I’m good with horror films. I enjoy them terribly but they rarely keep me up at night.
I had to sleep with the light on last night.
Grave Encounters, I’m looking at you.
I can deal with body horror, gore, torture porn. But ambiguous supernatural horror gets right inside the body tissue and festers there. The only other film that has made my skin crawl this badly was The Blair Witch Project (1999) and it still gives me that cold sweat on repeat viewings. I got it down to these reasons – you never see the ‘monster’, and the distant crunching sound and disembodied shouting that makes up the minimal score is never explained.
There are loads of mediocre found-footage horrors going. [REC] (2007) always got a good rep but I never liked it. The Paranormal Activity series is definitely worth a mention.
But Grave Encounters is truly in the same vein as The Blair Witch Project. They share motives, that being having a legit reason for filming everything – for a tv show/documentary. Both begin openly cynical as to the existence of supernatural phenomena, with scenes between cuts showing crew members more excited about ‘making sure we get some good scares’ rather that discussing real parapsychology and angrily admitting ‘this place is as haunted as a sock drawer’. Both films even share a grim removed tongue motif. Grave Encounters has much in unnerving aural offerings such as demonic growling and distant screaming and barely heard rumbling that can only be a bad omen. But it shows you the monster and removes the ability to make it up in your head, and it continues to scare me. The ‘spirits’ of Collingwood Psychiatric Hospital aren’t even that terrifying; they’re stereotypical images of lobotomised asylum inmates in hospital gowns, eyes rolling into the backs of their heads and facing walls, with the added bonus of being capable of manipulating their faces demonically. One of the crew disappears only to be found what can only be hours later, morphed into one of the inmates, completely insane, white gowned and mumbling doctor’s notes. The jump scares this induces are decent enough, but I’m sure it isn’t the source of my terror.
- The absurdly stagey opening sequence – check.
- Staring intensely into camera – check.
- Melodramatic psychic medium making obtuse observations – check.
- Slightly less dramatic presenter but equally eager to sensationalise everything and encourage interviewees to make stories up – check.
- Run of the mill crew members with families they want to get back to – check.
- Screaming girl – check.
Having this rundown of stereotypes may be cliché but is essential for establishing your belief in their reality. So I’m ok with this, in fact I actually encourage stereotypes in this instance.
|Everything is scarier when it’s tinged in green.|
None of this is what makes Grave Encounters a good horror film. As with any decent horror, what makes it good is what it leaves out. The ambiguity is absolutely killing me.
Firstly- how did this ‘found-footage’ get found? Spoiler alert – Grave Encounters 2 shows us that after nine years inside the building, presenter Lance is still alive. There is some suggestion that physician Alfred Friedkin, seen in archive footage, performed demonic rituals in his operating room, further positing the concept that Friedkin was in fact weaving together the real world and the spirit world. My theory is that the crew of Grave Encounters become trapped inside the axis of the two worlds, SO how did the cameras become separate from Lance (last seen telling the camera that he’s “better now”) and escape limbo back into the real world? How was that footage found without the rescue team getting sucked into that space/time continuum?
This brings me to my second annoyance- the caretaker, and anyone else who ventured into that building. Why did they only see minimal paranormal activity? Because the spirits are only interested in people who are documenting their existence? Because they only visited during the day, and the spirits only come out in the dead hours of night? I DON’T UNDERSTAND. Do spirits stop exisiting during daylight hours?
Finally- what happened to Lance during the nine years he’s been trapped there? What has he seen?
Asylums are always going to be good locations, aesthetically and thematically. I don’t believe in ghosts as they’re understood in Western culture. If something exists beyond this realm, it’ll exceed our understanding by such an extent that we can’t possibly begin to imagine it as a spectral form. It wouldn’t be a translucent body floating through walls. I believe in energy, and in a place where so much suffering and trauma was experienced, that energy has to linger in some form. If you’d had a metal pin shoved underneath your eyelids so it could rape your brain, you’d probably have some issues too. Perhaps it’s my cynicism finally acknowledging the possibility of a spirit world a bit like the one presented here that is terrorising me so much.
To satisfy myself with The Blair Witch Project, I had to construct my own theories to explain the ambiguities. I have to do the same with Grave Encounters, and it leaves a trail of breadcrumbs just long enough for me to be able to do this and that’s why I believe it’s a firmly underrated horror movie.
Basically, it annoyed me enough to not be able to stop thinking about it.