Bear suit man - The Shining
The Shining (1980)
Stories & Ideas

Thu 31 Oct 2019

The art of subtle horror

Dilan Gunawardana - Stories & Ideas
Dilan Gunawardana

Digital Editor, ACMI

10 moments that terrify us without showing blood, violence or gore

We take a look at scenes in horror films that don't show any violence, blood or gore, and discussing why they sent chills down our spines.
Warning: spoilers ahead

Shadowy figures

The mysterious man in Lost Highway (1997)  

In David Lynch’s Lost Highway, Fred (Bill Pullman), a jazz saxophonist, is framed for the murder of his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) and sent to prison, where he morphs into a young mechanic and begins leading a new life. Before Renee’s death, the couple attends a party and a strange man wearing black approaches Fred. The man then says he is at Fred's house at that very moment and, bizarrely, answers the house phone when Fred calls him.

Why it's scary: When the mysterious man (played by Robert Blake) approaches Fred, the party music fades abruptly like it has been sucked out of an airlock and replaced with something more sinister. The viewer is forced up close to his strange, mask-like face, which appears inhuman with its exaggerated smile, and wide unblinking, eyebrow-less eyes. When Fred asks him how he got inside his house, the man replies: “You invited me. It is not my custom to go where I am not wanted.” The mysterious man is the personification of evil. 

The uncanny valley

The hallway ghost scene in Kairo (2001)  

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Japanese cult horror classic features two parallel storylines where ghosts invade the world of the living via the internet. In one scene, Yabe (Masatoshi Matsuo) encounters a very human-looking ghost in a hallway after entering through a doorway sealed with red tape.

Why it's scary: The term "uncanny valley" relates to the feeling of unease people feel when seeing lifelike robots and poorly-done CGI that closely resemble humans in many respects but are not quite convincingly realistic. Kairo’s ghost lady marches down the dim hallway in slow motion towards Yabe and stumbles right down the uncanny valley. The wailing, whistling music that accompanies her adds to the nightmare fuel. 

Metaphorical spaces

The sunken place in Get Out (2017) 

In Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a young African-American man feels uneasy about meeting and staying with his white girlfriend Rose’s (Allison Williams) seemingly liberal parents in upstate New York. In one scene Chris, unable to sleep one night, is hypnotised by Rose’s mother Missy (Catherine Keener) and falls into a nightmarish void called the ‘sunken place’ after expressing feelings of guilt over the death of his mother in a hit-and-run when he was a child.

Why it’s scary: The cold, dark prison of the sunken place serves as a metaphor for the ongoing repression of freedom for black people in the US. When Chris is flailing in the void, screaming at the tiny screen in front of him, he represents the frustration of black viewers who have been historically underrepresented or misrepresented in film and television. Like Chris, no matter how hard they scream, they can’t get their agency across. The spoon scraping the side of the teacup (a sound more commonly associated with relaxation) and Catherine Keener’s icy delivery of ‘now sink into the floor’ are also disconcerting. 

Fear at home

BOB appears in Laura Palmer’s bedroom in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) 

Summary of scene:  David Lynch’s prequel to the Twin Peaks TV series (1990–91) chronicles the tragic, final days of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee). After the mysterious Mrs. Chalfont (Frances Bay) and her creepy grandson warn Laura that the ‘man behind the mask’ is in her bedroom, she runs home to find the demonic BOB (Frank Silva) there.

Why it’s scary: Before we see BOB, Laura (and the viewer) carefully wanders the house, expecting something to jump out from every corner. The sound of a whirring fan blade is incorporated into the sinister, droning background music as she climbs the stairs to her room. There’s something absurd about the way BOB has shifted the dresser aside to slink behind it, as though he’s teasing Laura and tapping into her childhood fears of monsters hiding in the dark corners of the place we typically associate with feelings of comfort and security: the bedroom. No-one screams quite like Sheryl Lee.

The snap zoom

The person in the bear suit in The Shining (1980) 

In Stanley Kubrick’s reimagining of Stephen King’s 1977 novel, a family heads to an isolated hotel for the winter and a sinister presence compels the father, Jack (Jack Nicholson), into violence, while his son Danny (Danny Lloyd) sees disturbing visions. At the climax of the film the mother, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), flees a crazed, axe-wielding Jack. As she runs up the stairs holding a giant kitchen knife, the camera focuses on her horrified face for a while before cutting to a room down the hallway, where a person in a bear suit appears to be fellating a man wearing fancy clothes. When the bear lifts his head to look at Wendy, the camera snap zooms to the bear man’s masked face.

Why it’s scary: The snap zoom (also called whip zoom) refers to a shot that quickly zooms in to focus on a subject. In horror films, it serves to shock the viewer and bring them uncomfortably close to the object of terror. Aside from this technique, the imagery of the bear suit scene itself is just plain weird and discombobulating – who are these people? Film analyst Rob Ager has pointed out that bear imagery appears throughout the film, most noticeably at the start when Danny is resting against a stuffed bear pillow that resembles the bear-suited man, while speaking to a psychiatrist. Even creepier, the eyes on the stuffed bear were apparently modified to look like the dials on the elevator that famously spews blood in Danny’s visions. 


