I’ve been scared by books I’ve read. Scared so that I have to turn on every light on the way to the bathroom in the middle of the night. But it’s only films that have had (so far) the power to strike absolute terror into me; the kind where your heart is thumping so high up in your throat, you worry you might have a stroke or a heart attack. The kind where you can’t wait until morning, when there are no shadows.
Even then, there are only a handful of films that can do this, scare me so profoundly that I would feel really uncomfortable about watching them again.
The Omen (1976)
I saw The Omen way before I should have been allowed – an errant, older cousin. Whilst my impressionable age undoubtedly accentuated my fear of this film, it is genuinely a really scary, very dark film. I was brought up in a Pentecostal Church, and fire and brimstone was very much the flavour of many of the sermons. This also increased my belief in the film; made it very real for me – that Satan, who was, then, a real force in my life, could manifest in such a way, in the form of a human child.
There’s something disturbing about an evil child, when they should epitomise innocence. I can still feel the pervading sense of hopelessness this film exudes. It is about as dark as it’s possible to get. It is bleak.
There is something wonderful about most films created in the 70s. They have a real honesty about them, a rawness, before Hollywood came along and tried to make everything glossy. This ultra glossiness, and a fatigue around that, I feel is one of the motivators in the trendiness of found footage films. We became tired of the artificiality of films.
The imagery within this film is so powerful. The Rottweiler; the first nanny’s suicide, the second nanny’s eyes – staring – the desperation of the priest (he himself marked with the number of the beast), and the awful demise of the fearless journalist. It was the first time I’d been presented with the fact that, yes, the human head can be detached from the body, and that haunted me for years.
This film left me with a very big message. The Devil is real, and he’s coming for you.
I was fascinated with the number of the beast for years, and even now (although now an atheist and without superstition) I still halt for a tiny second and consider, is it a sign, if a telephone number, or a reference number has the three sixes in it?
The Entity (1982)
Imagine, if you will, lying in the bath, alone in your house except for your kids, and then being dragged from that bath and attacked, but there’s no other physical being in the house. It’s that that scares me about The Entity. I’ve had more than my fair share of experiences of unexplained phenomena, but the thought of being attacked by something not of this physical world is unimaginable. And in your home, where you should be able to feel safe.
The Entity is based on a true story. I’ve read up on it, and there are theories online about the story. Was she really attacked by a poltergeist or demonic entity? Or were her attacks a psychokinetic manifestation of her own negative energy? The real Carla Moran, Doris Bithers, was an alcoholic, an abuse victim, and fostered many dysfunctional relationships in her life.
Some of this is captured in the film, although if you read the stories of Doris Bithers, you might agree the film is a much-sanitised version, probably to create sympathy for the main character, played by Barbara Hershey. There is an authenticity about the film, an authenticity in her representation of the role. Her fear is palpable, Barbara is actually afraid, and this infected me. We watch as she battles with the demon, as her family and friends doubt her, and her mental health deteriorates on screen.
This is the story of Carla Moran, a single mother, who is viciously raped and attacked by a non-physical entity.
The incidental music alone is enough to chill. The horrifying rape scene in the bathroom is made all the worse with the pounding sound accompanying it, later used in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds because of its sickening ability to chill, no doubt.
The effect of this film on me was much larger than simply was displayed on the screen. I could all too clearly imagine it, and, unlike with a human being – from whom there is hope of escape, and criminal prosecution, and incarceration – there is no escape from something that has no physical from; that cannot seemingly be contained. This thing follows her around and, as the end credits point out, the attacks on Carla Moran, on Doris Bithers, continue.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
There was a lot of hype around this film, leading up to its release in the UK. It was the original of the much-imitated, and now somewhat passé, found footage genre, and easily one of the best.
It’s also a film that scares more with the power of suggestion than with the visual representation of horror on the screen. I didn’t get to see this at the cinema; I watched it on DVD in a room with the lights off. And I was terrified.
Three students set off to make a documentary about the Blair Witch in Burkittsville, Maryland. And of course they get lost in the woods, and they aren’t alone. There are so many jumpy moments in this film, some real heart pounding moments: unearthly noises outside their tent in the middle of the night, the disturbing talismans, and the general disintegration of the group as a whole and of each individual’s sanity, all leading up to that final, terrifying and disturbing scene.
