity of the film’s subtext), evoke the sounds of sexual arousal. (More recently, The Conjuring rang an ingenious clapping variation on the hide-and-seek trope.)
Robert Wise’s The Haunting, another 1960s classic (adapted from Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House), plays even more than The Innocents on sound effects, reminding you there are few things more frightening than hearing unexplained noises in the night, whether it’s laughter, weeping or banging. (It’s one of the reasons I wear ear-plugs in bed.) The Haunting also assails us with oppressive furniture and terrifying wallpaper, contradicting the idea that haunted houses are empty. This one is crammed so full of interior decor it’s a wonder there’s any room for people in there – which is perhaps the point.
As in The Innocents, the central point of view of The Haunting is that of a neurotic spinster – spinsters of a certain age being women who, it’s implied, are forever teetering on the edge of hysteria due to their not having had sex, a state of existence considered unnatural in a society predicated on pairing off, which makes them ideal conduits for spookiness both real and imagined. The very name “Miss Giddens” (the character is unnamed, I think, in James’ original story) suggests giddiness, of someone who is already slightly untethered; you could imagine them being described as “mad as a boxful of giddens”. Are these ghost stories implicit rape fantasies? (It’s to the horror genre’s credit, by the way, that these ideas are left implicit – their very effectiveness resides in the possible interpretations being buried, rather than hammered home, as I’m doing here.) It’s only a short journey and a few years from Miss Giddens and The Haunting‘s Eleanor Lance to Carol in Repulsion, quietly going insane in her South Kensington flat, no longer able to distinguish between real and imaginary molesters.
Fast cutting, whip-pans and fancy camerawork are the enemies of fear; the zoom at the end of the celebrated corridor sequence from The Exorcist III ruins, for me, what would otherwise have been a brilliant scare, making you jump because of the camera movement rather than because of what is actually happening. It’s the long takes and slow deliberate movements that are truly unnerving, particularly combined with careful composition, giving audiences time to search the dark spaces and dread what they might find there. John Carpenter perfected the art of widescreen composition in Halloween, where you’re forever trying to spot the bogeyman in the background, for all the world as though it were a nightmarish version of Where’s Wally? – and while you’re examining the background for signs of the alien in another of his films, The Thing, he throws in a googly by having a shape suddenly flit across the foreground. Needless to say, none of this works nearly as well in the pan-and-scan versions of these films that used to be shown on TV; cropping the frame also means cropping the imagination.
The post-Millennium maestro of this sort of clever fear-inducing composition is Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who in ghost stories like Kairo (2001) and Retribution (2006) uses every trick in the book – focus, framing, lighting – to turn you into a gibbering wreck. Just when you think you’ve predicted how and where the next phantom will appear, it comes at you from an unexpected angle. (Kurosawa has cited The Innocents as having been one of the biggest influences on his creepy directing style.)
Not long ago I witnessed a young and rowdy, popcorn-munching Saturday night movie audience staring mesmerised at the sort of long static shots they would never have tolerated in an art movie… but this was Paranormal Activity 3, and they knew something could happen at any second. The fixed camera viewpoint (or, in the case of Paranormal Activity 3‘s spookiest scene, a slow pan) is more effective than that tiresome other trademark of low-budget mockumentary horror – characters running around with a camcorder before meeting gruesome fates you can’t see properly because they dropped it on its side.
James Wan, who inadvertently kick-started a torture-porn franchise by directing Saw, has shown there is still a huge market for old-fashioned ghost stories. His Dead Silence, The Conjuring and Insidious films are virtually compendiums of creepy clichés – The Conjuring alone features a frightened dog, a basement, an attic, old artefacts, a doll, a clown, reflections, a musical box, an eerie lake and billowing sheets, among other familiar devices.* Some would call this overkill, but it’s the very fact they are familiar that makes them so effective; we’ve all been there, seen that, and now we’re on edge in the knowledge that we could see it again at any second. Which proves, pace Stephen King, that the well-worn tricks, effectively marshalled, can still scare the bejeesus out of you.
There’s one sequence in the first Insidious film, in particular, that is almost worthy of Carpenter or Kiyoshi – when framing, lighting and camera movement unite to deliver a perfectly calculated chill in which the ghost has been hiding in plain sight all along (see below). New approaches to the ghost story are always welcome, but in the meantime, while audiences may well be savvy to the old tricks, they’re always ready to be terrified by them.
*Rereading this sentence, it makes me think of the artefacts in the basement of The Cabin in the Woods.
ETA: the clip showing the artefacts in the basement has been removed, so you’ll have to watch the film. It’s a lot of fun. Here’s the trailer.
This piece was first posted on the Telegraph website in September 2013. This version has been heavily edited, and I have added several new paragraphs.
For tips on how NOT to film a ghost story, please see SOME REASONS WHY THE WOMAN IN BLACK WASN’T SCARY.