By Danielle Del Plato
It’s safe to say that most of us had childhood fears of monsters hiding under our beds – a boogeyman lurking in the darkest corner of our room. Even a draft from an open window posed as some sort of invisible monster. Over the years, movies have delivered quite the spectacle of scares. From practical effects in John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” to stunning visual effects in Alex Garland’s “Annihilation,” horror visuals have jumped through hoops to make us squirm. This month, with the release of Leigh Whannell’s “The Invisible Man” (the contemporary take on H.G. Welles’ novel of the same name) we beg to ask the question: why is what we can’t see on-screen often more chilling than what is presented to us?
Invisible villains and unseen threats have haunted us for nearly a century. In 1933, “The Invisible Man” was released with one of the first depictions of an unseen character. Much of the film’s success is credited to its visual effects. The film was so successful it spawned numerous sequels and spin-offs throughout the 1940s. Fast forward to 1987 and one of the most culturally significant invisible creatures: “Predator”; which was well-received by both critics and audiences, eventually going on to have a media franchise of films, comic books, video games, and toys. In 1999, “The Blair Witch Project” was released. It was arguably one of the most terrifying horror movies of its time, and not once do we actually see “the witch”. With a budget of only $60,000, “The Blair Witch Project” went on to gross $248.6 million in box office revenue.
Lastly comes possibly the best invisible monster franchise: “Paranormal Activity”. To say this movie messed people up (mainly me) is an understatement. Release in 2007 with a whopping budget of $15,000, “Paranormal Activity” went on to gross $107.9 million domestically. If you look at it from a logical standpoint, this is a film where a bunch of doors slam on their own… That’s basically it! And yet, it scared audiences so much that countless people walked out of test screenings.
Clearly, the invisible monster/villain has a significant effect on audiences. While not always truly invisible, these enemies are more effective in scaring viewers than those who are visible threats (and yes, science can back me up). When audiences are fed small bits and pieces of an antagonist it allows for imaginations to run at rapid-fire. In his 2015 article for The Psychologist titled “The Monster Mind,” Jonathan Myers explains that the use of suggestive filming triggers a cognitive response to fill in the gaps, with each person subconsciously conjuring what truly scares them the most. (You can thank your brain for this – it’s just trying to keep you safe!) These cognitive and perceptual responses, triggered by on-screen monsters, are all part of a natural process for the brain. In fact, these monsters actually provide our brain with essential stimulation, which results in some terrifying visuals and a nudge from our brain trying to tell us, “Hey, you might actually be in danger”. Watching a movie with an invisible monster or villain is like standing in a pitch-black room and hearing a guttural, unearthly bellow come from behind you.
Now, is an invisible villain or unseen threat always going to be the right answer in every situation? Absolutely not. There are many films that have their monster go unconcealed and are still insanely successful! Films including “A Quiet Place,” “The Host,” “Pan’s Labyrinth,” and many more. However, when dealing with a small budget that can’t support a high level of visual or special effects, the invisible approach is clearly the way to go. Perhaps more filmmakers need to take advantage of these cognitive responses to elevate their films and make audiences cry out of fear. Creating a monster that can scare each audience member uniquely is genius; a tad bit manipulative, but genius. The only foolproof way to create an enemy that scares everyone is to not create one at all.
You can follow Danielle and hear more of her thoughts on the Oscars and film on Twitter at @ddelplato