Quint talking about the USS Indianapolis disaster in Jaws (1975) 

When a giant, man-eating shark terrorises a beach community, it's up to police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), marine biologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), and old seafarer Quint (Robert Shaw) to hunt the beast down. One night on their ship, the Orca, the trio exchanges war stories over drinks. Quint reveals that he survived the USS Indianapolis disaster.

Why it’s scary: The US warship USS Indianapolis was sunk in the Philippine Sea by Japanese submarines on 30 July 1945 after delivering components for the atomic bomb that was eventually dropped on Hiroshima. Out of 1,196 crewmen, 800 escaped the sinking ship, but they had to endure four hellish days and nights of dehydration, hypothermia, hypernatremia (salt poisoning) and desquamation (skin loss). Then the sharks came. Only 316 men would survive the ordeal. Robert Shaw delivers the story with a pitch perfect matter-of-fact intensity: “Y'know the thing about a shark, he's got ... lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll's eyes. When he comes at ya, he doesn't seem to be livin'... until he bites ya”. 


The Exorcist (1973) prologue sequence

In William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, two priests, Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) and Father Karras (Jason Miller) try to save a teenaged girl (Linda Blair) from possession by the demon Pazuzu. But this isn’t the first time Merrin has come across the evil entity.

Why it’s scary: Everyone talks about the film’s more gruesome moments, namely the spiderwalk down the stairs and the crucifix masturbation scenes. However, the prologue that takes place in northern Iraq instills a feeling of dread that pervades the rest of the film. When a younger Father Merrin unearths a Pazuzu amulet at an archaeological dig, he knows that something sinister has been unleashed on the world. Dogs fight, a clock stops and the locals stare holes through Merrin as he passes them by. This sweaty, claustrophobic sequence culminates in a face-off with his demonic foe in statue form. 


The hallway scene in The Exorcist 3 (1990)

Sticking to the Exorcist franchise, in the third installment, directed by William Peter Blatty, Lieutenant William Kinderman (George C Scott) investigates a series of murders that have all the hallmarks of the deceased 'Gemini' serial killer; but he uncovers more than he bargained for. One of the killer’s victims is a nurse, who is dispatched by a mysterious figure wielding giant bone-cutting shears.

Why it's scary: The Exorcist 3 received mixed reviews when it came out, possibly due to the disaster of Exorcist 2 (1977), an ill-conceived attempt to cash in on the first film’s reputation. However, in recent years the third instalment has been recognised as a cleverly written and well-acted entry into horror canon. In the hallway scene, the tension mounts over the course of five and a half excruciating minutes that also include a fake-out scare. The viewer is lulled into a false sense of security before the killer suddenly appears. This scene also effectively uses the snap zoom technique discussed above in reference to The Shining

Fear in others

Mike standing in the corner in The Blair Witch Project (1999) 

In the found-footage masterpiece, The Blair Witch Project, three film students, Heather, Josh, and Mike (all actors use their real names), vanish after traveling into a Maryland forest to film a documentary on the local Blair Witch legend, leaving only their footage behind. At the end of the film Heather and Josh stumble onto a dilapidated house in the woods and find Mike standing in the corner of a dark basement in a catatonic state.

Why it’s scary: Upon release, the film caused much confusion as to its authenticity due to the lack of traditional cinematography, the actors’ performances and an internet marketing campaign that claimed that the footage was real. Strangely, before we see the final scene of Mike in the corner, Heather drops the camera and her screams recede into the distance. Suddenly the camera is picked up again in a different location and seems to glide downstairs with Heather’s screams close by. Is Heather still holding the camera? Or is it someone else previously unseen? We’ll never know the answer, aside from what horrors our minds conjure up to fill the gaps. 

Jump Scare

The hide and clap game scene in The Conjuring (2013)

What horror list would be complete without a good ol’ fashioned jump scare? In James Wan’s The Conjuring, paranormal investigators Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) help a family terrorised by a dark presence in their farmhouse. When the mother of the household, Carolyn (Lili Taylor), investigates a clapping noise coming from the basement, she enters a frightening game of "hide and clap" with an unseen entity in the dark.

Why it's scary: What sets this moment apart from other cheap jump scares in films is the escalation of terror. In an earlier scene we see Carolyn play the same game with her children, blindfolded. She doesn’t see that a pair of clapping hands coming out of a closet don’t belong to her children – but we do. The viewer knows that something is stalking her, and it adds to the feeling of dread when she later investigates strange noises coming from the basement. When the lights go out, there’s no gruesome CGI monster behind her; just a pair of creepy, little hands.