We’re well into that time of year again which Bradbury christened “the October Country”, which means of course things get a little spooky.
Everyone’s got their go-to literary and cinematic go-to chills; my own preference is overwhelmingly for the quant, archaic, and nostalgic. Think Edgar Allen Poe, and the films of Hammer studios. Generally, I prefer to tickle the fear centres rather than jab them with a spear.
But every once in a while, I gaze just a little deeper into the well, reach just a little farther into the pit, until. . .woe! That’s enough! I stumble as far as I wish to go, then retreat back to Disney cartoons. And I always wonder what it was that drew me to that place, and what it was I actually got out of the not-always-pleasant experience. Or, to get to the point:
Why Do We Watch Horror Films?
I hadn’t intended to be so overreaching, but I can’t help asking such things while watching a film like Sinister, a Scott Derrickson extravaganza from 2012. Every year I test my limits; this year, I met them with Sinister. By which I mean, it is about as horrific as a film can be before certain lines or decency are crossed, which I maintain are still vital. The question is, why bother pushing the limits at all? That’s what we’re discussing here.
Sinister was not received universally well. It got only about 63% fresh on the Tomatometer. Peter Howell of The Toronto Star called it “more stupid than scary”. He has a point: Sinister has no shortage of idiocies which multiply and compound each other when you have time to reflect on them (especially in the daylight). It faithfully carries the curse of a plot largely dependent on the stupidity of its characters: why won’t the Ethan Hawk character (Oswald Ellison) turn all this evidence over to police? Why won’t he tell his wife, or the sheriff, or the Professor, or someone what’s going on? Why won’t he turn on the friggin’ lights?
|Director Scott Derrikson|
It also carries one of my least favourite tropes, a certain star-struck overestimation of the competence of serial killers: a near omniscient ability to track victims and elude police, and a preference for ridiculously elaborate and utterly impractical methods of murder. (Just how heavy is that branch?)
Howell, however, is only half right; for all this, Sinister is a deeply frightening film. I’m with Roger Ebert on this one, who called it “undeniably scary”.
|Rober Cargill: screenwriter|
Truly scary films are incredibly rare. If fear is a survival mechanism, how can a mere movie inspire it? Sinister manages it, not via the silly jump scares of the Paranormal Activities, or Insideous, (though there are no shortage of these), but by establishing dread of what may come next. We are aware early on that we are going to confront something very dark and very evil, and have a sinking feeling that our protagonist will be utterly unequipped to fight this evil. True, the supernatural element (I give nothing away by revealing this) means it might not have made a difference, but a character with a stronger moral core could hardly have done worse. . .
The device of the “found footage” is essential here: what contains more potential horrors than a mysterious can of film discovered in the attic of a murder site? A film, a tape, a cd or USB drive are almost Schrödinger boxes of endless possibility. This being a murder site, and this being a horror film, none of the possibilities are good. Already the anticipation is ominous. Found footage also forces us to adapt two points of view. One is with Oswalt, sitting with him in the dark, knowing he is going to see something dreadful. The other, is with the killer: we are forced into the head of an unspeakably malignant entity and made unwitting accomplice to its sins – voyeur, invader, murderer, betrayer. It’s not a nice place to be.
The footage itself sets up innocent, idyllic scenes for the express purpose of violating them, then shows us just enough to confirm our worst suspicions, yet still lets our imaginations do the dirty work. It also implies there is more to come. The sense of ominous anticipation that creates is a feeling I would equate with fear.
I didn’t really like the ending; I found it over indulgent and over obvious, where a more Hitchockian minimalist approach would have made the same implications. But it also leaves no doubt as to what we must have suspected from the beginning. I’m not sure I enjoyed Sinister, but have to admire its craftsmanship. Credit where it’s due, Sinister created fear.
But why bother?
Stephen King once suggested that scary stories and horror films are our way of satiating our repressed dark sides. The analogy he used was tossing the occasional raw meet to the caged alligators of our subconscious. Keep them fed, and they won’t try to escape. I suppose there is a kind of tempting logic to it, but the explanation doesn’t satisfy me. Possibly we really are just serial killers at heart, who can keep the violence at bay by tossing it the occasional bone, but that strikes me as an easy answer. It’s not good enough.
Let’s get back to the found footage. Find an unlabelled film/tape/cd/USB. The possibilities? Endless. Now, narrow it down a little bit: the footage will be something disturbing, something awful, something bad. How many dreadful scenarios will run through your head before reality settles on one?
Let’s narrow it down even further still: the footage is just a movie. It has been found on a store shelf. The cover and jacket design give an idea of what is contained therein. Let’s switch pronouns as well (because from this point on I can only speak for myself – I am now holding this DVD in my hand, knowing I will probably not enjoy what it contains. Why do I still put it on?
I don’t think it is about feeding the dark side. I think it’s something even more primal than that. The one drive we have that’s even stronger than fear, that brought us out of the cave and out to the stars:
|"Curiosity is the lifeblood of imagination|
Guellemo Del Toro once called curiosity “the lifeblood of imagination”. Curiosity, I think, is not just a desire to know. It is our way of defeating the unknown. What did Lovecraft say was the oldest and deepest kind of fear? Think about it: a creak in the dark or a bump in the night can be terrifying if you don’t know what’s behind it. A dripping tap or a jittery squirrel can cause terror if they are hidden. We fear the night because of all the unknown threats it contains. Fear is a survival mechanism: we are hardwired to recognize threats, and even potential threats. A rumbling in the bush may or may not be a predator, but we lose nothing from erring on the side of caution and running. We are designed by nature to be on our guard at all times.
Curiosity is our weapon against fear. An explanation for a phenomena removes its threat. Even a real threat can be less menacing if we know what it is. An identified threat is one we can actually deal with. An unknown threat allows for no solutions and represents a million possible deaths.
|The oldest and deepest kind of fear|
My stupid DVD is not a real, or even potential threat. But the same instincts are at work. Its lurid promises of a ghastly experience trigger in the imagination a thousand possibilities far in excess of what it can actually provide. To throw on the movie and find it’s tacky or amateurish or silly, or maybe surprisingly good but still Just a Movie, dispels all those nightmares. And if it inspires new ones? It won’t: the nightmare’s over once the credits roll. It’s over. It’s been purged from my system. I’m awake again, and feeling better having gotten rid of all that mucky stuff.
Fear is very much caused by the unknown, and curiosity is the cure for the unknown. That, I think, is the key.