(This article is intended to teach and advise. If you would like to get the most out of this reading, please watch the films The Exorcist (1973) and The Woman in Black (2012) in order to get the best experience. They will feature as examples prominently throughout the article.
Part 1: Interaction and Existence
Dani Cavallaro—a specialist in horror and the gothic—asks the question "how can we be scared by what we know does not exist?" (Cavallaro, 2002, p.60).
As we need to apply this to making a film, we need to think about two different types of interaction:
- How the characters interact with the haunting
- How the audience interacts with the haunting
We need to look at rationalising and familiarising the place, making it seem as realistic and believable as possible. So that when we put the character (doing the haunting) into this space—we don't mess up the interaction with space too much.
Note: It is a good idea, but kind of lazy to just stick the line: "based on true events" at the beginning of your project.
Cavallaro investigates why we are scared of hauntings. Now it's easy for you to get the characters to interact with the haunting as you are the one writing the dialogue—the interaction is in your hands. Whereas, you cannot control how your audience interacts with the haunting.
Or can you?
The answer lies within humanity.
As humans, we like things that appear to be like us—so we like things such as monkeys and cute animals. But we don't like spiders, or bugs, or sharks —because they don't look like us. You've got your very-human-looking-ghost and you need to make the audience scared of them. You remove something quintessentially human. This can be anything and it doesn't even have to be one thing—the moment you mess with the idea of humanity and what being human means, you get discomfort within your audience and this is your first step to a perfect haunting/possession.
Let's have a look at some examples from the 1973 classic The Exorcist:
(Some of these clips may be disturbing, viewer discretion advised).
Here we have the very nature of human stature being played with and it is having its effect. The speed also adds to this horror and obviously, the descent down the stairs is pretty much impossible for the vast majority of humans. To watch this without context is quite disturbing and that's the nature of a haunting—it can be a possession of one particular person. Notice how the music, camera angles, and lighting add to this. How do we interact with it? How do we see it?
An absolutely iconic scene—and it also features in another article of mine because of its impact. The very notion of this scene is disturbing because of its impossibility. The haunting is interacting directly with the character via possession and now we have a life form that is not human. Human qualities are being taken away and replaced with things that the audience know not to be possible for any human at all. It is shot brilliantly—just take a look and see how you can explore the way in which impossibility is presented as a disturbing quality.
Technicality can be a boring job—but not here! You can use technicalities to your advantage by slowly taking away things that are known to be normal human behaviour. Here, it's seen through a possession and exorcism but also through the way in which Reagan's behaviour changes over time. In this scene we see her at her worst in terms of looking human. She has cuts and scratches all over her, she's pale and flushed and she's also looking pretty damn scary. An iconic movie image—Reagan's possession is perfect for trying to understand how character and demon can interact in your next horror film. Also, look at the way it is shot. We are almost looking slightly down at her, so we get a full view of her fact. We are also in a very dark room—so we get the full experience of how pale she is. It's very gripping and we can understand why it's considered one of the greatest scenes in all of horror history.
Tension is so incredibly important in this film—and you should use it in your next project. Here we see the tension rise as Reagan (again) is doing what is impossible for a human to do—heightening the factor of haunting and possession. But, the tension comes from angle and sound. The sound makes all that difference—but notice how we are looking slightly or most definitely down on to Reagan. We are always above her—as if to see more of her and thus, it increases the tension as the haunting/possession seeks to prove its own existence. Notice the colour of her dress and the colour scheme in the room—it is very similar and thus creates this tension of familiarity. The haunting and possession is definitely known to whoever is in the same room. Colour can make all that difference when used as it is here. It is a brilliant scene—give it a watch and see what you take from it.
Part 2: Interaction and Language
It is known that dialogue makes a difference in film—but as we saw in the previous article with The Woman in Black (2012), language isn't just about dialogue. It is also about how language interacts with your space, scene and story—what it does and where it goes. There is no point having your characters ramble on about absolutely nothing—each word must serve its purpose. In horror, it is known that less dialogue and more tension creates better atmospheres. Even Cavallaro states that "Haunting is a Discourse" (Cavallaro, 2002, p.61).
Let's have a look at how we can interact in different ways with language throughout our genre. Here—we are going to use the film The Woman in Black (2012) and how language use impacts the way we understand a haunting in action:
This scene, although it has no actual dialogue, has body language explaining the technicalities of what's going on. For example: Kipps being almost asleep suggests that it is set quite late at night, the fact that he is also sitting with his back to the most open floor of the house suggests that he doesn't believe in the haunting and thus is quite contented to get on with his job. The colour and lighting are also of importance; but it is body language here that is used to create atmosphere and tension—getting the audience prepared for the woman's arrival.
