In Defense and Defiance of Genre Tropes in Supernatural Horror
Can the resurgence of supernatural horror in the modern age compare to the classics?
Published on December 30, 2013 | Filed under editorial

With the immense proliferation of straight to DVD or digital horror films hitting the market these days, I’m often left cold by what passes for a scary movie anymore. In an experience analogous to the video store days, it can be a daunting task choosing one that sounds clever and effective based simply on the cover art and a brief synopsis. Case in point: possession/haunting films. I had no idea there were so damned many of late, but not surprised that most fall flat. Boo hoo.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose

For reasons I cannot yet name, perhaps it’s my long, long love affair with The Exorcist, but whatever the cause I’ve recently been binging on these films. Many of those on offer from that ever popular online movie streaming service however, tend toward a standard set of generic tropes. Thanks in large part (I suspect) to the deserved success of 2005’s Exorcism of Emily Rose these films have regained some of the popular cache they had lost in the years since 1973, but despite a growing interest, they haven’t been inclined to innovate much.

Picture after picture relies on some combination of the boilerplate supernatural gimmicks; handheld “amateur” footage, distorted bodies and object displacement. There’s nothing inherently wrong with inexplicably moving objects or preternatural body contortions, nor is there anything particularly wrong in copying a successful film, it’s just that recombining said elements over and over in a different context doesn’t really make a ‘new’ or ‘better’ haunting. I’m not going to single any film out, with a few exceptions none of them are terrible. They just leave me wishing I could re-watch some of the classics again for the first time.

I wouldn’t have guessed it from the title but that’s exactly what The Haunting of Julia was. The original promo art and title of the film, Full Circle are discarded entirely for a black field with a white title that gets lost in the morass of other “Haunting of…” films. Dubious of anything made in the last five years I took a chance on this modest little British-Canadian co-production from 1977 and was thoroughly pleased with the outcome. The Haunting of Julia is about a woman irretrievably burdened by the death of her daughter. Fleeing her husband’s stifling control after the tragedy, she moves into her own home and begins the process of recovery. But this is not as easy as relocation. Hoping perhaps to communicate with her daughter, Julia participates in a séance. When the medium is spooked by a vision of a small child, the session is derailed, but this only encourages Julia who discovers that her new home has a sinister history. One question remains throughout the film though, is there really a malevolent entity at work, or is Julia haunted by her own emotions?

The Haunting of Julia

On the surface this is a common premise but The Haunting of Julia does a number of interesting things that raise it above standard ghostploitation. First, it has none of the fancy effects of contemporary films (then and certainly not now). Rather than dazzling our senses with visual fancy, a set of compelling performances which only begins with star Mia Farrow, builds a creeping sense of paranoia better than many in the genre. Furthermore, rather than just throwing out some inexplicable creepy shit, the film pokes at deeper social and cultural institutions. Certain things in the plot are never entirely clear until the end, and if I prefer the film’s original name, The Haunting of Julia is a title that raises interesting questions about the gendered conception of psychological vulnerability and its sources. After several viewings I’m convinced that the film is challenging a simplified understanding of women’s extrafamilial identity and independence in Western (Anglo/American) culture.

I’ll forgive the reader for thinking at this point that I’m just an old man longing for the bygone days of cinema, but such is not the case. I’m an old man longing for films of subtlety and nuance. BUT, lo and behold, they DO still make ‘em like they used to. In all likelyhood the film that got me started on this supernatural kick is a film I watched not long ago, Nicholas McCarthy’s 2012 film The Pact. McCarthy relies on many of the modern horror tropes, but does so with a cleverness and originality that almost singlehandedly redeems the genre. Very much immersed in the paranormal horror tradition, about halfway through it promptly veers into slasher territory. Culling both genres makes for an altogether unique and compounded sense of disquiet. Supernatural horror overwhelmingly hangs its scares on the tension between rational and irrational explanations for various phenomenon. Either we insist on the former explanation or refuse to believe the latter, but the end result is usually the same. The Pact plays both sides of the court and by doing so challenges simple definitions of either, blurring the line between them in the process.

The Pact

My initial goal here was simply to recommend Full Circle as one possibly underappreciated classic of the genre. As I wrote however I realized that it wasn’t any one film, but a certain approach to genre film making which might be unrecognized and which I believe both of these films capture. Like many other movies, both call on simple and familiar generic ideas. The Pact straddles two sets of standard plot devices but by combining them successfully it challenges our expectations about cause and effect. On the other hand, although it sticks to just one set, that of the paranormal, The Haunting of Julia challenges our assumptions about what those tropes mean. Simple definitions and simple explanations are never sufficient, but neither are they unnecessary. Genre tropes are not any more sacred and inviolable than the slow-moving zombie. Delivering the expected has its place, but that place is not fixed. Challenging our expectations is the mark of a good film, and whether in Julia’s questioning of ‘typical female hysteria’ or The Pact’s misleading approach to eerily displaced objects, the normal as abnormal in supernatural cinema is a haunting case in point.

The Goodkind resides in the Pacific Northwest where he splits his free time between a drawing table and a cathode ray tube. His favorite movies are the ones that appear to have no redeeming quality. But of course, he also believes that appearances are deceiving.