What is reality? Or rather, what makes one thing more real than another? One could take the textbook dictionary definition as a solid foundation, that it is “the state of things as they actually exist, as opposed to an idealistic or notional idea of them”. This pen on the table is real, for example, because I can touch it and use it. It has atoms, millions of particles like myself glued together by the sticky residue of science, making it real but the question of reality has long been argued.
If your friend at the pub tells you he saw a creature lurking at the bottom of his bed with twenty elongated arms wiggling like tendrils, screeching in a non-human way, is this real because he believes it to be real? Or is it the more justifiable to assume it’s not real at all because he’s just coming down hard from his weekend at Glastonbury?
“What is reality?”
It would be highly doubtful that I might be able to answer such a philosophical and complex question in this article. For one, my brain is akin to that of a gerbil- devoid of any common sense, running manically in a wheel, forever in motion but not ascertaining any distance of worth. Secondly, I have some waffles in the oven and if I leave them for more than fifteen minutes I might burn the house down. What I can try to do however, is explore a few horror films that question and shatter realities, and why we, the horror movie fans, love them so much.
There’s a few recurring themes throughout, so I’ve decided to sort the films into three rough categories: 1) Lost Reality Horror: films in which reality is misplaced due to the protagonist focusing on something or someone (i.e. obsessive love, goal or dream; 2) Cosmic Reality Horror: films in which reality is lost due to the unworldly and uncanny and 3) Forced Reality Horror: films in which reality is lost thanks to manipulation by some outside force. Each one in their own right can be terrifying, and some horror movies that delve into shattering your perception of reality can fall under the banner of having a clear-cut victory or clear-cut loss at the end.
In some instances (I’m looking at you, Andrei Tarkovsky and David Lynch), ambiguous film endings leave the viewer to interpret what’s just transpired on their TV screens. Sometimes these become the most thought-provoking features committed to celluloid…but sometimes, just a like Icarus, they reach for the Sun and get burnt to a crisp.
American Psycho (2000) is probably one of the best-known ambiguous horror endings out there, leaving it up to the viewer to determine whether Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) was a bona fide killer, or whether we’re simply indulging in his warped murder fantasies. There are references littered throughout the film to reinforce the theory that some of his exploits may be exaggerated, so to speak, but the truth may lie somewhere between fantasy and reality.
The Blair Witch Project (1999) plays with this notion even further by dividing audiences with an intriguing aspect – no matter how tense and spooky the film actually is, you never really see anything happen. Found Footage may be a dime a dozen these days, but back when it premiered it wasn’t a particularly successful sub-genre. Audiences were left to wonder if the documentary camera crew being hunted by a malevolent witch, or are they succumbing to their own fears of the dark?
David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) introduces (maybe?) multiple dimensions of LA, when aspiring actress Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) meets Rita (Laura Harring), a woman who is the sole survivor of a car accident on Mulholland Drive and suffers from amnesia. In typical Lynch fashion, things aren’t quite as they seem in this surreal and intricate tale where Hollywood is presented as a destructive microcosm where dreams, talent, and inspiration are crushed beneath the boot-heel of a vicious power. It’s a film that’s still analysed today, offering film critics, students and avid fans alike a glimpse of a legendary film maker’s interpretation of his (possibly) satirist view on Hollywood.
Solyaris (1971) Stalker (1979) and The Mirror (1975), all films by Andrei Tarkovsky, are thought provoking and reflective pieces of film-making. Metaphysical aspects of dreams, childhood and life are presented in a dream-like way. His films may not be the easiest to get into, and someone expecting an Inception (2010) type intellectual/action hybrid will be disappointed. Your perception of time will be altered having watched a Tarkovsky film, and you may well indeed come out having watched one of the films in a state of mesmerised bafflement but one thing’s for certain, your reality will be imperceptibly changed having seen it. (So much to go through and so little time! I can smell smoke in the air, an indication that the waffles are indeed burning.)
