Since I’ve started this horror blog – and have thus re-immersed myself in the world of the terrifying and often supernatural – I’ve become increasingly more interested in answering life’s “big” questions, at least, as they pertain to the horror genre. Most specifically, I’m interested in what scares us. When we’re children, I think, this list can be broad and sporadic. If my parents are to be believed, I was once afraid of gloves (yes, gloves!) And my sister possessed the unusual foreboding that she couldn’t go in the bathtub, lest a rogue ostrich who had stumbled into our abode might attack her. (You heard correctly: my sister was afraid there was an ostrich in the bathtub). There seems very little in the way of pattern or predictability when examining what scares us when we’re young.
But I think that list narrows, and the idiosyncratic outliers fizzle away, when we get older. Gloves, for example, have become the irksome apparel that I wear and consistently lose eight months of the year, lest I be irrevocably frozen in a long-lasting Erie winter. They are, then, no longer the stuff of nightmares. But – and I say this knowing it’s no monumental revelation – I think we can look toward contemporary horror to deduce what does scare the typical adult. I mean, there are the obvious things: public speaking and death (in that order, as the cliché saying goes), but let’s set those aside. What horror movies terrify us the most, and why?
In a piece on the use of female apparitions in Crimson Peak, I wrote about my long-standing fear of Bloody Mary, the alleged female mirror ghost who will mutilate or kill you if you say her name three times, and I postulate why female ghosts are so much scarier than male ghosts. Undoubtedly, female ghosts are utilized more in horror movies; a maleficent nun, after all, most recently graced us with her presence in The Conjuring 2. And in the classic film, The Innocents, which I’ve recently written about for this blog, Miss Jessel’s ghost is far scarier than that of her dead male lover. In my piece on Crimson Peak, I speculate that much of this fear has to do with women’s long-standing status as “the other” in Western Society. We are defined in terms of how we (ostensibly) deviate from men, and we’re always stereotyped as being more jealous, vindictive, catty, etc. So it stands to reason that even we women have internalized those stereotypes, and we, too, find ghosts of our own sex scarier.
But many-a female ghosts have graced me with their presences in cinema, and few have scared me as much as the malevolent, spiteful spirit in the newly released Lights Out. Michael got an unnatural pleasure from watching me view Lights Out, because, according to his observation, very few horror films really jar me. This one did, and it was obvious. I was apprehensive entering the film and consistently scared throughout my viewing. I admittedly (and perhaps shamefully) resorted to my secret horror reflex; I moved my arm, as if to cover my eyes, many times throughout our viewing, though I’m pretty sure I ultimately uncovered them in every pivotal moment. Lights Out is the story of a ghost-girl named Diana who’s killed in an experimental treatment for her light-sensitivity in a psychiatric asylum and comes back, vengeful and malicious, to prey on people when the lights are off.
The funny thing is, I think the film could have been a bust if it was poorly executed, but it was horrifying and fantastic. It was a successful film because the timing was impeccable, the ghost was well-created, and it plays on our fear of turning off the lights. So why was this particular ghost so scary? To continue considering what scares us as viewers (or, at least, what scares me) I’ll speculate a few reasons why I think Diana is terrifying.
First, she’s a mere silhouette 95% of the time. The film didn’t overuse special effects to try to make her particularly scary. This successfully minimalist approach can probably be seen myriad places, but is especially salient in the relatively recent The Babadook, a film that relies on astonishingly few special effects to scare us out of our minds. Diana is only glimpsed for a quick second in her non-silhouette form, and she’s scarier for it, proving the old adage true: what terrors we can conjure in our minds are always superior to the special effects-laden terrors film artists create. If this rule of thumb is not always true, it usually is, and it seems particularly verified in Lights Out.
Aside from being the silhouette of a female, she’s also skinny. Now, I’m not saying thin people are inherently scary, but there’s something about a skinny ghost that is frightening. A thin ghost is always scarier than a portly spirit. After all, how many corpulent specters have you seen in horror movies (except for maybe the ghost of Christmas Present in renditions of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol)? There are probably a few reasons for this: first, we have this weird cultural stereotype that associates being overweight with being jolly, and, conversely, evil characters are often skinny. Maybe Santa Claus was the impetus for this mindset – I don’t know – but what comes to mind when someone says the word “jolly” to you? A rotund person with rosy cheeks? That merry ghost in A Christmas Carol? Right. And being extremely skinny (skinny like Diana was in this movie) situates you closer to, first, a skeletal form, and second, death. These are just a few possible reasons why skinny ghosts are scary. You may be able to think of more. Suffice it to say, in Lights Out, Diana would have been far less effective if she were, as Eric Cartman once put it in South Park, “festively plump.”
Diana’s glowing eyes and messy hair are also scary, but her final frightening component, I think, are her claws. Claws, or fingers sinewy enough to mirror claws, are occasionally successfully employed to amplify the fright-factor of a particular creature of the night. I think, first, of the 1922 film Nosferatu, that showcases Dracula as an emaciated, clawed human-monster. The aforementioned Babadook also effectively augments its minimalist special effects with well-crafted claws to make this peculiar monster all the more intimidating – and scary. The fabled Bloody Mary will scratch you with her claws if you say her name in the mirror, and Diana, in Lights Out, sports a killer set of dark claws that are particularly on display when she tilts her hand a certain way. Interestingly, to me, if a character is beastly and monstrous enough already (i.e. has fur, hooves, and a snout) claws don’t make it any scarier. But claws are a fantastic was to make a relatively run-of-the-mill apparition more subtly terrifying.
Of course, Diana’s appearance isn’t the only thing that makes the movie frightening, but for the sake of spoilers, I don’t want to tell you more. If you startle easily, or share any or my fears, Lights Out will scare the hell out of you. The acting is solid, the plot is alluring, the jump-scares are well-timed, and Diana is terrifying. Something about this lanky, evil shadow-monster will stay emblazoned on my memory for some time. While the film might not be original enough to be dubbed a “classic,” it is, without a doubt, a must-see. Lights Out is not just unsettling – it’s unnervingly scary.