Talking Pictures: Primal fears
By David Templeton
“I could see how that would be a little unnerving,” author John Langan says with a laugh, upon hearing that I had just watched the film Lights Out—about a creature who lives in darkness—at a theater where I was the one and only person, sitting in the dark. “This was probably not the best film to watch all alone in the dark.”
Adapted from a freaky 2013 short film by David F. Sandberg, the feature-length supernatural horror movie follows a young woman named Rebecca (Teresa Palmer, of Warm Bodies and the recent Point Break do-over), whose mentally ill mother (an effectively spooky Maria Bello) has become physically and psychically linked to an evil entity who can only be seen—and can only hurt you—when the lights are out. In an effort to save her half-brother Martin from the jealously murderous Diana—the creature’s name when she was a living person with a rare skin disorder—Rebecca decides to spend the night in her mother’s house to find a way to defeat the demon. Tightly coiled and cleverly shot, with some remarkably strong acting throughout, Lights Out is easily one of the most terrifying films in recent memory.
“I liked it more than I was anticipating,” says Langan, who I’ve reached late at night at his home in upstate New York, where he teaches gothic literature at State University of New York at New Paltz. He is a co-founder of the Shirley Jackson Awards, given to outstanding horror writing. A prolific crafter of horror fiction himself, Langan is the author of several collections of creepy short stories, including The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies and Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters. His latest novel, The Fisherman, is a supremely disturbing but addictively engaging tale (within a tale) about two grieving widowers who find solace in fishing together. When one of them hears strange tales of a remote creek where the dead have been seen alive again, tales supported by the long, horrifying story they are told at a roadside diner, the two friends set out to find answers. What they encounter is a chilling, centuries-old secret of Lovecraftian proportions. And yes, aquatic creatures are most definitely involved. The Fisherman, a strong example of the current revival in weird fiction, is as unsettlingly nightmarish as it is vividly wrought and deeply, convincingly human.
“I do think Lights Out relied a little too much on the ‘jump scare’ thing, with the sudden loud noise just as something appears,” Langan says, offering his expert opinion of the film we both just saw. “But that aside, it was very effective. There were a few moments when I found myself studying the corner of the screen instead of the center where the action was taking place. It’s like, ‘I know something scary is coming, but if I’m not looking directly at it, it won’t be as bad. And in some ways, it made me think of The Babadook.”
That 2014 scare-flick from Australia also featured a creature that lives in dark places, and also suggested an eerie, unsettling bond between monstrous beings and mental illness.
“I don’t like to look at these things as message movies,” Langan says. “They are just movies. They are entertainment. But it’s hard to look at something like Lights Out and not see that kind of implication. Madness is like a monster, and sometimes there are not that many ways to escape a monster.”
“I would have liked to have seen more of a backstory for the mother character,” I remark, “to see a little more of how her mental problems intersect with Diana’s control of her. But I did find that relationship to be really interesting. And genuinely scary.”
Mental illness, of course, is one of those primal fears we often have. It is not too much of a generalization, I think, to suggest that some people are as terrified of the insane as they are afraid of the dark.
“And that’s exactly where Lights Out gets some of its juice from,” Langan says. “Darkness is a primal fear, and the film rather masterfully uses it in the way we see Diana’s silhouette, crouching or standing or scratching, whenever the lights go out.
“The way the character of Diana looks, by the way, is a bit of a call-back to the monstrous girl demon from The Ring,” Langan says. “The obscured face, the long hair. I think they are related, in that they have some of the same visual DNA.”
“Does it strike you as surprising,” I ask, “that in the days of Saw and Hostel, truly graphic and horrifying films, someone can make an effectively scary PG-13 movie out of little more than a shadow in the darkness?”
“It is surprising,” Langan agrees. “Those torture-porn kinds of movies you mention, I hope they’ve run their course, because I think they simultaneously desensitized audiences and made them ravenous for more. In the Saw movies, there’s an interesting thing happening, in that there’s this Rube Goldberg effect happening, in the way each person is killed, using these elaborate series of machines and things.
“The Final Destination movies were the same,” he continues. “These movies show you something truly vile and awful, but they give you a way to keep from looking by giving you this interesting, slightly distracting other thing to watch, which is the sort of whimsical way in which the murderous moment takes place. If it were just the murder, the saw cutting through someone or whatever, we’d never watch. It would be too disgusting.”
But because we are given something almost pleasant to watch, Langan suggests, we can give ourselves a way to be witness to unspeakable acts.
“As an author who tells stories where awful things happen,” he says, “I find it very interesting, the way those films work. We know the character is going to die, but we can handle it because we busy ourselves trying to guess how it’s going to happen.”
“Is that,” I ask, “a little like looking at a movie screen corner, so you aren’t quite as frightened by the monster at the center of the screen?”
“Yes, I suppose it is,” Langan says with a laugh. “I think we probably do know how to let ourselves be frightened, but not too frightened. So when a movie really succeeds, is when it tricks us into moving beyond that sort of ironic detachment, into a place where we can’t escape from caring about the people who are being terrorized.
“Lights Out manages that,” he says, “because once we start to care, there’s nowhere to hide.”