Most of us are accomplished watchers of TV and film, so we intuitively understand some of the concepts lurking in dense film-theory tomes. You won’t need them for Internet Film School, The A.V. Club’s column about film and television. In each installment, we explore a basic element of visual composition and analyze examples to understand how the formal properties of film and television manipulate viewers.
With Halloween on the horizon, it only makes sense for this feature to devote itself to what makes horror films horrifying. It warrants noting that films amounting to little more than non-consensual exercises in extreme body modification don’t deserve to be called “horror,” because, while horrifying, they lack the most essential element of a real horror film—a firm commitment to boredom.
Horror films flirt with boredom not because they aim to be dull, but because audiences are increasingly knowledgeable about how the genre functions, which means many of the classic techniques of horror no longer work. Part of the reason torture porn is the dominant horror genre at the moment is because it has yet to exhaust its potential to disgust—topping the previous champion in the Abjection Olympics is a simple matter of escalation. But disgust is not quite the same emotion as fear, and the best horror directors recognize that providing an audience with a horrifying experience is different than sending people running to their therapists.
The most important element of the horrifying experience is boredom, because the most terrifying thoughts originate not with the images on the screen, but in the minds of the audience watching them. The more time the viewer has to imagine what could happen, the more imaginatively engaged they will be. Instead of every member of the audience witnessing the same unspeakable act being performed upon an unwilling participant, each of them will be imagining their own personal worst-case scenario. But they can only do so if the pace of the film is laggard enough to allow for that luxury, hence the necessary flirtation with boredom.
Consider the most significant narrative moments in Hideo Nakata’s 1998 film Ringu, about a cursed videotape that kills anyone who watches it exactly a week after the initial viewing. The horror is born from one of the most visually boring situations: watching other people watch television. Have you ever watched people watch television? It’s this exciting:
The most interesting visual element in this shot is the perspective implied by the camera placement. By partially obscuring the view of Reiko Asakawa, Nakata suggests that this might be a point-of-view shot, thereby planting in the minds of the audience the idea that perhaps she’s being watched—and that the audience might be sharing the perspective of whoever (or whatever) is doing the watching. The fact that the camera is perfectly still here adds to the unease, because that lack of movement alone suggests the watcher may (or may not) be in plain sight, yet is undetected and wishes to remain so. In classic horror fashion, Nakata wants his audience to inhabit the mind and perspective of a stalker.
And you know what? Being a stalker is dull:
The audience isn’t enjoying this any more than Reiko is, but it’s worth noting that in order for her to have shifted her gaze from the television to something on the floor, she had to look right at the audience. Imagine how exciting that would have been: She could have seen us skulking behind the television and then slowly moved toward us, walking into a close-up that would only become more disturbing the closer she came, the more she violated our personal space. Then we could’ve leapt from our corner and disemboweled here and scribbled our mother’s name in her entrails before having sexual relations with her corpse. Fortunately Ringu isn’t interested in scarring small children so much as scaring them, so instead Nakata makes us watch Reiko read:
Look at her! She’s reading the fuck out of those words. She’s reading those words so hard she doesn’t even notice that we might not be the only ones watching. Note that behind Reiko is a glass-paneled door; such doors not only function as potential points of entry for those of ill intent, they also allow said persons to observe the object of their ill intent without being noticed themselves. Yet that’s not the only door in the frame:
See that closet? Do you know what’s in that closet? Could something have spied on Reiko through that door, slipped in the cabin and slid in that closet while she wasn’t looking? Before dismissing that as a stupid question, consider what Nakata cuts to next:
The unintelligible scribblings of a child, accompanied by some disturbingly bloated doodles of some unfortunate individuals, all of which is being observed from over Reiko’s shoulder. If Nakata had slowly panned from the television and circled around her until the camera captured the image above, the viewer would know, for certain, that their perspective was embodied. They might not know what manner of body is being inhabited, but they would know the camera’s movements corresponded to those of an entity within the film’s diegetic space. Such a confirmation would have been comforting, because knowledge is inherently comforting in a genre where fear is generated by the unknown.
Instead, the audience is left to wonder whether Reiko is so engrossed in this notebook’s content that she fails to realize she’s not alone in the cabin—and that there are multiple avenues through which she’s being accompanied. Nakata’s framing of this sequence not only suggests the audience might be sharing the mind space with an unobserved stalking entity, but also that some other undetected stalking entity could have gained entry to the cabin and slipped in the closet. In the viewer’s imagination, Reiko is effectively surrounded. She may have nowhere to hide.
Consider the dynamic Nakata has crafted by this cunning use of boredom. Instead of a night on the couch being the dull affair it typically is, here it is fraught with danger, as is the act of picking up a book and reading it. This dynamic is not only effective from a visual perspective, it dovetails with the narrative of Ringu: The most dangerous activity anyone in this film can engage in is watching the wrong thing. It only makes sense for Nakata to establish the film’s scene of primal horror in front of a television. Otherwise, how would this work?
Consider that television the audience may have been hiding behind in the scene with Reiko: The threat wasn’t lurking next to it or behind the glass-paneled door or in the adjacent closet. It was inside the idiot box all along, right where Nakata made sure the audience was never looking.