Possibly one of my favourite scenes in the whole film because of the way the montage is shot—but here we are discussing language. Look at the way in which she's speaking, it's very robotic and possessive—having quite a raspy undertone. Now, look at what she's saying. She seems to be speaking from the point of view of Nicholas—trying to warn Kipps about what is to come. The language is quite disturbing as it is a series of declarative statements suggesting the children knew exactly what was happening at their times of death and were unable to do anything about it.
The interaction with this language is seen through Kipps' character. He becomes almost confused, slightly frightened, but more concerned. He has been told things for a long time, but only experienced it here. In this situation, he's an outsider interacting with the townspeople. The interaction with the audience is done through both characters using body language and dialogue to enhance the details of the haunting. Whilst Kipps is more like the audience and trying to understand—Nicholas' Mother is trying to warn him by being possessed by the sounds of dead children.
Ambiguity is a difficult thing to achieve, but ambiguity through knowing is even harder. A type of body language controlled by pace of direction and facial expression; it offers us questions to ask the rest of the film such as: what exactly happened here and does it add any meaning to the storyline?
One way we can examine the language of ambiguity is through timing. Note that the way the girls turn their heads is perfectly timed as all three of them perform the act in the same way. The tension is designed around this act as the girls then get up completely in sync with each other and walk to their deaths. The language is then repeated so that we understand it throughout the film regarding the deaths of children.
Part 3: Themes
Themes are a great way of portraying a haunting is through theme familiarity—it gives you a symbol or an idea to repeat an use to make the horror more tense and anticipated. Let's have a look at some you could take from other films and use as your inspiration:
Nature and natural settings are a big favourite for hauntings because they offer wide open spaces in which the figure can be made ambiguous by a simple colour scheme camouflage. Make the colour scheme of the apparition look the same as that of the dark forest and your audience will have a hard time finding it. When the apparition moves, however, the tension begins to take its course.
More films to watch that include this theme:
Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Evil Dead (1981)
The Cabin in the Woods (2011)
Religion is a theme used so much in haunting and possession because it is normally the first reason that people have for haunting and possession. Ideas of the supernatural are deeply rooted in religion and people fearing the work of Satan. This can be used in many ways: churches as your settings, motifs of the cross, depictions of christianity by proxy or even by simply having Satan possess your character.
More films to watch including this theme:
The Devil Inside Me (2012)
The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)
The Vatican Tapes (2015)
Historical settings are fun—especially Victorian ones. Victorian sets are a favourite of hauntings purely because the supernatural was made famous in this era. It is also because all of the most famous writers of hauntings and possessions were from this era. The Victorian setting can make the horror look more stylised and fancy, but be careful about overdoing the set with Victorian luxuries as it can come out quite tacky and have the opposite effect. There must be space left in the set for the haunting to happen—and the good thing about using the Victorian Domestic Gothic is that you always have these huge mansions and halls to work with, make sure you use your space wisely!
More films to watch including this theme:
The Witch (2015)
The Woman in Black 2: The Angel of Death (2015)
Dorian Gray (2009)
Punishment and Revenge
Almost all of these great horror films have some sort of motive of revenge or punishment behind them. Whether the person in question has committed a crime/done anything wrong is completely irrelevant. But, the supernatural entity will seek its revenge/have its day. The right way to do this would to make the backstory as simple and straightforward as possible—don't spend too long discussing what happened to the entity for it to come back. If you don't want a backstory, then make sure that there is other character awareness of how this entity acts: you could do what Insidious did and have a medium, or you could do what The Woman in Black did and have letters to and from people. It is up to you. But please, if you want to succeed in making this come across as uncomfortable and frightening, you're going to have to do a little bit better than "Based on a True Story" or even the whole freak accident death act. Those have been done and perfected by both The Exorcism of Emily Rose and by Final Destination. I would call it "flogging the dead horse so much that the horse came back for revenge." Make sure your main storyline is not overloaded with other storylines!
(This theme works really well with religion).
More films to watch including this theme:
The Conjuring 2 (2016)
The Last Exorcism (2010)
Insidious: Chapter 3 (2016)
Part 4: Interacting with Emotions
Here we are going to look at what it means to have a supernatural entity in your next horror project and how you interact emotionally with them. The real question we have now is: is your dialogue really everything? And the answer is no, it isn't. Your dialogue is secondary to the emotional connection with the entity in the film. The main emotion you need to create first (whilst you make your tensions) is anxiety. Anxiety is the emotion that comes just before paralytic fear. Even Cavallaro states that a supernatural entity should be "a product of folklore..." and "embodies cultural anxieties" (Cavallaro, 2002, p.61).
