Horror

The Symbols Inside the Devil Inside

With all movies (barring documentary) we, as viewers, are aware that what we are seeing is not true. We know the “sender” is telling us an elaborate lie — a story — and we have to suspense our ability to disbelieve in order to fully immerse ourselves in a movie-watching experience. Horror is especially adept at crafting this lie: Paranormal Activity, The Blair Witch Project, and a variety of other movies play on the idea of “found film” so make what we’re viewing so much more real. But it’s not enough to merely give the viewer these “recordings,” a viewer must be able to relate, to read all the signs, in order to feel the true impact of a horror film.

I wanted to look not at a concept of horror film for this entry, but at a film itself. I’ve previously discussed the fear of the unknown, the use of religious images, and the use of color in horror. The Devil Inside uses all of these concepts and far more in its story, and while neither the best nor my favorite film (I found it mostly middle-ground in terms of horror), I decided to look at how symbols and semiotic concepts are used, specifically, in this film.

The Devil Inside Movie

Also, it was available on Netflix.

The film begins with a purposeful attempt to blur the lines of reality. This is not just found footage: We are shown crime scene footage (quite dark, despite being in a house, where lights exist — but camera-flashlights add so much tension!), and a clip from a newscast before centering in on an interview with Isabella Rossi, the daughter of the woman who committed the murders from the crime scene footage. All fake, and all carefully crafted, the film wants us to believe we are watching a documentary, even when falling on some of the most commonly stereotypical horror tropes. (At the end of the crime scene footage there is an unknown sound before the camera cuts away. Spooooooky.) It wants to create that fear of the unknown, somethings expanded upon even farther as the film begins: We see a broken chair, a dead priest, and a woman clutching a cross before we hear the words “exorcism.” Even without seeing a preview, the film makes use of painfully obvious symbols to foreshadow the overall point of the movie. It does this far more subtly, a number of minutes in, as Isabella sits in on a class at the Vatican School of Exorcism (not a real school), and we conveniently hear mention of the transference of demons. Gee, I wonder what will happen later. It’s in these beginning scenes that the film sets the stage for it’s own mythos and intratextuality that we need to accept as viewers. Without our relation to these first moments of film, the rest of the movie would not work.

There are also times where the movie relies heavily on color — although these scenes are few. When Isabella goes to visit her mother in the mental hospital, we see camera footage of her mother. The film appears black-and-white, but for the dull color of a yellow chair. Incidental? Maybe, but also perhaps a moment of calm brightness to contrast the next color in the scene, which is the red of blood, standing out even brighter. The scenes in the hospital themselves are nothing special: The video is dull, normal “found footage”-style fair, which doesn’t seem the match the crisp realness of the other documentary camera moments, but does work to show the somber nature of a mental hospital.

Shortly after that first hospital visit, we are shown a mash-up, of sorts. Isabella voices over what it’s like to effectively lose both her parents. As she does this the video switches between Isabella walking by herself in crowds of people, religious imagery, statues that represent loneliness. These images are quick moments, the get us a feeling of loss and being lost. Even though she has a camera man/documentarian with her, Isabella is alone. She has no parents, no hint of a significant other, and it is earlier-hinted that she has had an abortion, which could be a symbol of literal emptiness insider her. A similar voice-over mash-up moment happens shortly after when a young priest discusses his background with exorcisms.

This film also falls back on the perversion of religion. “Inverted crosses, commonly used in Satanic rituals.” But we’ve already discussed the problem with that. Later we move on to a young girl possessed by a demon, containing some more apparent symbols: “She’s getting worse,” her mother warns, saying she moved her to the basement. She’s getting worse, so she is physically getting lower, getting put in a dark, dank space, and closer to Hell.

DI_52

It’s here we get to view our first “real,” brutal exorcism and demonic possession. And the demon shows in the young girl’s body: She is contorted and ugly, marked by bruises, blood, and dirt. The demon is not elegant, and neither is this girl. She wears her possession like a gown, so the characters and the viewers both can understand that even if the Devil can be subtle, smooth, and resort to trickery, demons are rough and obvious. They make a normally-pretty girl physically “wrong.”

These themes continue throughout the movie, mimicked in obvious and more subtle ways–generally the more obvious. This is not a movie with symbols twined in like a delicate thread, but it is still not a movie without its symbols. It is also a movie who keeps to one solid plot, and the later hospital scene and later exorcism are so similar to the one we see in the first half there is no need to reiterate. A choice that perhaps does not make for the most frightening of films, but does at least hold true to it’s own setting, and is a good example of common symbols and semiotics in horror film.

