Suspension of disbelief in Pontypool

by Coulter Johnston

Suspension of disbelief is an aspect present in many horror films, as the production may require the viewer to accept the existence of the supernatural, whether it be through demons, zombies, or even humans that seem to have supernatural powers. In Pontypool, however, the use of suspension of disbelief by the audience is seemingly unique. Here, the viewer must accept a novel form of viral transmission: through the English language. For someone with a scientific background, this may appear difficult as spontaneous generation has been disproven, and therefore the idea that a virus would be able to spontaneously infect someone merely through spoken word even transmitted through radio waves would be impossible. While the existence of zombies or demons would similarly be impossible, these acts seem more plausible to believe and thus the act of suspension of disbelief seems easier to accept. I believe this is in part due to the vast exposure in popular horror media of such supernatural phenomena, where the idea of viral transmission through audio is relatively unique to Pontypool. For me, this detracts from the plausible reality of the story of Pontypool, particularly through the speed at which the doctor is able to identify the causal relationship between the English language and the spread of the virus. The idea that this doctor can identify 1. That the transmission is viral without reference to any tests performed and 2. Describe a novel form of transmission that would disprove many fundamental scientific theorems that would have been significant parts of his training all within the afternoon of the disease coming to be seems excessively quick, and may have served more as the provision of any somewhat plausible storyline for the audience to be able to follow more easily. However, I believe that an alternate approach may have better fit the requirements of a story such as Pontypool. Like in many other horror films, much of the terrifying aspects of the movie seem to come from the unknown: whether it be where the location of the killer/monster is, or what the killer/monster is, or even whether they exist, this sense of the unknown shared between the protagonists and the audience is what builds the necessary tension and suspense. Similarly in Pontypool, throughout a large portion of the film, this sense of the unknown is strongly manifested through the radio crew who, while picking up aspects of the story through their field reporter Ken, are unable to confirm any of the facts or even begin to understand the cause of the disease, with the only hint coming from the message they translated from French, recommending to not use the English language. I believe that this sense of the unknown could have been further developed throughout the film if the doctor were less certain of his diagnosis of the cause of this disease, as well as held up a greater aspect of realism throughout this story. While this may have detracted from the ability of Mazzy to attempt to save people from transmission through sheer confusion, I believe this would have made an ultimately more terrifying story. Additionally, this part of Mazzy understanding how to overcome the disease and attempting to share this knowledge is portrayed much more in the film than in the radio drama, which opens a question as to whether this was truly necessary or not to the overall plot of the story.

            I also wanted to touch on some of the stylistic choices of the movie, particularly in their choice to remain inside the radio studio for all shots, never showing the outside world apart from seeing the hands of many infected individuals banging on the windows as they attempt to enter the studio. While this is in part due to the adaptation of a radio drama as a film, and therefore by default the majority of dialogue coming from radio segments, I believe this was also a stylistic choice to develop this sense of the unknown, as we as viewers maintain the same level of knowledge of the outside world as the protagonists stuck inside the studio. Additionally, as this is a horror film that tunes us as the viewer to audio cues of a potentially infected person, the fact that our vision is so limited to exclusively inside the studio helps in strengthening this fear of the English language; if this is all the virus requires to infect someone, then even blockading all infected from coming into the studio is insufficient in preventing the spread of the virus. Ultimately I felt that this choice helped in portraying a sense of helplessness, as whether the protagonists try to run or stay and protect themselves, these attempts are relatively useless, elucidating this horrifying concept of an infected language.

Hacker Aesthetics and the Factor of Frustration

Last week, we contested the necessity of the fear factor in the genre of horror, particularly as it pertains to the case of “haunted interfaces” as the primary antagonist. In our previous discussions, we experienced how mediums can terrify us due to how the artists and producers exploit the fact that we take mechanical functions for granted as we navigate virtual spaces. For instance, when we played P.T., the player and their audience felt unnerved listening to technological objects in the maze-like hallway. I recall us mumbling, “Oh, God, nooooo” when Lisa sobbed through a grainy-sounding phone call—we expected Lisa to jump-scare us or at least send another creepy sound our way through the radio. Even when we knew that at the game’s climax we had to follow her cries to track her presence down, I think we hesitated because we feared approaching her terrifying presence.

The movie Unfriended also took advantage of glitches within digital interfaces to haunt Laura’s former friends and by translation, to unsettle us as witnesses to the computer’s malfunctions. We saw through Blaire’s screen that the Facebook “block” button mysteriously vanished; while we might have quickly dismissed that as a bug in Facebook’s programming, we came to slowly accept that Blaire and her friends were cursed to die through Laura’s haunting of their digital devices. After all, an anonymous phantom entered their Skype calls without permission, and when their screens “froze” or “glitched,” the next frame showed us (and Blaire) that the friends died grisly deaths at Laura’s hands. It was almost as if we were trained to anticipate death after glitches interrupt the normal flow of computer interfaces… In other words, we expect glitches and digital unreliability to manifest on-screen scary, horrifying, and disturbing consequences to those who bear witness to the technology’s deviance from standard function.

