BEFORE YOU MAKE THEM SCREAM, YOU MUST FIRST MAKE THEM FEEL.
Or The Art Of Fear from the horror film Incantation
I am not easily scared by horror films.
Until I watched The Exorcist.
When The Exorcist first came out, I read that the viewing experience had a devastating effect on the digestive systems of members of the audience. Several men and women puked out their popcorn and Cokes. Some women fainted and had to be rushed to the hospitals. Even though the truths of these allegations were somewhat exaggerated, nevertheless, it was great publicity and whetted my appetite even more to watch the film.
Which I finally did.
I went home, visibly shaken. Images of the possessed girl spewing green vomit at the priest, as well as the infamous scene of the girl self-rotating her head from front to back to front, were not just imprinted on my retinas, but burnt into the fabric of my fear-stricken brain.
I could not sleep that night and a few nights after. If I slept, I had to make sure I faced the doorway. If I did not, I kept imagining black figures with red eyes would appear around the doorway, enter my room and steal my soul away. There is of course no link between the black figures with red eyes and the imagery in The Exorcist. It was just the way the synapses of my brain reacted to the movie back then.
Did I swear off my diet of horror films?
Hardly. Once my nightly slumbers resumed their normal patterns, I went right back to my horror consumption. I watched the Exorcist sequels. Years later, I even watched the television series that was spun off the movie.
What is this thing about horror films that holds such an allure?
The Medium and Incantation
I suspect it is the same reason we watch any genre of film. Our human minds crave excitement, but at a safe distance. We want to be brought to exhilarating levels of anxiety and dread but we also wish to feel that at a moment’s notice, we can be brought safely down to the ground.
Horror films, these days, bring you up to the highest level of terror — and pulls away the safety net below. Which was exactly how I felt watching two horror films that came out in 2021, and 2022.
There are common tropes in these two films. Both are shot in mockumentary format. This gives a very strong illusion of reality to the stories. In genre films, though you may cringe and grimace at the sight of gore on screen, you can still retreat into a safe corner in your head and tell yourself that it is all done in fun. You are on a rollercoaster ride, and like all rides, they eventually come to a stop and you can get off and breathe easy and enjoy the rest of the day.
These horror films shot in mockumentary style remove that safety barrier.
You watch, while fully immersed in the horror. It is as if you are there. Experiencing the terror along with the characters. This is where some people are so affected they will flee the cinema. Or if they are viewing the films on Netflix (like I did), they will opt to watch the films during the day.
Not at night, when imaginary ghouls find easier access to your imagination.
And then there are the evil gods. Both films feature supernatural entities that exceed human comprehension. Their evil is so compelling that once it lays hooks into you, you are completely helpless.
And then there are the victims, who are young adults. In the case of Incantation, a young child. The disparity between pure evil and pure innocence is often very stark in these kinds of films. The residing of extreme evil in the soul of an innocent is a guaranteed method of triggering sympathy. Once you sympathize and empathize, it is a short step towards escalating the dread you feel as the evil slowly consumes the innocent soul.
And then there is this new trope to be found in films about possession.
Beware of This Trope
Tropes are visual elements that you find in particular genres. They could be scenes or characters that are like a shorthand signal to the audience that the audience is getting what they paid for. For example, you would expect a discovery of a dead body scene in a crime story. Or you’d expect to find an eccentric and brilliant detective in a mystery show. Or a basement in a horror movie. Or a girl with long hair covering her face in any Asian horror flick.
And recently, in the possession horror genre, the scene of the “friend who stands close to a wall with his back facing you”.
When your best friend stands near a wall, with his back facing you, and does not respond when you call out his name, it is generally a good idea to leave the room.
You do not approach your friend. Put your hand on his shoulder. And turn him around. Not unless you have a burning desire to see the face of demonic possession up close. This “friend facing the wall” trope has now replaced the 80’s trope in horror films, where there is a monster in the basement, and the audience screams at the screen — DO NOT GO DOWN INTO THE BASEMENT.
Now, it is DO NOT REACH OUT AND TOUCH THE SHOULDER OF ANYONE WHO STARES AT A WALL AND DOES NOT RESPOND TO HIS NAME.
If Incantation, the horror film, had relied solely on tropes to scare you, it would have been at most a decent B-flick. Luckily, the director put the mother and daughter relationship front and center, making the relationship the beating heart of the film. For horror to work effectively, as with any genre, you must cultivate empathy from the audience for the main characters. Once you are attuned to the mother’s goal of saving her daughter, you are now ripe and ready for the storyteller to strum chords of terror on your heart strings.
Incantation also used a very effective device to sustain its narrative, without which, the filmmakers may have lost the thread of the audience’s interest. They made sure there was a clear mystery that needed to be solved. In the case of Incantation, it was the tunnel.
Or as the movie called it, the TUNNEL THAT MUST NOT BE ENTERED. Why it must not be entered, and what lay at the end of this tunnel, was a mystery that kept me watching to the very end.
For any genre, and particularly in the horror genre, time should be spent on carefully cultivating empathy for the characters. Once that is achieved, chords of terror will resonate in the heartstrings of your audience. It is also vital to keep in mind the importance of MYSTERY in your storytelling.
Raise a question.
Keep the answer to the very end of the story.
And sometimes not even the whole answer.
And now I dare you to utter the Incantation.