In its essence, paranormal horror aims to scare us shitless and toy with that crippling fear we have of the unexplained. Whether it’s shot found-footage style or dramatically cinematic, live-action tales of ghosts and ghouls are naturally frightening because accounts of their malice exist in real life. These spooky stories are no picnics with Casper. I’m talking about the fucking dark hauntings. Relentless eyes on the back of your neck and icey whispers that accompany the protagonists drowning in insanity, projecting nightmarish images into your minds eye that you never quite seem to shake. Those ones.
Even aficionados of keeping their underwear dry should know the standard haunting plot formula, consisting of the happy-go-lucky intro followed by the appearance of spontaneous apparitions. Next, the protagonists self-doubt and “losing their shit” moments that lead them to finally seek help from either a man of science or a reclusive priest who assists in the final showdown, nearly always accompanied by a painfully cliched thunderstorm. The foundation is sound, but something substantial needs to be built upon it, as Andy Muschietti and Guillermo Del Toro did with Mama. But what are the sturdy techniques that hold up the houses of horror? I hear you say. We’re going to take a look at the tricks and tropes of this particular horror genre that make or break a silver screen ghost story.
True story, bro – There’s no easier way to crank your fright-o-meter to high when a feature opens with “Based on true events”. I remember Olatunde Osunsanmi’s 2009 thriller, The Fourth Kind, having this eye-widening effect on me at 1am, and during the more intense moments of the film, these opening words would return to me. This statement resonates with the viewer on a primal level and confirms to your fear receptor that this has happened in your very reality, and there’s a possibility it could happen to you. Reenactments like The Amityville Horror are terrifying enough as a form of storytelling, but adding validity to Scott Derrickson’s Deliver Us from Evil or Paco Plaza’a Veronica, gives you an added awareness that fools you into thinking you’re watching a documentary.
Killer score – Nothing builds suspense quite like the use of music and even more so, the absence of music. Derrickson’s Sinister concluded as a substandard demon haunting, but composer Christopher Young’s unsettling rhythms and the incredibly effective but downright disturbing use of Ulver’s Silence Teaches You How to Sing during the BBQ ‘79 sequence – a piece of footage that Ethan Hawk’s character discovers – is genius in the way that it haunts you for years to come. I still can’t listen to the soundtrack alone. Crescendos appearing at jump scares and the classic violin screeches have become part of a para-horror’s DNA. The technique is largely overused and mostly regarded as an indicator to hide behind whatever’s closest, but it’s also considered by some as the directors chance to have fun with their audience.
Less dramatic, more tactic – During the feature’s narrative we get an incline in tension driven by the ominous corner of the room, a self-unlocking door or the footsteps in the middle of the night. In most cases, less is more. The black silhouette of a demon or apparition allows the viewer’s imagination to fill in the details and scare themselves into the abyss. In other instances, seeing everything can add shock value. I remember seeing the ‘yellow man’ exposed at the end of Glen Morgan’s 2006 remake of Black Christmas which troubled me for weeks, or THAT scene in Ari Aster’s Hereditary that showed a hell of a lot while shrouded in shadow. 2002’s Ju-on (The Grudge) uses the invasive method of revealing ghost boy, Toshio, and his dead mother, Kayako, in all their pasty white malevolence at close proximity – An effective technique that pressures the viewer to put as much distance between them and the screen as possible. The latter is a preferred style to Asian horror of its time, but as modern horror’s rising star, Jordan Peele believes “Horror movies, when done right, use the audience’s imagination against them. You hear the phrase ‘less is more’ in horror, what you don’t show is the scariest thing, and I believe that’s true.”
Original origin, okay? – The spirit of a vengeful mother has taken umbrage with your selfish decision to live a quiet, normal life in suburbia and consequently begins to rearrange your furniture, stop the clocks and terrorize your children because she actually sacrificed her own. Oops. These tropes get repetitive without a convincing why. This year’s The Curse of La Llorono demonstrated these mind -numbing cliches that dragged Michael Chaves big screen debut to the brink of boredom, instead of exploring the Mexican origin that birthed the spectral antagonist. Reimagine this feature titled, La Llorono, a haunting that submerges itself in the poignancy and tragic circumstances that lead a human being to become the psychotic monster, “The Weeping Woman”. A retrospective narrative rich with culture and Stephen King-esque imagination woven in to form some kind of originality and you’ve got a para-horror that doesn’t lie like transparent waste. Titles like James Wan’s Insidious 1 & 2 that imagined the Further and even The Haunting in Connecticut that brought the added variable of ectoplasm into the backstory made it much more intriguing. Sometimes, it’s the little things.
Protagonist power – Paranormals should also play your empathetic strings. If a family or lone wolf is being ripped from sanity by dark entities, we should care about their survival and offer transcendental support from beyond the fourth wall. You rarely care about the wellbeing of the sorority ‘screamer’, the ignorant troublemaker or the sexually active prom king and queen. There’s a reason they get killed off first. Paranormals usually target one person, a couple or family who move as a unit, as hauntings tend to carry a feeling of isolation. These leads have to grip us. The brilliant The Haunting of Hill House was very much a character piece superseding its paranormal layer, establishing a bond with the Crain family that completely knocked the stigma off Netflix’s generic title. Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others – a lesser mainstream paranormal horror but nonetheless, brilliant ghost tale with a kicker twist – highlights Nicole Kidman’s, Grace, as a solid lead who we sympathise with despite her rigidness. Ed and Lorraine Warren are the backbone of The Conjuring franchise with their soothing nature, unshakeable love for each other and their relentless devotion to cleanse the world of evil. An interesting character change featured in this years, Annabelle Comes Home, introduces the annoying best friend who prides herself on being a non-believer and is adamant to goad any spirits to test her resilience. Usual suspect. But a key reveal of her intentions hiding behind her ignorance changes the entire character in an instant. A complete 180. A clever choice by Gary Dauberman that exploits a dying troupe and works it to his advantage.
If we look at the active Conjuring franchise, it works because Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are a tour de force together. A real power couple. The progression is unsettling because the spooks lie dormant in shadow and linger in places you perform everyday tasks until the main antagonist is revealed, sadly amidst a thunderstorm, but the movie has enough momentum and climax to make the storm effective. The score is simple and the wailing horns add to the dreamlike isolation you should feel during a damn good haunting. The Warren’s are real and their demon hunting careers are the basis of the films exorcisms. The jump scares are correctly placed (because they will always be there) and the likes of The Crooked Man and Valak are mostly original in design and stand as pretty evil, cinematic rakshasa’s.
The paranormal genre is at the bow of horror, with a reboot of The Grudge, Paranormal Activity 7 and The Conjuring 3 all in line for a 2020 unveiling. Delivering within the parameters of the aforementioned formula – cautious to stray outside the ring of salt – has become a fail safe for directors and screenwriters to hash out their next money-grubbing production that’s certain to deliver cheap thrills. But auteurs, Wan, Leigh Whannel and Dauberman, fall on the right side of success because of their ability and enthusiasm to create more than just your average popcorn spiller.