The two games we played last week subverted these experiences somewhat. The Uncle who Works for Nintendo indeed started off creepy in my initial playthrough. When the Uncle appeared for the first time to eat my character, I jumped at the successive knocking sounds, then at the cacophonous noise that accompanied the glitching, “erroneous” Twine commands, which made clear that my character faced certain death. However, as I progressed through different endings of the game, the “haunted interface” took on a contrasting tone—rather than anticipating the Uncle, I found myself eagerly awaiting the malfunctioning interfaces because I knew it meant I would progress in the story. At that moment, the “fear factor” that I would have felt toward the Uncle transformed more into a feeling of curiosity: unlike the anxiety-induced hesitation we experienced bracing ourselves for Lisa’s appearance, an urge to “find” the alternate endings trumped any notion of fear. 

My anticipation was answered by the final “secret” ending of the game, when the Twine layout itself transformed as the Uncle threatened to take away my friend’s life. As the Gameboy/Uncle became deadlier and stranger, as the player I began to not fear a threat on my own avatar’s life, but on my friend’s life. Hence, when I unlocked the final ending, in which I saved my friend from becoming a missing child (as other endings implied), I came to see The Uncle who Works for Nintendo as a game about friendship that contained horror elements. In its use of untrustworthy interfaces, I found a narrative about love between friends—how far is one friend willing to go to brag about how “special” their own video games are, and how far am I willing to go to save an annoying, but beloved, friend? 

Pony Island’s subversion of the fear factor is more clean-cut. Upon its first clicks, immediately my group sensed that the hacker aesthetic was not curated to necessarily scare us with its devil antagonist, unlike the historical Satanic Panic incidents we talked about in class (backmasking, etc.). Rather, we were laughing at the interface’s whimsical tone, and we thought that the self-awareness that Lucifer and his demon horde possessed actually enhanced an otherwise mundane game. At its core, Pony Island is a platformer game—and a tedious, repetitive, uninspiring one at that. The player controls a pixelated unicorn who can only jump over obstacles in a mostly horizontally-scrolling environment. There are no enemies to take down, no power upgrades to look forward to, and no change in the speed or intensity of the scrolling. 

This dramatically changes, though, as Lucifer attempts to make the player’s gameplay unbearably impossible to conquer—the inclusion of enemy targets and bosses, demons who play Tic-Tac-Toe-like puzzle games, and hidden glitches within the virtual desktop that the player can exploit to gain hacks (like the laser). Suddenly, the game ramps up its stakes, but in the process of creating harder game “challenges,” the more Pony Island felt like it was creeping closer to something as enjoyable as the Super Mario Bros franchise. Thanks to my classmates who spoke during my presentation, we concluded that Pony Island was a playful, mischievous parody of both the horror and platformer genres, reminding us that fear may be a sufficient feature of scary video platformers, but not mandatory. Indeed, as gamers, we constantly worry about “failing” the level by falling off a platform or getting overwhelmed by enemy targets. And as horror fans, we also feel scared as we brace ourselves for a horrifying villain to lunge out and kill our beloved characters. Somewhat departing from both, Pony Island’s addition of fun, new mechanics as the Devil tried harder to inhibit us from entertaining ourselves with the game ironically felt less stressful and terrifying, yet still retained a sense of stimulated excitement by introducing something new the moment we sensed tedium in the mechanics. Strangely, in a way, I felt like I was “hacking” the horror genre to disturb its conventions of utilizing “fear.” Playing with and counter-hacking Lucifer’s malicious intentions, then, questions horror game’s conventional reliance on fear, but I do wonder if the future of unreliable interface games will lean toward it again…

—Alina K.

Pontypool: Radio and Film

by Counti 

I talked a little about this in my discussion post, but I wanted to talk more about it here. 

Why change the endings? 

There is a little bit of trivia that said that initially, the movie was only going to be the radio waves on screen, similar to the beginning of the movie. If that was the case, would the movie have been the short 46 minute version, or would it have still been the longer version? Part of the differences in the endings can be attributed to the movie justifying taking place as a visual medium: there are changes in scenery, more characters, and more action—as well as the inclusion of Grant trying to save others, the bombing, the post credits scene, and the fact that Blair survives a bit longer. This changes the tone that the radio drama has and really pulls away from the horror and suspense that the radio drama cultivates. I truly believe that if I had listened solely to the radio drama, or heard it first, I would have been far more terrified, because I believe the radio drama is a stronger piece or horror media. I think it would be interesting to have part of the class listen to the radio drama first and the other half the movie first, and see what is more horrifying and what has a greater impact—as well as what ending fits the theme and makes the most sense. 

