A while back, we had a discussion on everything wrong with our attempts to make exorcism movies. Good ones, anyways. That done, I figured we might try to keep the ball rolling and talk today about how to repair our stories of ghosts and haunted houses.
Now as a disclaimer, I’m coming into all this with some bias. While I’ve never had anything particularly against these kinds of movies, ghost and haunting stories have always been my least favorite kind of horror. Heavily reliant on jump scares, rather than psychological horror, they’ve always struck me as being not all that much different than an amusement park ride. That’s all just to say that I’m not what you’d call an expert by any means, but I think we can all agree on some ground rules here.
Let’s get started.
Drop the Victorian Crap
It’s not every ghost story that’ll include junk from this period in time- just most of ’em. If you see the ghost, 9 times out of 10, it’s some woman in ragged-but-unmistakable Victorian garb. This is actually one of the arguments skeptics use to discredit most paranormal claims- we’ve had so many people die since the 1800s that the fact that most every “sighting” is of a specter in turn-of-the-century clothing just shows how deeply ingrained this trope is into our psyche.
Of course, that doesn’t stop the film industry from showing nothing but that.
Granted, in the movie’s defense it looks like it actually is set in the 1800s, so the whole Victorian schtick is at least explained- that still doesn’t make any of it less tiresome.
And it’s not just the ghosts- it’s everything. The settings, the props- old mirrors, dolls, mysterious antique boxes, little red balls that’ll inevitably roll down the stairs seemingly of their own accord. The moment the audience sees ’em there’s a collective internal groan of “here we go again”.
It’s a question of realism- who even has this kind of stuff anymore? 30 or so years ago, yeah, I could see someone inheriting some old turn-o’-the-century junk, but these days it just feels out of place. Horror can’t be horror unless the threat feels real, and the classic “you’ve inherited a haunted mansion” story is becoming harder and harder to buy.
Don’t get me wrong- I understand why people choose these settings. You can’t exactly do a convincing ghost story in a cramped apartment in the middle of the city, and as much as Japan tries to cash in on technology-horror (see One Missed Call or The Ring), it’s still a really tough sell.
There’s gotta be some other options, though. Haunted farm. Ghost town. Heck, even some new housing development could probably be scary if you added the right twist. I’ve even seen a submarine make for a pretty decent haunting-story. All in we have got to stop relying on these old crutches if we want to make something worth watching.
Give Folks a Reason to Stay in the House
I mean seriously.
There’s no sane person who would watch their curtains inexplicably catch on fire and stay in the house. Even the most die-hard skeptic who’d argue there’s a rational reason for everything would still have the good sense to check into a hotel for a couple days while his house’s spontaneous combustion issues gets looked at.
And granted, the folks making these movies are trying to do better at it. The characters now argue that “We can’t move because we sunk our last bit of cash into this property” or “We can’t move because we’re still working on renovating this place” or something like that. Still, by the 3rd or 4th time your youngest child gets thrown against the ceiling by an unknown entity, I think your priorities might start to change.
Now my solution to this would be to just make everything a lot more subtle. Something’s wrong, but there’s generally a better explanation for it. Give the skeptics some credit, I guess is what it’d come down to. Or perhaps have only one of the characters see any of the creepy stuff, and have the central conflict of the movie be on whether or not those things are actually there. Heck, that last one could even be a commentary about how we treat people who actually do believe in ghosts and the paranormal, with questions raised on how might you argue with ’em or humor ’em or what.
The Middle Exposition is Killer
This is true of most horror-movies, not just ghost or haunted-house ones, and this, more than anything else, I think is what I think kills the plot.
For many horror flicks, about halfway through the main characters will meet with someone (a priest, fortune teller, borderline racist voodoo caricature, etc.) who’ll explain exactly what’ going on and how to try to fix it.
And it’s terrible.
The entire point of horror is to relentlessly build a feeling of dread as something unspeakable lurks just outside your field of vision. This exposition brings all that progression to a screeching halt, so you have to start all over again in the 3rd act. Beyond that, actually breaking down the mystery simply obliterates most of what’s made the movie fun. Describing what the monster is and how it acts confines it. Suddenly it’s not an imaginable horror but something we can understand, and the more we understand something, the less we fear it. Not the kind of flaw you want a *****ing horror movie to have, now is it?
Why Not Wait?
Pattern is something we talked about in our exorcist movie post and I think it comes into bearing here as well. The plot in most ghost/haunted house movies is characters move in somewhere, stuff starts going wrong, a gradually escalating and culminating in the final showdown which inevitably means chairs will be thrown around.
And I’ve never been able to understand that story-arc. I mean, if these spirits are such powerful beings, why not just off the residents the moment they move in? Why spend days, weeks, or even months just screwing with ’em? Sure it builds tension, but it again kills that small but all-important element of believability that every horror movie needs.
Let’s talk about dramatic irony here, ‘cuz that’s what I think is gonna save this- the audience having knowledge of something the characters don’t. In one of the best horror movies I’ve ever seen (2008’s The Strangers), we see the killer in the house loooong before the main character even begins to suspect that she’s not alone.
It. Was. Terrifying.
Throughout most of the film you’re sitting at the edge of your seat, biting your nails and waiting for the hammer to drop. That right there was more enthralling, thrilling, and chilling than all the stacked chairs in Amityville
Now that’s all to say that instead of the jump scares and fake-outs and whatnot, why not have the first and only encounter with the entity be at the end of the movie? We can see it coming, we put the pieces together, and we sit in helpless horror as the characters are pulled closer and closer to their doom.
(Again) These Could Be Good Movies
As I’ve said before, the point of horror movies is to explore or speak to some idea, in the cause of hauntings, it’s usually the corruptive nature of evil- the sins of the father affect the 2nd, the 3d, and even 4th generation. And as strange as it might sound, “justice” is another major element of these flicks, with the pacifying of these angry spirits usually happening after an ancient wrong has been righted.
Curses, the wages of sin, damnation, redemption- all in all, it’s some pretty Old Testament stuff, and all things we don’t usually have a way of exploring in our society other than smug indie films.
Keep the world free from more smug indie films. Make better haunted house movies.