The Ring (2002)
I watched this film in bed. I hid under the duvet several times – I’m not ashamed to admit it – and with good reason.
This film is so visually disturbing. I love urban legends, and The Ring tells the story of a particular urban legend around a videotape. The videotape is cursed. If you watch it you die. You have a week to look forward to that eventuality.
And, of course, those who know this, but are sceptical (or simply adrenalin junkies) watch it, and people start dying.
It’s the contents of the cursed videotape that I found most disturbing: the black and white images, the well, the woman with her black hair covering her face. The Ring skillfully builds the tension.
I’m not a girlie girl. Really I’m not, but when that woman’s arm came out of the TV and dropped to the floor, I squealed and flew under the covers. I had to wait to be told it was safe to look again. It all harked back to the worst nightmare I’ve ever had, when I was seven years old. I was watching it being retold to me on the screen, as if someone had hacked into my mind, opened the filing cabinet entitled “worst nightmares”, and decided to put it into a film.
I discovered the Japanese and original version many years later, and think it’s much better. But that’s a subject for a future blog.
Paranormal Activity (2007)
It’s a fairly bright (if autumnal) July day, and still I have goose bumps and feel a little cold. I’ve been watching Paranormal Activity whilst writing this blog. Even in the sunlight, this film scares me.
The main focus of this film is the bedroom, and on what happens when the lights go out. It’s where our fears find us when we are trying to sleep at night. It’s where we lie at night wondering what that sound is in the hallway; about the creak on the stairs: that noise in the kitchen. Katie and Micah are being haunted by a paranormal presence. Micah decides he’s going to document it.
The camera is set up in their bedroom overnight, and the paranormal activity increases in intensity as the days go by.
My fear around this film developed because of two things: my own anticipation of what might happen to Katie and Micah, and the reinforcement of the actual happenings on the screen. This film has those obvious scary movie moments: doors that move on their own at night, women waking up screaming from a nightmare, crashing sounds from the hallway, but it also has some genuinely, insidiously creepy moments. The scene where Katie stands by the side of her own bed for two hours, trancelike, is one of those.
The footprints in the talcum powder is also extremely well done – that moment when Micah realises that they are only leading “into” the bedroom; it must still be in there with them. Brilliant. And there’s the being-dragged-out-of-the-room-by-your-ankles scene, accompanied by Katie’s blood curdling screams.
The Conjuring (2013)
As you can see, it’s been 3 years since a horror film was released with the ability to make me sleep with the light on.
The Conjuring is based on a true story. The case files of Ed and Lorraine Warren, demonologists, inspired the film.
Roger and Carolyn Perron move into an old farmhouse with their five children and strange things start happening. The clocks all stop at the same time, the cellar is boarded up, and there’s something in the wardrobe. And of course, the husband is working away, leaving his wife and kids to fend for themselves.
There is so much to see in this film; so many scenes that I found visually terrifying, alongside those creepy moments that exploit pure suggestion that have you jumping at ridiculous things. I found it amazing that the family stayed in the house. At the first sign of anything even remotely paranormal, I would have been packing my suitcases and appearing on a friend’s doorstep. I suppose the five children would have made that slightly more difficult. I think I would have left the kids.
You get a real sense of the family’s desperation and fear, and in a way it reminded me very much of The Entity. The mood, and the emotions it evoked in me.
The Perron’s ask for help, and Ed and Lorraine Warren appear, affirming their fears and seeking approval for an exorcism.
The people in the row behind me in the cinema laughed at my obvious jumps and squeals (did I mention I’m not a girlie girl?) and I really, honestly did sleep with the light on, just for one night. It’s all I was allowed.
There is a book, The Demonologist, about the cases of Ed and Lorraine Warren. I bought it the week after. I haven’t read it yet. I will. And I’ll tell you about it when I do.
Am I being a complete wuss? Did these films do it for you? Or do you have others? I’d like to hear your recommendations.
Thanks for reading.