A Marriage of Mania: Horror and Comedy

If irony is about opposites, then what could be more ironic than the idea of mixing horror with comedy? And yet it is one of the most popular mixes of genres. The difference between a form of media meant to scare and one meant to amuse can be vast, but somehow also goes together with a brilliant sort of ease, often without even having to rely on concepts of parody. Horror comedy dwells distinctly in the realm of the impossible: As impossible as it is for zombies to walk the Earth, it should be more impossible to see the humor in something so terrible. Death should not be humorous, especially explicit and violent death, and violence should not be praised with a laugh, but with a screen and the knowledge none of it is real between us and the explicit actions, the viewers of horror comedy are able to ignore the terrible truth of their amusement.

By why should and why does horror comedy work? For some people, it doesn’t: I know plenty of people who don’t understand my appreciation for Tucker and Dale vsEvil or even more accessible films like Shaun of the Dead. Often it’s that idea of opposites. I don’t watch–or even really like–comedy film. I may well have been the only person to watch The Hangover and not even crack a smile. But there is something about this contrasting combination that really works. So much so, I’ve even addressed the idea before in this blog with regards to color and horror film. And if something as small as color can change a horror film, it’s so surprise that adding a whole new genre can.

To really drive this point, consider the aforementioned Tucker and Dale vs Evil.

tucker-and-dale-vs-evil-logo

 

Tucker and Dale vs Evil plays on the idea of expectations and irony: Our heroes are not the group of teens, but the two backwater-looking men you see in the picture above, who these teens mistakenly assume are are there to kill them, when in actuality all they want to do is fix up the cabin they just bought. The rest of the movie is Tucker and Dale just trying to survive while the teens are trying to kill them–and in turn dying through their own carelessness (which only goes on to fuel their fear of Tucker and Dale). And while we do eventually learn of a crazed character, once more, it’s neither of the men you think it would be. The film plays on the idea of stereotypes in horror and works to dispel them, all while maintaining a tongue-in-cheek tone. It plays on the viewer’s expectations to make an entertaining, and ultimately wonderful mix of horror and comedy.

And really, that is what composing a movie with two conflicting themes is about–or, really composing anything: Taking the expected and making it unexpected.

 

 

 

When we think of literary symbols, the “signified” meaning of a symbol is often taken from very specific sources: Shakespeare or Charles Dickens, Faust or the Bible. Especially the Bible.

Which brings in the concept of water: In most writing, water is refreshing, it brings in the concept of birth, life, and baptism. In horror, very rarely does water reflect this concept. Water signifies many things in horror, but mostly it represents the symbol of the unknown and unknowable.

Look to H. P. Lovecraft and his “Cthulhu Mythos” which respect to many of his Elder Gods–although there are Elder Gods for each element, most of the ones Lovecraft writes about are his gods of water, living deep within the sea. There is his Dagon, Cthuhlu, and Mother Hydra, references in various stories, most notably one of Lovecraft’s few novellas The Shadow Over Innsmouth, which heavily plays on the concept of water, not just because of the gods that dwell there, and the ocean-side locale, but because (spoiler alert) the people themselves are of the sea: They are strange, and unknown to the world around them, just like the deeps of the ocean itself.

Image

To put this in the perspective of film: We have JawsGodzillaThe Abyss and even Sharknado. All the evils in these films come of the water–some even reflecting upon real threats (after all, Jaws was based real shark attacks). The idea of unknowable water plays off truths we all know: The ocean is vast, it is scary, and there is much of it we still don’t know, and because of this it becomes a natural symbol in these films and novels.

Sean Hall, in This Means This, This Means That, expands on this point: He states that there are two ways symbols can arise, natural and cultural, and while there are plenty of movies that play on cultural fear (The Exorcist, and other movies based on religious concepts), movies involving water are often purely natural in how they encourage emotions in their viewers, especially “creature” films, like many of the aforementioned movies (and even Lovecraft stories) are. In a cultural context, water in clean, pure, and baptismal, but once there is enough of it, the fear of what lurks calls to our most basic of instincts.

Which goes back to an overall theme of horror: Whether it be woods or water, abandoned hospitals or lost islands, the idea that were is some unconquered unknown appeals to our fears, and becomes a symbol for it.

Every Spooky Thing is Phallic

When you watch a slasher film, someone is going to get penetrated.

With a knife, yes, but I think we all know the real implications here: Knives, chainsaws, and the like are often used against (women) victims, and even vampire fangs, which penetrate the skin can be phallic in nature. Vampire kings often have castle towers, and victims in these films are more often than not young, sexual women.

