In this short essay I will be discussing the ways in which psychological terror is used in films and how these films compare. I will start with a brief summary of what psychological horror is followed by small pieces about ‘The Shining’ ‘Alien’ and ‘The Machinist’. These will be compared against one another to determine which best portrays psychological terror. I have chosen these three films as I think that they best show the use of psychological horror and compare well against each other as they use it so differently.
Unlike most horror movies, psychological horror movies are a sub-genre of horror films that do not rely on gore and death to make it scary. Instead, they collaborate the use of music, effects and a characters portrayal of emotions. The emotions used in psychological horrors are fear, guilt and beliefs to portray suspense to the audience. Blood and gore may be used alongside the emotions but they are not the main giver of the suspense more the end result of it. Stephen King said in the book The Films of Stephen King, ‘I also know that if I’m careful to keep my foot under the covers, it will never be able to grab my ankle.’ (Lloyd 1993:10) this was said after a conversation about how King is frightened to turn the lights out at night unless his legs are completely under the covers. This suggests that horror writers and directors could play on their own fears and anxieties when creating their scripts. No one knows as much about a fear as the person who fears it so this works well when trying to scare other people.
“The Shining’ was directed by Stanley Kubrick based on the novel by Stephen King. At the time of its release ‘The Shining’ was considered dark and scary, to this day it is known as a classic. An obvious attempt at portraying psychological terror is used throughout the film with long shots and little dialogue however, compared to modern films where the shots change every ten seconds, Jack Nicholson’s character used the long shots well to show his growing insanity as well as the character Danny to show his own mental instability. The title suggests that the main theme will be the power of ‘The Shining’ but disappointingly it is not used often. This may help to keep the film from travelling into the realms of supernatural however. Stephen King, in the book The Films of Stephen King said, ‘ I know that it isn’t going to be exactly the same as the novel because a lot of people have interpreted it. But I also know that it has an idea that I’ll like because that idea occurred to me, and I spent a year of my life working on it.’ (Lloyd 1993:7) this seems to suggest that his novels are changed dramatically when made into films and perhaps the books are more horrific that psychological. ‘The Shining’ is deffinatly set within the minds of the characters rather than the hotel and therefore the psychological effects on the audience are great, making the film creepy and on many levels, terrifying.
‘Alien’ was directed by Ridley Scott and is unique by being a space horror rather than science fiction. The start of the movie is long and lethargic however, the point of it is to set up the rest of the movie. Like “The Shining’ ‘Alien’ shows characters everyday life and findings before the terror commences. Before the film even begins the audience is filled with suspense at the famous line written on the movie posters ‘In space no one can hear you scream’. Viewers already get a sense of the film being lonely which ironically ends with the six-week journey home made by the only surviving character that Sigourney Weaver plays. ‘The Shining’ uses insanity to show horror but comparatively “Alien’ uses mist, darkness and lighting to show suspense.
‘The Machinist’, directed by Brad Anderson, is a completely different film entirely. Instead of death being shown literally more of a sense of death is staring the viewer in the eye. Christian Bale’s character is thin, skeletal with hollowed eyes and almost an aura of death and suffering following him. His paranoia and insomnia work its way throughout the film and leaves the viewer guessing at points as to whether what he is seeing is real or just a figment of his imagination. It seems as though the character simply just wants to let go and finally sleep, possibly forever, and he doesn’t seem to take acknowledgment when the line ‘ If you get any thinner you wont exist’ (The Machinist: 2004) is said to him throughout the movie. Although ‘The Machinist’ is very different in many ways it is apparent to be similar sometimes to that of ‘The Shining’ and ‘Alien’. Like ‘The Shining’, insanity slowly creeps its way in throughout the film however not by using long shots but with the appearance of Bale. Also like ‘Alien’ bale is being chased, although not by a monster, but by his paranoia and mysterious characters which suggest impending doom, rather than show it.
To conclude my findings on psychological horror, each film discussed uses the horror in very different ways. From insanity to a monster chase to appearance and paranoia. All three films are good and show the use of psychological terror well but personally I think that ‘The Shining’ shows it best. Nicholson’s obvious decent into madness really engages with the viewer’s own sanity and so fits the profile of being psychological very well.