Cosmic Horror alters the viewer’s reality by means of the uncanny or unknown. Under the Skin, (2013) by Jonathan Glazer sees Scarlett Johansson in a very subdued role, playing an alien assuming human form. She scours Scotland, seducing men in her van, leading them to her (lair?) which may or not be some form of inter-dimensional gateway. Or just a pheromone induced harvesting nest. One unsettling scene sees Johansson’s alien creature watching on indifferently as a woman goes out for a swim on a cobbled beach, only for the crashing waves to swallow her out to sea. A passer-by jumps in to help and fails to bring the woman to safety, drowning himself in the process.
We watch on in a stunned silence as Johansson drags the lifeless body of the passer-by, presumably back to her lair and they pass a crying baby, left on the beach. Then the realisation hits. The mother and passer-by are both dead. The baby is left all alone. The alien’s reality in this deep and meaningful movie is the trying to assimilate the experience of being human, with shuddering consequences.
Alex Garland’s Annihilation (2018) uses scientific concepts to explore the notion of self and absolution. There’s a dead zone (called The Shimmer) that scientists investigate, where creepy skull bears and giant alligators reside, but at its heart the story thread is about what we love and destroy in relationships that becomes the central theme of play here. Lena realizes that she needs to destroy a part of herself in the same way that Kane kills a part of himself. (They also both use a phosphorous grenade.) It doesn’t matter if the clone or the ‘original’ is killed, the death is a part of their self that needs to be purged for their absolution. And when we see Kane and Lena finally reunite at the end of the movie, we see the Shimmer in their eyes. The Shimmer doesn’t clone people, it breaks them down and forces them to deal with their notion of self.
The Matrix (1999) was a ground-breaking sci-fi extravaganza. Recently celebrating it’s 20th anniversary, the The Matrix was more than just a blockbuster film about a computer hacker who discovered that all of reality was being controlled by a higher power. The movie changed the way people looked at the world around them at the time, awakening them from their own an apathetic routine they had previously been accustomed to. Although it introduced the world to ‘bullet time,’ winning 4 Oscars and is continually rated one of the top 25 films of all time, there was so much more happening under the hood that made people devour the mythology of The Matrix.
Much in the same way that Neo had to physically disconnect himself from tubes in a gloopy embryo vat in order to break free of this higher reality, viewers were pondering the philosophical and psychological aspects of the film; such as the impossibility of total freedom, whether technology is a better God than the previous God and of course learning Karate in the blink of an eye. The blend of technology and religion throughout the narrative puts forward notions of a metaphysical nature, pushing the audience to question the nature of reality. Who is the supreme God in the movie? Is it the Oracle, a being that believes in fate and can predict the future? Is Neo the ultimate incarnation of the holy Saviour? Or the representation of human potential?
In an era when ‘Fake News,’ is a ubiquitous term used by politicians vying for power, since 1999 the real world has provided ample opportunity for people to turn The Matrix into the introductory transcript of a frighteningly thorough rejection of whatever scandal/meme/buzz feed word/ used that day/week/month. In essence, that reality is a falsehood and I don’t have to listen to anyone about anything. It also predicted social media in its current form. Take Twitter, for example; like the villain Cypher, we’ve all become accustomed to staring doe-eyed and slack jawed at nearly incomprehensible, endlessly scrolling arrays of information, like the never ending green rain from the film.
But what of the films falling under the other categories? Since the beginning of film making, horror has always been a popular genre and in many ways classic horror movies have changed our perception of the world. In the 80’s, the ‘video nasty’ era dealt with bringing our worst nightmares to life by internalising specific fears and portraying them on screen. Psychopaths and serial killers have always been a fear, and in an age where the Internet was in its infancy and was being used as a military tool, movies like Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th and Halloween presented us killers who were emotionless and obsessive in their endeavour to skewer, impale and eviscerate their victims.
Each film example took a common thread of a phobia or fear played it to audiences, usually with the tag-line reading – “Keep telling yourself it’s not real, it’s just a movie,” but the societal landscape over the last forty years has changed. We read about emotionless and obsessive killers in news feeds every day, to the point where audiences have become desensitized to it all. Eager to fill that macabre outlet, Netflix presents an overwhelming amount of documentaries based on real killers that have actually taken lives. What was once a break from reality to escape into a fantasy world has now unfolded into a continuous Black Mirror episode we all seem to be living in.