Move over, jumpscares—there’s a new scare tactic in town, and they are dread and the uncanny valley.
Horror films have become predictable. There is a formula created to get a reaction out of the audience, and we are addicted to that rush of adrenaline. Without a doubt, I knew I loved that feeling from watching movies like Carrie and Halloween at maybe too young of an age—thanks, Dad!
As I’ve gotten older, scary movies don't scare me as much. The more you watch, the more you know when to prepare for the jumpscare. Then, directors like Ari Aster and Robert Eggers come in and change the horror genre ever so slightly by creating that uneasy feeling throughout the film through the strange and unnatural.
But how do they do this? Spikima Movies breaks down the anatomy of this scare that builds in the Japanese film, Kairo, and why the uncanny valley creates fear. Check out his video below.
To break down how and why the scare is so effective, a quick summary is needed.
The film is Kairo, or Pulse in English-language markets. In the film, ghosts start haunting people through the internet. In 2001, the uncertainty of this fairly new window into the wide world and the dangers lurking inside the dark corners of the internet presented a ripe setting for horror.
In this particular scene, a man finds an apartment with its door sealed with red tape. Attracted by its odd energy, the man removes the tape and enters the apartment. The place is dark and cold, and the man examines the apartment until he reaches a dead-end that has red markings on the wall and a couch. As he stands there, he notes that something feels off. Like something could be behind him. Slowly, he turns, and there, at the other end of the hall, is a woman hidden in the shadows watching him.
The paralyzing camera and sound
Now that we’ve established the scene, let’s narrow in on why terror is already created from the woman standing there. Before the man turns around, an ominous piece of music enters the scene, building the suspense before revealing the woman.
The framing of the woman should also be looked at closely. She is framed as if she's a part of the background—off-center, away from the lights, and away from the camera. You have to look to see her, which then forces you to discover the horror in the scene.
Obviously, the scene works better in the context of the film, but it is still terrifying on its own. The camera defies the conventions of horror by locking onto the moment and staying there. It’s truthful in its portrayal of the woman and her threat to the man. The woman’s appearance could be dull and boring, but is surprising as the eyes of the audience discover her before she reveals herself. It’s the ambiguity of the threat and uncertainty of said threat's motives that creates fear. We, the audience and character in the line of the threat, are unsure of our safety. There is nowhere to hide as the camera keeps us locked on the threat, creating suspense rather than surprise.
The sub-bass sound effect also plays a role in creating suspense. The sound takes over the environment, drowning out any other sounds that could exist in the scene. The sound is trapping us in a nightmare-like state that the camera won’t let us escape.
After the woman walks toward the man, the camera cuts to the man, freeing us from the dread of watching the woman come closer. The issue is that the woman is also free. The camera follows the man as he attempts to hide from the woman, and the woman is no longer in the frame. She is gone, and the audience prepares and wants a jumpscare in hopes that we can escape that terrifying feeling. It’s only when the camera shows the woman’s pale hands grasp the couch do we know that there is no way to run away.
It’s very similar to the opening scene in Midsommar when the camera and sound create a distorted feeling while revealing the horrible double murder-suicide. It’s dread that creates long-lasting horror.
Presenting as other
The way that the woman is presented is as "other." She doesn’t rely on a mask to hide her face or wear white to look like an angel of death. Instead, she wears a plain dress which makes her look human.
Where she is "other" is in her presentation. When she walks, she moves in slow motion and stumbles inhumanly. Kiyoshi Kurosawa could have taken the easy route and had the woman teleport across the room or crawl quickly to her victim, but we’ve seen that. Instead, Kurosawa choreographed a stumble with a professional ballerina to make the movements look strange and as unnatural as possible.
Logic is out the window, for there is no explanation for why the woman wobbles. Is it to see the man better, or because the women can’t mimic the human walk?
We’ve dipped into the uncanny valley—the point in which something is almost human but not quite. (It’s why so many people hated the way the cast looked in 2019’s Cats.)
The moment the woman wobbles, the lighting reveals her face. Her face is normal, yet a sharp feeling of fear is created by the unexpected normality of this woman. We almost want something from a nightmare to escape the uncanny valley. It would be easier to accept what is happening in the scene.
Scenes filled with uncertainty are becoming the power force behind the horror genre now. Sure, there is nostalgia in a good ol’ slasher film, but this new wave of horror is creating a new nightmare that leaves a lasting impression in the viewer’s mind. It’s why we come back to films like Midsommar, Get Out, and The Lighthouse. Even if they are not perfect films, horror fans appreciate the lasting dread and grief that the camera, sound, and visual representation of fear within the film’s world.
Remember, it’s the slow burns that last the longest.
What do you think of this new wave of horror? Let us know in the comments!