After all, that’s why you never have sex in a horror film.

Unless the horror movie is Cherry Falls. Then you can have all the sex.

Unless the horror movie is Cherry Falls. Then you can have all the sex.

This is especially true of slasher films, which gave us the concept of the “Final Girl”–a pure female character who survives until the end because she upholds some form of “correct” behavior. In Halloween, she’s a sweet girl who works hard and isn’t a dirty loudmouth like her friend. In Friday the 13th she’s kind little Alice. In Wishmaster, she’s an innocent woman wracked with guilt over her parent’s death and who refused to succumb to the greed of wishes.

Which plays upon the “virgin/whore” dichotomy: Either a character is a raucous slut who deserves to get (excuse my language) metaphorically “fucked” by the overtly masculine (but apparently incapable of sex) bad guy, or she’s pure enough to make it to the end.

But masculine/feminine symbols don’t end with slasher films, or even the concept of the Final Girl. Bruce “Don’t Call Me Ash” Campbell’s character, Ash, in Evil Dead is not a woman, but he is the only survivor. Thrice. That doesn’t stop director Sam Raimi from making the most overt phallic symbol in a horror movie ever when he has a character who is literally raped by trees and thus turns into a Candarian Demon.

 

And so a woman becomes violated, and thus turns evil–despite being the only non-raucous person heading to the woods that day.

The problem with this concept being that it was not left in the 80s and early 90s: And is still played upon in films like All The Boys Love Mandy Lane, The Collection, The House of the Devil, and most obnoxiously the impending film Final Girl.

In fact, the concept of masculine sexual actions being represented in horror film as a way to kill women is so prevalent they even wrote a book about it, which is worth a read for anyone interested in film, horror, or feminism.

So next time you watch a horror film pay attention, because everything is phallic.

There’s something the matter with Henry

Trigger Warning: Gore.

Even Hollywood comes up with some new ideas, now and again.

In an earlier post, I talked how physical deformity is often used as a clue towards explaining the relative evilness/untrustworthiness of a character. You couldn’t count the number of facial scars, eyepatchs, or claw hands if you tried.

By 1986, horror was just lousy with trope portrayals of killers, ensured by the massive success of Friday the 13th, Halloween, their sequels and imitators. Everywhere you looked, mass murderers were idealized as masked murders, monolithic, calculating reapers. The killers were not men, not people, they were death given form.

Wow, such death, very spoopy.

As effective as these killers were, and they undoubtedly, and deservedly did and do inspire terror, they cannot compare to Henry.

He’s just eating a sandwich.

 

He isn’t creepy at all.

 

Oh, I see.

Jason and Michael Myers are wolves in wolves’ clothing; Henry is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

That’s what, for me, makes Henry the scarier. The movie emphasizes the real over the ideal, leaving Henry to play cards and buy cigarettes. He has an unremarkable area of Chicago, no haunted lake or long-abandoned house for a home base.

The mundane surroundings is also visual rhetoric, the same selection of real vs. idealized. His average face, the could-be-a-million-places feeling of his backdrop produces the terror. Unlike Jason, Henry can be anyone. Anywhere. And that’s scary. That’s the real fear of Henry. His face is a mask, and you worry how many others like him are hiding behind masks. He knows it, and tells us, is too smart to use the same method more than once to avoid recognition for what he is.

In showing killers how they really look, rather than relying on idealized icons, Henry, Portrait of A Serial Killer provides chills by stripping away any of the audience’s ability to dissassociate the actions of the killer with the face of a regular Joe.

Perverting the Pious

When Sean Hall talks about symbols in This Means This This Means That he reflects on how meaning is tied to them: In one case, he calls to mind the swastika, a symbol that once stood for goodness, but was later perverted (and flipped) for use by the Nazi party during WWII. Although still used in India, across Europe and the Americas it’s easy to see why the swastika is a no-go in terms of using symbols.

In less severe ways, this idea is mimicked in horror film, where religious imagery is often used to degrade, shock, or insult audiences and/or characters. Surely one cannot forget the scene in The Exorcist where the possessed girl Regan violently masturbates with a bloody cross:

(Viewer Discretion Advised)

While less vulgar as the above scene, the cross is also often inverted in horror film. The Petrine Cross (or the Cross of Saint Peter), in Christianity is actually a religious symbol, not an anti-religious one. But horror film, novels, television and other culture likens it to Satanism, demons, animal (and human) sacrifice, and anti-Christian doctrine. This concept in and of itself is so pervasive anymore, one could argue more people consider the Petrine Cross anti-Christian than Christian in nature.