Let's explore these anxieties in some examples then:
Anxiety can be done through slowing down and speeding up—if your scene is building this anxiety, you not only want it to speed up, but you also want it to represent how the anxiety turns into fear and what the characters are afraid of. In this clip, the characters are afraid of the power of a particular person who possesses a power to do with an entity not human. The person in question is seen performing some sort of act of power in this scene and therefore, in the entirety of the movie—it would add to the anxiety. This clip uses the same anxiety as mentioned before, but slows the pace down to let us see the entire act.
Watch how the tension and anxiety is built up through the lack of speed and the attention to angle and timing. What is it that adds to the tension—why would they choose to slow down instead of speed up?
Why do the audience feel the same anxiety as the characters?
What is so important about lighting?
What is the difference between the feeling we get when we can see something to when we can't see something?
The main anxiety here is obviously rooted in the fact that one of our main senses is impaired and we no longer trust the situation. When we make the setting too dark we must be aware that there will be a "cliché" factor that propels us back into the regions of Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project that we don't want to see repeated. Using lighting inside the setting is also a good idea—contrasting colours, torches, and other light sources apart from the simple lightbulb in the room or natural lighting from the window are also fun to work with.
Look at how this trailer works with lighting in different ways and how anxiety is created through the use of it. You may want to ask yourself the following:
How does the lighting in the power and control of the protagonist work? What effect does it have on the scene?
How can the camera angle effect what we see and when we see it? Would POV of the protagonist be a good use of angle for this scene?
How does darkness work and which light source/colour contrast would be correct to make the scene look scarier? (i.e. using deeper colours to create depth, shadows from natural lighting, the angle of the lighting and whether it's obscured by anything else etc.) You will need to communicate your audience's anxiety without the fear of losing their interest by over-working the darkness. Remember: making the non-scary scenes nice and bright only adds to the cliché. You need to make things only slightly interchangeable on these terms so that your audience is practically unprepared.
Technology has made its way into modern horror through the classic Japanese Film Ringu—which practically scared the pants off everyone in the history of the world. Needless to say, this has been repeated throughout horror film history and has become either very well done, or terribly done. Using technology to create tension has been seen through the ineffective and boring One Missed Call and the incredibly artistic masterpieces The Sixth Sense and Sinister.
The way in which you need to think about this is: does this do anything for my storyline? If it doesn't add to the storyline in any way, or if it doesn't add to a certain character in any way—I'd steer well away from it as it will be thought of as lazy. I would also move away from using technology as your main point of horror as that was done by One Missed Call and Pulse—look what happened to them. They failed to have any effect, and do you know why?
Humans still control technology.
We understand that whatever happens, humans still control whatever technology there is or can ever be. Using technology as a means of control is lazy and will become impossible for your audience to find frightening. Instead, look at Sinister and The Sixth Sense, they use technology to add to the story. The incredibly famous and brilliantly filmed "Video Tape Scene" from The Sixth Sense is a way of using technology to propel the storyline into its resolution and in Sinister, it's obviously those tapes, pictures, etc. that add to the realism of the story and make everything look more like the real world.
In The Sixth Sense and Sinister—humans do not control technology. This is because the technology is being used to put puzzle pieces together as opposed to being used for finding and killing people. This shifts the power of control out of the main character's hands—but it is still in the hands of a human. This means that it is not completely detached from our own realities.
Part 5: Conclusions
Let's quickly go over what we've found out:
- The characters' emotions are interpreted and (normally) repeated by the audience
- Anxiety is important to work up to the feeling of fear
- Both the characters and the audience need to be feeling the anxiety at the same time
- Technology is not a good source of story—it is an addition to the story for the effect of realism and can capture anxiety
- All in all, the pieces must feel like they fit together—a jolted story could mean that the effect of anxiety could fail altogether and just leave your audience confused.
We have had a good look through different aspects of hauntings and possessions; observing how they can be used through emotion, understanding, interaction etc. and how effective they are. The main thing is to not overload your scene as then, it becomes obvious that the haunting will inevitably occur at one particular time and in one particular place. I'm going to leave you with a list of films that I think would be a good idea before you jump into your next project—think about how the haunting/possession is used. A haunting/possession is never just put in for the effect of horror—it normally does something.
- The Conjuring 2
- Insidious: Chapter 2
- Don't be Afraid of the Dark
- The Babadook
- The Others
- Evil Dead (1981)
- A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Hopefully those should give you some inspiration on the good things about horror with hauntings and possessions, plus the ones we have talked about in this article.
Good luck on your next project!