Furthermore, what purpose do the different endings serve? To be completely honest, I was unsure of what the movie (and the radio drama) was trying to say at the end. Not every piece of media needs to be clear cut, but I did feel that towards the end (mainly of the movie) the horror had fallen to the wayside and my confusion had won over. I would have liked to hear what others thought about the strengths of both endings, both in terms of story and in terms of a horror story. It also made me wonder about the use of horror as genre or horror as a plot device, which is something I hadn’t thought about before. The horror of the movie was very strong during the first half (which was the majority alike to the radio drama) but it fell off as the movie continued. Not only that, but the pacing of the movie felt like it should have ended about halfway through, and now that I’ve listened to the radio drama, that makes sense–I think it was supposed to end halfway through, but they tacked on a bunch of things to the end. I would be interested in reading the book and seeing what other differences there were. From the reviews I read, the book is said to be somehow more vague. I am curious, however, about the ways it is vague. I feel like confusion has a key role in horror. You want just enough to have people interested, curious, and on the edge of their seats. The horror of the unknown is important and definitely causes my heart to race. But too much confusion and frustration comes into playIf people are too confused, then that confusion replaces the horror, and I wonder if that happened with anyone else while watching or listening to Pontypool

The realism of the radio drama:

I was curious if there was a way to reach a similar effect of horror and confusion if we as the audience only received what the people of Pontypool got to listen to. As is, a lot of the story would be incomprehensible without backstage access, and we would lose some character development and some neat moments. However, thinking about War of the Worlds, I think that it could be interesting to do a re-write that focused on a listener’s perspective. What could be changed or added? Could a character accidentally leave the broadcast on so the audience could hear a pivotal moment? Could Laurel-Anne, since she was taken over by the virus, turn the radio broadcast on in an effort to infect more people? Would that add some suspense and fear if you were listening to the radio version, provided it was the right type of confusion (akin to going through the situation in real life) versus just the confusion of bad writing? 

My thoughts on the obituaries: 

I think the obituaries were more fitting in the radio version. In the radio version, the obituaries  are given at the very end, making the fact that Grant would need information he has no way of getting to tell the obituaries make a little more sense. It feels more poetic, and it’s more like a ghostly explanation rather than an in-world part of the plot. However, in the movie, it seems to function more like it was a real thing he had really said, which took me out of the terror of the moment because I started questioning how he could know, rather than basking in the poetics of what the obituaries were saying. 

The Manifestation of Fear in Slenderman

by Kerry

Slenderman’s presence in media is especially intriguing due to its origin as a viral subreddit post. The concept of Slenderman therefore was not created through a movie, video game, book, or anything of that nature, as many similar characters are. Because of this, a lot of the content created about Slenderman, whether that be other internet posts, video games such as “Slenderman: The Eight Pages”, or Marble Hornets, are made by a variety of different people, rather than just one person or company. This leads to more variety between the different depictions of Slenderman in media, and a lot more additions to the lore that comes with Slenderman that is not seen with a lot of other similar horror characters. This overall variety in the media able to be consumed for Slenderman makes a lot of the content more unexpected despite the fact that the lore is something that many people already have prior knowledge of. 

Beyond this, Marble Hornets specifically is able to invoke fear in the viewer for reasons beyond the creature of Slenderman himself. Marble Hornets plays heavily on the common fear that one is being watched or stalked. The characters in their videos are consistently depicted as stressed about someone following them, and even feel a need to film everything they do for this reason. Marble Hornets also shows Slenderman himself coming into one of their homes while they are sleeping, and then later the man in the mask standing over the main character as he sleeps. This builds upon the fear that the show is invoking that one is being watched, and begins to play with the fear of someone or something actually breaking into your home, and your home no longer being somewhere you can feel safe. On top of both of these, Marble Hornets depicts the characters as having to essentially leave everything behind and focus all their time and energy on escaping their situation. Because of this, they end up isolated, and isolation and loneliness are another largely had fear, especially when it is forced the way it is here. So through these means, Marble Hornets, and Slenderman lore in a more general sense, are able to very easily invoke fear and unease in the viewer despite the fact that the amount of times Slenderman is actually depicted in the show is rather low.  

Further, Marble Hornets has a unique characteristic to it that adds an extra layer of horror many others in the “Found Footage” genre do not have. This comes from the premise being that Jay is watching all the old film from his friend Alex, which is the “found footage” in question, and trying to figure out what happened to him. There are often even written comments on each clip before or after the clip plays, giving the show the feel that you are watching them at the same time as Jay. However, as Jay watches the film, and begins to get an idea of the situation that Alex was in, the same situation begins to happen to him, and the clips become footage Jay takes of his own experiences. This gives the viewer the feeling that because Jay watched the footage, he then ended up in a horrifying situation himself, and that this could possibly happen to anyone watching the footage, including the viewer themselves. This added layer in Marble Hornets also plays on the viewers fears similarly to the ways mentioned above by implying the possibility that actually viewing this could be a danger. 

Outside of Marble Hornets, Slenderman lore also creates horror beyond just Slenderman appearing scary by playing on common fears. Many creepypasta and subreddit posts involving Slenderman would involve someone creating a photo with Slenderman photoshopped in the background, and a caption implying something bad happened after it was taken. A good example of this was a post with Slenderman in the background of a photo of many children playing, and the caption describing that they all went missing following the photo. This post plays on the very real fear most parents have about their children being kidnapped. 