Of course, the perversion of religious symbols is not restricted to Christianity, although other religious issues often go past the mere idea of subverting religious iconography and often border on being culturally and racially offensive. Two especially popular concepts of this can be seen in the handling of Native American religion and Haitian Voodoo in horror.

the-amityville-horror-wallpapers_5

Going past the more obvious choices of Pet Semetery and Poltergeist, we have The Amityville Horror, which goes beyond being casually problematic in its creation and story (by incorporating actual murders and being marketed as a true story), but goes one step further by implying these murders and the subsequent hauntings are caused by mystical possession in the form of crazed Native American spirits. And if we are to be truthful, like the Petrine Cross, what does the idea of Native Burial Ground signify to you: Years and years of subjugation of the Native Americans whose holy grounds (and otherwise) have been forcibly taken, or evil curses plaguing innocent (and often white) families?

I think you know what the answer to that question really is.

Haitian and Louisianan Voodoo have received much the same treatment: Voodoo is referenced in everything from children’s horror series Goosebumps and kids movies like My Teacher Ate My Homework to the popular horror film (or at least popular enough to always be on television) The Skeleton Key, where voodoo ideals, symbols, and concepts are appropriated to have an evil couple take over the body of Kate Hudson. There are also voodoo dolls in books by Dean Koontz, voodoo zombies in Wes Craven movies, and voodoo priestesses in American Horror Story: Coven. Despite all this, it is safe to say, most of the people viewing these movies probably have no real concept of Voodoo as a religious practice. Instead, voodoo is a catch-all for exotic and ethnic flavored evil.

Using powerful, religious symbols can make a statement in horror–or any–film. Which is undoubtedly why it is so popular, and why it works: But also why it can be offensive and even dangerous.

 

White Bright Lights

Think about the last few movies you’ve seen, and think about color: Adventure movies are all cool and blue, fast metallics and flashes of red-orange. Dystopias are gray smoke and dirt, and horror calls to mind dark nights and blood reds (and actual blood) to create the tense fearful atmosphere we come to expect. But horror also unabashedly does with visual imagery what many other genres will not do, whether for fear of losing money (and lets be real: Most horror is not a cash cow), or fear of alienating the audience (again, not the biggest concern in a genre that features tree rape in one of it’s most classic films), which is deviate from expected color themes and imagery to craft something even more unsettling than an abandoned old house or hostel.

House of 9

House of 9 (2005)

Oftentimes I joke that my favorite type of film is “people trapped mysteriously in a room together movies” and part of that falls into one of my favorite contrasts in horror: Clean, white rooms or clean-cut families providing a conflicting backdrop to the acts of violence that will undoubtedly occur. The most evident of this is in these “people trapped” films: The Killing Room, Breathing Room, House of 9, among others. They provide almost scientifically clean areas in which atrocities take place, creating a canvas for horror that can make even cliche actions seem that much more difficult to watch.

Take the trailer for two comparatively similar films, such as the aforementioned Breathing Room and the dark and dirty Nine Dead:

Sean Hall tells us that “stories always change in the telling” and while both these movies ask their trapped characters “why are you here?” it’s in the telling that makes one better than the other: The visuals in one are powerful in their contrasts–the darks, lights, and reds, make up a story that is lacking in the dull consistency of Nine Dead‘s cinematography. But there is more to this contrast than relying on setting and cinematography. For this, we look to Lucky McKee’s films, Sick Girl, and, in particular, The Woman: McKee (and by proxy Jack Ketchum, who wrote the film) gives us clean not only in setting, but in characters. The Woman features the Cleek family, who, for all intents and purposes appear to be not just normal but a good All-American Family. They are the family you expect to have atrocities committed against, not the ones to be committing the atrocities: But that is what make the film successful.

The Woman

The Woman (2011): Father, business man, keeps a feral woman as a pet dog

The power in horror lies in unchecked fear, tension, and the things we do not expect. To seen beauty and light intermixed in our deepest fears is unexpected, and often unused in big-budget Hollywood horror. It’s powerful, and it is, to some extend, perfect.

On a final note, reflect back to a film we are all probably familiar with: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. The setting of the “games” is a lush forest hidden under the same dystopian filters of the previous movie. But how different, how powerful, could things have been if it opted for the unexpected and gave us this tropical forest in full Caribbean Cruises-esque color as the backdrop for brutal murder? The answer is very, because there is something wonderful about the brutal beauty of color, and unexpected light in the face of the darkest realities.