Halloween Special: Haunting Images
Hallowe’en has reached a point where Americans might celebrate their holiday by dressing as Post Malone. Clearly we’ve come a long way from bedsheet ghosts and the Legend of Sleep Hollow. Films are now our main source of disturbing images, although the ‘clown in a drain’ thing doesn’t work in the UK, which doesn’t have drains like that. And what may haunt you as a child (the Yawning Man in ‘tom thumb’ did it for me) isn’t what affects you as an adult.
So here are a few haunting images that did bother me. There’s a moment in the French film ‘Dr Petiot’ that haunts, yet the film is little seen. It’s the true story of a respected family man, Dr. Marcel Petiot (Michel Serrault), who maintains a double life during World War II. At night he convinces Jews who are trying to get out of Germany to come to his clinic, promising to help them leave the country — then he poisons them, burns them in his furnace and steals their property. The image of the deranged doctor cycling with his cape billowing about him, on the way to or from yet another murder, stays in my mind.
We think of Linda Blair in ‘The Exorcist’ but it’s that subliminal frame in her nightmares which haunts – a split-second shot of the demon possessing her. And although the images in the Hammer films were cheesy by today’s standards, there’s one shot of Christopher Lee as Dracula that makes him appear insane. This shot has become iconic to the point where I was able to by a 3D rendering of it in the tiny gift shop at Castle Dracula (Bran) in Transylvania.
‘It Follows’ threw out a more unconventional image; one of a figure in the distance inexorably walking closer. This is the same image that appears in ‘Oh Whistle And I’ll Come For You’ by M R James. By taking the viewpoint of the victim we see a spectre as it would be seen, and this disturbs. Similarly, in ‘The Innocents’, the film version of Henry James’ ‘The Turn of the Screw’, we only see the ghosts at Bly from the viewpoint of Deborah Kerr, which makes us susceptible to the idea that she is the vulnerable, repressed one. In particular, the image of the dead Miss Jessel in the lake is highly effective because of the silence surrounding it and the distance of the apparition. Jack Clayton, the director, was decided about the film’s ambiguousness; he felt that evil was alive in the mind of the governess so that she more or less creates the situation.
Mundane scenes can have haunting power; the sunlit, crowded garage in ‘The Vanishing’ becomes something utterly terrifying because it represents something that has happened to all of us as children. We’ve lost a parent in the crowd and panic.
Visual representation of creepiness on film often undermines it, by making the unreal real. The real power of ‘The Exorcist’ lies in being outside of the door in dreaded anticipation, not inside with the possessed child – something reflected in the poster. Likewise, the veiled person sitting on the floor of ‘The Others’ and the child wearing a sack on its head in ‘The Orphanage’ both retain haunting power because they must be revealed to be seen.
But reveals can remove fear by calibrating the nightmare and downgrading it, providing us with a sense of relief. Possibly the only exception to this is the reveal at the end of ‘Don’t Look Now’, with that unknowable face staring back. ‘Kill List’ keeps its punchlined horror at a distance, providing us with a series of black-out moments visualising flight and fear. And while Dario Argento’s original ‘Suspiria’, with its sound and lurid visuals dialled up to eleven, still knocks your socks off, the remake’s Berlin-set Tanz dance academy and its occupants have a chilly power to them, even if the film isn’t scary.
‘Let The Right One In’ and ‘We Are What We Are’ (both versions) remain in the mind for their settings, familiarly urban yet strange, but probably the most haunting are those involving the human body; Rosemary looking as if something is devouring her from within in ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ and Christian Bale starving himself to death without camera trickery in ‘The Machinist’.
More suggestions for images with the power to haunt, please!