It can be seen how Slenderman manifested itself in a very real and scary way through the tragic Wisconsin stabbing involving the young girls. This incident has brought about the discussion of whether this sort of event would be inevitable and could have manifested through any viral horror entity, or if there was something about the Slenderman lore specifically that invoked it. While it seems this incident could have been inevitable and inspired by other pieces of horror, it does seem that the nature of Slenderman, and horror with similar lore, could more heavily inspire this than some other entities.  As discussed above, the lore of  Slenderman and Marble Hornets do a very good job at playing at people’s fears and creating a strong sense of unease for viewers with this subliminal threat of being watched, and isolation.

The American ‘Moral Panic’ Problem

by Sofia

Hopefully, this isn’t just of interest to me, but I’ve been really eager to try to understand or place what is uniquely American about this myth of the ‘satanic cult.’ To be clear, that isn’t me trying to say that this is a trope that is somehow only been expressed as part of American film tradition and cultural lore—because, truthfully, that would be one of the sillier crosses to die on. If nothing else, I mostly just want to use this post to think about how American culture might encourage an especially sympathetic relationship between itself and moral panics.

Something nodal that emerged for me from this particular line of inquiry was a contention with the United States’ relative cultural youth. Even though a lot of this comes down to subjective conjecture, compared to most other countries, I’ve always been taught that America is on the naïver end. Again, it is possible that I’m totally off, here, but, from my experience of history, it seems as though the United States has lagged centuries behind other nations in crystalizing certain parts of its cultural identity. 

What does this have to do with moral panic, you might be asking? Well, if you take a historical perspective on social scourges like the ‘Satanic Panic’ of the 80s, you’d see that the timeline of most of these scandals share a pretty prescriptive formula: rapid societal change meets the knee-jerk reaction of fear and, next thing you know, people want a scapegoat to externalize their fears onto. For a country that reads more like a crash course in political upheaval and moral freefall, you could see how things might take off. What’s more, the United States is largely considered to be a pretty culturally Christian society, which means it doesn’t take much to conjure a Devil in the imagination of the average American. So, between those two, say, ‘cultural pressures,’ I think it is easy to see how people might’ve gone running with conspiratorial theories in an attempt to make themselves feel safe in an otherwise largely turbid, disordered world. 

This, of course, doesn’t excuse the fact that a lot of people’s lives were ruined by these social contagions, it’s more just an attempt to flag the ways that people understand themselves as acting within this broader tradition of heroism. I think that is, in large part, what makes these moral panics so fervent: barring those bad actors who just want to turn a profit on others suffering, or sow seeds of chaos, there seem to be a lot of people—parents especially, as evidenced by the Tipper Gore reading—who are well-intentioned, but can’t seem to quiet their desire to cocoon and, ultimately, control the vulnerable populations around them in the name of ‘safety’ (think slices of our population like children, the elderly, animals, so on and so forth).

This also helps to explain how these movements come to snowball and almost ritualize themselves into our shared cultural conscious: if people think a witchhunt is protecting kids from something like a shadowy realm of people who live among and take pleasure in abusing us, then it’d make sense that those same fantasizing ‘heroes’ would be willing to look past the appalling lack of physical evidence that usually accompanies these sorts of movements. When everything is conveniently clandestine and truth can operate as needing to be recovered or prompted back by some mediating authority, as was the case in the 80s, then it follows that audiences would have been more lenient in their appraisal of what is factual information and what is anxiety/fear masquerading as such.

 As a final thought of sorts, I think it is interesting to think about how, with ‘Satanic Panic’ specifically, there was no Jonestown, or David Koresh scenario, and yet that didn’t stop people from buying into the validity of these claims! It seemed that with fewer touchpoints to any verifiable crimes, preoccupation with these stories only grew. This, in my understanding of things, is a really fascinating parrot or mime of how people negotiate the lore/specter of the supernatural and occult. Because these claims crucially existed beyond the metaphorical court of peer-reviewed methodology and hard evidence, means that these allegations were allowed to take hold in the same place that the monsters from horror movies do: our own imaginations.

With that in mind, the next time you see the alarm bells of hypervigilance take precedence over incontrovertible fact, step back and seek perspective: is this really about evil being perpetrated in the world, or is this more in line with a projection of someone’s fear of difference or change? Using that lens to revisit the years of Satanic Panic would tell us that it is more than likely the latter. 

Slenderman and Moral Panics

by Kat

Slenderman was uniquely suited to create a moral panic because its imagery and lore played into tropes associated with moral panics and worked well on creepypasta forums. Slenderman first appeared on the Something Awful forum in 2009 with only two photos and a very bare description. Both photos are just specific enough to inspire fear specifically surrounding the safety of children but vague enough to allow the reader’s imagination to run wild with the possible meanings of the threat. The first caption showing a crowd reads “We didn’t want to go, we didn’t want to kill them, but its persistent silence and outstretched arms horrified and comforted us at the same time…”. A lot of work is done in this sentence. The first half suggests that slenderman is capable of causing innocent adults to commit violence against other humans. This is a very tangible threat, but leaves the specifics of who was murdered and how they were killed up to the reader’s imagination. The second half of the sentence is what makes this quote so effective. It does not attribute any action to slenderman. Slenderman’s presence alone is the source of corruption of innocence into committing violence. The second photo posted adds validity to this threat. It ties slenderman to the disappearance of children, citing false sources to add credibility. When combined, these two images and a few sentences become a very effective fear tactic. There is just enough specificity for parents to be afraid of their children being corrupted by slenderman , but leaving the details of this process vague enough to excite their imagination. This vagueness also allows it to inspire other creepypasta writers to contribute to the mythos.

Slenderman isn’t real to parents in the sense that they believe that there is a supernatural creature that is going to find and corrupt their children. However, there are parents that believe in the corruptive force of the slenderman myth. There is an ever-present societal fear of new media, particularly with the internet. Parents were afraid of what their children might see and how it would affect them if they were left unsupervised on the internet. Slenderman made this abstract fear tangible. Parents no longer needed to be afraid of what the internet would do to their children. They are afraid of what seeing slenderman would do to their children. In this way, slenderman was very real. Its lore as a mysterious figure that corrupts the youth was able to scare parents about their kids’ saftey, even if the parents knew slenderman was fictional.

Where other stories that had the potential to terrify parents died out, slenderman was uniquely suited to take advantage of the structure of creepypasta subreddits and become viral. Notably, slenderman’s character design is easily recognizable and easily inserted into images. Slenderman is simply a tall, long limbed figure with a white, blank face and a suit. All it takes to create a slenderman image is rudimentary photoshop skills or a friend in a white, nylon mask. This character design allows photographs and videos of slenderman to be easily recognizable, even when the figure is in the distance or only seen briefly as well as when the image is blurry, grainy, or otherwise distorted. These characteristics made it very easy for slenderman to spread as a copypasta. Each contributor was easily able to add their own photograph, video, or story of an encounter to expand upon the myth. This allowed slenderman to quickly go viral and develop an ever-expanding lore generated by the readers.

Slenderman’s proxies is also a key component of both slenderman’s virality and the following moral panic. A proxy is someone who has been chosen by slenderman to perform actions on its behalf. This premise is the base inspiration for a lot of slenderman stories and supposed encounters. It also allows the line between reality and myth to be blurred. Creepypastas often function as a place for roleplay in which online users pretend to believe in the stories they are writing in order to make their posts seem more authentic. This means that a child who comes across slenderman has the potential to engage in roleplay around slenderman, not realizing that it is only roleplay. This makes the potential for moral panic even greater. Children are not only at risk of encountering slenderman posts specifically designed to scare or trick them. They can also fall victim to roleplay channels where users scare or trick the child, not knowing that the child believes it is real.

In essence, slenderman was uniquely suited to create a widespread moral panic. The initial story was just the right level of frightening and vague in order to inspire others to want to contribute. The character design and the few key components of its lore made it easy for the idea to go viral across the internet. This combined with parents’ preexisting fear of the internet scaring, tricking, or corrupting their children, generated a widespread moral panic that few other stories would have been capable of.

The Fear of the Known and Unknown in Media

Ben Ho

When asking the question, “What is scary?” immediate answers might include things or feelings we know: spiders, heights, clowns etc. But when thinking about what makes horror movies scary, it is often the things we cannot understand that drive the fear throughout the movie. Perhaps it is a string of deaths that seem to be connected, but we do not yet know how. Or maybe it’s some movement in the background of a shot that has an unknown source. In the case of Ringu, it’s a VHS tape that kills you seven days after viewing it. The tape itself is a string of footage some might consider disturbing, but besides that, we never see how the tape kills its victims. Despite there being no physical killer and having no idea what causes the people who watch the tape to die, the tape evokes a sense of fear in viewers, even decades after when VHS tapes were popular forms of media. Which then begs the question, “why do we find Ringu and other forms of dark media scary?”

VHS tape from the movie Rings

Our discussion in class first centered around old vs. new media. Specifically, we talked about how viewing Ringu today, with streaming services being the predominant mode of media consumption, affects the way we watch it. For some, the “oldness” of the VHS tape creates a heightened sense of fear, both because we have a slightly lowered idea of how VHS tapes work and also because of some other less distinct factor that gives objects a scarier aura with age. For others, the it wasn’t necessarily the fact that VHS tapes were somewhat antiquated, but rather, that unlike modern technology, where movies are converted from 1’s and 0’s by our computers into pictures, a VHS tape has a physical form that can be haunted. This point brought about another discussion about whether or not a piece of media needs a physical form to be scary. Our answers to both questions ultimately left us with conflicting opinions, pointing towards the possibility of technology we consider cutting edge today becoming dark media in the future in a way we might find scary.

Another take on this topic comes from Thacker’s “Dark Media” which he describes as media or mediation which “… have, as their aim, the mediation of that which is unavailable or inaccessible to the senses”. While he doesn’t specifically touch on the ways modern media might be construed as dark media, for him dark media is not concerned with the age of the media or the form. Rather, it’s all about there being something within or behind the media that we perceive but isn’t the media being presented. Note that this is not limited to any technological form since the media only becomes dark media when we perceive it. In other words, whether it be a radio broadcast, VHS tape, DVD, or stream, when we view the media we are viewing and, in a sense, creating whatever dark force, be it demon or otherwise, that makes the media dark media.

I’ll now offer some of my own thoughts on these topics and their implementation in movies. I don’t think a VHS tape is uniquely scary or that technology must be old for it to be scary. The latter is evident since VHS was at its peak when Ringu came out and smashed the box office. Horror movies and games might turn to VHS for their preferred form of haunted media because of the aesthetics and ease of story telling offered by having a physical object. This way, there is a sense of unique-ness to that one particular tape that cannot be shared with as much ease as digital media today. For the viewer, it also makes more sense that the tape itself could be haunted, instead of the digital signal that is reproduced as video on our screens when we stream. Ultimately, I think that what makes an object or piece of media scary is how it is presented to us as viewers. The reason it becomes increasingly difficult for us to pin down ‘the thing’ that makes something scary, is because there are many aspects that factor into such an opinion: visual effects, music, setting, lighting, and the time and place we actually watch the movie as well. Perhaps we can expect haunted iPhones or a demonic Oculus Quest in the future, and, if done right, be warned! What might seem mundane today, could terrorize your nightmares tomorrow.

Horror: Realism and Fiction

By Ellis

It appears to me based on what we have seen so far in class and from the readings from this week that horror relies on blurring the line between reality and fiction. Too real, and monsters won’t be allowed to appear; too fake, and we wouldn’t see our own lives reflected in the fear of the characters. As such, in this week’s readings, reality and fiction blur to create media panics that strike the right chord between what is real and what could be. They make us question our own realities. This reliance on a blurred line between the real and the fictional can be seen in three genres of horror we have studied so far: slasher films, found footage, and media panics.

Slasher films: This genre is used to encompass the “real” of horror. Friday the 13th for instance is significantly more realistic than Paranormal Activity. Murders do exist; serial killers do exist. The monsters in these movies are nothing more than people. And yet, they are given supernatural abilities to heighten the terror. Use of things like the Killer POV and suspenseful sound editing make it seem like the killer is everywhere all at once. If doesn’t matter that we’ve just saw him kill a counselor by the lake, we’re still worried about the girl in the woods. In addition, it doesn’t matter that he’s been stabbed, shot, fought, strangled etc—like a zombie, he keeps coming. He doesn’t stay dead. This doesn’t include later variations of slasher films where the supernatural is made explicit: even when the monster is entirely human, there is an element of the impossible. Lastly, masks. Even when the villain is human, we are restricted from viewing his face. This unknown keeps us unsure of where we stand or who we’re fighting. It falls in line with movies like Jaws that knew to keep the monster hidden.

Found footage: this genre demonstrates the fictional side of horror. So far in this class, we have seen ghosts, aliens, zombies, and demons appear in our found footage media, a dramatic departure from the “mundane” murders of slasher films. These monsters do not exist in our world, they are other, they are scary in that they are unknown. And yet, the very function of this medium is to make the fictional appear real. By framing these encounters with ghosts or demons in found footage, or by explicitly stating that what we are seeing actually happened as in the case with Paranormal Activity, reality is reintroduced to the fiction. These people are normal people—the location of Grover’s Mill is repeated regularly in War of the Worlds, anchoring the narrative in our world; Katie and Micah’s house is a regular home filmed with a nonprofessional camera—and we are therefore able to put ourselves in their shoes.

Media panics: this isn’t a genre so much as a response to horror, but it shows another perfect blend of the real and the fictional. It relies on a combination of realistic thinking and an emotional illogical response. At its heart, media panics, according to the readings we’ve seen, appears to come from a place of fear as well as being reliant on a degree of condescension. Concerned for the “youths,” promoters of these panics assume that “other people” aren’t smart enough, godly enough, or simply too impressionable to protect themselves from this occult threat. And yet, this doesn’t seem to be based on any fact, it assumes the worst of people. It is dependent on the belief that everyone else is, unlike yourself, susceptible. This is taken in concert with the belief that certain media—rock and roll, vinyl, etc—has the ability to corrupt. Take the McMartin preschool. These stories are obviously ludicrous, but fear came first and rationalized these children’s stories. The absurd was made real, and in doing so, became truly scary. Or take the War of the Worlds, the media panic is the result of the absurd being made believable and taken as fact. Scientists in the story commented to describe how insane concepts like “heat rays” worked, making them believable. Meanwhile, the fears of backmasking also relied on scientific explanation to explain why unconscious messages can influence the conscious mind. These experiences that are not at first scary are made so by adding an element of realism. Eventually, viewers rationalize the experience into something that isn’t just realistic but currently actually happening. The absurd situation, a belief in the foolishness of others, and a logical explanation turns births an actual horror.

These are the three genres of horror that we have seen in class, and each relies on a combination of the real and the fictional, the absurd and the logical. It appears that horror relies on the blurring of the line between the invented and the real, and stories that are based primarily on one must incorporate elements of the other in order to scare. Horror must make one question what is real and what isn’t, it must keep you wondering even after the television or radio set or book has been turned off and closed. It must make you question innocent technologies. It must keep you looking over your shoulder even when you know you’re alone.

From Creepy to Comedic: How Does a Villain Die?

by Meira Chasman

This is a question that has been looming in the background for me for a long time, and I think that Slenderman is a good target to focus on, because the phenomenon is recent enough in my memory that I watched the downfall in real time. 

Many people my age are simply not very scared of horror pre-2000 (which is sad because 80s horror is one of my favorite subgenres out there!). I remember when, out of context, my 10th grade music teacher showed the famous shower scene from Psycho. Most of the class couldn’t stop giggling, because they could see through the editing tricks and the scene was presented without the disturbing atmosphere of the overall film. It also didn’t help that the twist is so widely known. Obviously, Psycho isn’t the only example of outdated scares: the 50s monster B-movies, 80s slashers and schlocky found footage also lost their reputation for being genuinely ‘scary.’ Slenderman and internet creepypastas more broadly were just next in line. 

Shot by shot breakdown of the shower scene

Some would argue that the Slenderman mythos was always filled with self-awareness and irony, so it was never truly, seriously scary. But is that not true of every genre listed above? All horror is fictional and is clearly recognized as such. A better reason could perhaps be oversaturation of a market, where the familiar tropes and copycat structure become predictable and unscary shortly afterwards. Yet some trends, despite oversaturation, still manage to chug along for a decade and a half whereas Slenderman was dead far before that point. 

Another piece of this puzzle is the youtube series “Marble Hornets.” This series managed to scare the whole class, and Slenderman, a long dead meme, is the ultimate antagonist! On paper (aka the wikipedia summary), this series overall seems uneventful with low stakes– few characters actually die over 90% of the series. Still, the tension and mystery remain high due to the unique presentation. So, that’s the easy answer, right? It is not about the villain itself but how skilled the presentation of the story is. However, this brings us right in another loop: Psycho, The Thing, Halloween, The Shining and more were always well made even though younger audiences (unfortunately) might not take them seriously. So, in order to understand why Slenderman is not scary, and why villains die out, it is important to identify what’s scary about “Marble Hornets”. 

Part Two: Marble Hornets and the Glitch

Marble Hornets Entry #16: Shakycam Haunted House

Episodes of “Marble Hornets” often start with a short introduction from Jay, simple white text on a black background, no music. This setup in and of itself is already unnerving, but I soon began to breathe a sigh of relief any time his narration returned- it’s a connection to reality, a voice to identify with. Additionally, once the ‘totheark’ videos are introduced the Alex tapes suddenly become more bearable and grounding. “Marble Hornets” continuously raises the stakes of what counts as creepy, leading the audience down a rabbit hole where even the uncanny presentation is not as bad as the videos to come. The audience experiences horror on multiple levels but also builds a higher tolerance for what appears on screen. 

Next, the series relies on glitchiness, voice distortion, random cutting, shaky cam, and out-of-focus horrors, tools that were not as available in previous times but were elements that contemporary audiences recognized back in 2009. It took everyday technology and distorted it, much in the way that older generations of horror distorted everyday experiences (like summer camps) to lean into unspoken paranoia. Glitchiness is scary because it cuts off the audience’s connection to the world of the film, adding to the fear of the unknown. Attacks, creatures, blood, and danger are intentionally out of focus, a significant shift from the focus on intricate gore and special effects in the 1980s-90s.

Even though no one films on VHS anymore, glitchiness still appeals to modern audiences. For example, ‘glitch’ is at the forefront of lots of experimental music nowadays (pioneered by producers like SOPHIE). The distortion of familiar sounds and the hints of incomprehensible and otherworldly experiences is an appealing tool for innovation in many mediums that older generations of horror did not have broad access to/did not tap into. Obviously past filmmakers relied on glitchy things like TV static (Poltergeist) and used camera techniques to avoid showing the monster (Evil Dead demon cam) but this was not the primary mainstream horror style.

[In fact, one of the most terrifying moments of 80s horror for me actually comes from a nightmare sequence in the John Carpenter movie Prince of Darkness. I won’t spoil it but it relies on fuzzy VHS glitch in order to communicate something apocalyptic, otherworldly, and incomprehensible. Highly recommend!]

The scenes from Prince of Darkness that traumatized me

Finally, “Marble Hornets” understands how to punch above its budget and skill level. In general, it tries to avoid large dialogue scenes because the actors are not great. The cinematography is intentionally bad in order to add realism. Scenes are shot at night to avoid expensive set design. Half of the series is shot in the woods because they did not need a permit to shoot there, so the woods become a prominent element of the story. It was uploaded in 480p! By understanding its budgetary constraints, “Marble Hornets” was able to create a creepy atmosphere while not being too campy and killing the tension.

Part Three: Slenderman’s Limits

Slenderman as 1080p fanfic? Not scary
Slenderman at night in 480p? Hmm

From this, I believe there are multiple factors in what makes something scary and then unscary: these include presentation, stylistic appeal to current audiences, and levels of saturation. “Marble Hornets” is scary because it caters to contemporary horror techniques while still relying on the classic fear of the unknown to make its story more timeless. Slenderman himself is an image, and once one sees a million copies of the same static picture it loses its bite, while “Marble Hornets” offers far more than photoshop in the realm of horror. Similarly, serial killer flicks still make tons of money nowadays (See: Halloween remakes). While characters themselves can become outdated, their archetypes do not necessarily. As long as style is continuously updated for the next audiences these films can continue to scare. Gore itself is not outdated, but its old presentation has been abandoned (extreme focus on practical effects), due to modern audiences’ comfort with CGI and studio cheapness crutches. (RIP).

Another example: Possession and haunted house horror films are more popular than ever, and they heavily borrow from Gothic and Victorian horror, a genre over a century old! Broad concepts seem to be far more timeless than old styles, no matter how advanced or artful. This post might have stated the obvious, but it does go to show that while concepts can be timeless, once filmmakers start to coast on trends rather than understand which formats appeal to current audiences, their villains will die. 

Media, Panic and Reality

By Eren

For my blog post following my discussion animation on the War of the Worlds, I wanted to go deeper on the role that the media has in our conception of reality – and why Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast had the far-reaching impacts and lasting implications that it did.

In 1938, the world was living in a time of tension, where people were glued to their radios to receive entertainment, but also world news – especially with the rise of the Third Reich gaining power and territory in Europe, threatening global safety with the encroaching threat of war. The radio became a method of information technology in 1894 with Gugliemo Marconi developing his wireless telegraph messaging system to deliver fast and accurate communications across great distances. Over the next twenty years, this technology was developed to bring in the golden age of radio, during the late 1920s and 1930s. Because of the post-war economic boom that accompanied the Roaring twenties, more and more families were able to purchase radios, and enjoy listening to the available programming during leisure time – bringing way to diverse programming alongside news broadcasts. With channel programming such as the New York Philharmonic’s weekly concert broadcasts, Texaco’s Metropolitan Opera broadcasts and famous comedians including the Marx brothers, and Abbott and Costello providing their talents on air – the radio became a point of access for all to receive quality entertainment and news programming in the comfort of their own homes. However, news programming was a major staple of radio broadcast content, President FDR addressing the nation himself with his Fireside Chats from 1933 to 1944, and local and national news companies providing information on unfolding events in real time – a new concept due to technological innovation of the time.

Orson Welles’ 1938 broadcast adaptation of H.G. Wells’ 1897 novella came at a time when the intensity of reality reflected something out of a fictional novel, and the heightened nature of people’s worry for the near future intensified the anxiety of listening to the news – something most of us can relate to having over the past two years with the unfolding of the Coronavirus pandemic, tensions during the 2020 election, and even now with the war in Ukraine and threats of nuclear attacks. While War of the Worlds was originally written during the turn of the 20th century and taking place in England – Orson Welles adapted the language and setting to better fit the 1930’s American audience, making the story even more contemporary and believable. Adding to the believability that began panic was the usage of the radio medium to tell this story – making the story into an unfolding event broadcasted over the air. While an enjoyable life-like dramatic scenario for listeners who heard the opening prologue stating that it was a production by the Mercury Theatre, people switching through channels who happened upon the reputable CBS channel hearing that people had been killed by an unidentified object in Grover’s Milll, New Jersey would be more inclined to not think that it was a dramatic performance. The life-like manner that the broadcast had with interruptions of breaking news and updates, musical interludes, broadcast static and “eyewitness accounts” incited fear in listeners, despite the announcements that it was a fictional production during, and halfway through the broadcast. Because of limited technology available, people who believed the broadcast weren’t able to fact-check what they were listening to in real-time, causing genuine reactions of fear and panic to an oncoming, extra-terrestrial threat.

With that, I was curious if there should be clearer lines drawn to distinguish real from fiction, especially in the time we’re in with “fake news”, deepfakes, and media platforms who both willingly and unknowingly allow fraudulent information sources to circulate more easily than ever before – causing perceptions of real and fake to be blurred. With misinformation running rampant and fake media resembling reality so much more now than ever, should reality-based horror be clearly distinguished from real life to provide more safety and assurances for viewers? Or do disclaimers prevent the art from having its’ full effect? Should some mediums be left just for reality, or can horror be implemented through any platform/medium?

With this piece and others we’ve covered in class including Unfriended, Pontypool, and Ringu all infusing horror with commonplace and interact-able technology/mediums we use in our daily lives, the lines are blurred between fiction and reality to make the fear induced by the scenarios all more realistic, and empathetic for audiences to relate to the characters in the scenarios. For Orson Welles who made this production to bring a sci-fi horror to a new audience the day before Halloween using the popular mass technology of the time, having his production being consumed as reality almost ended his career in its infancy, and continued to follow him around for the rest of his life. War of the Worlds crossed an unseen line to take horror reality into the homes of everyone with a radio, bringing the terror into everyday life. In times when reality is scary enough to be lived – is found footage horror and other practices of reality-horror too much for us (collectively) to handle?