Are you afraid of the light?

With Ari Aster’s fluoro-frightener Midsommar in cinemas, we explore the terrifying tradition of things that go bump in the day.

When you hear the term hor­ror movie’, what kind of image is con­jured in your brain? It’s like­ly you think of old goth­ic hous­es, with shad­owy cor­ri­dors and claus­tro­pho­bic spaces, set on dark, stormy nights. The hor­ror genre plays on our biggest fears and of course, there’s noth­ing more uni­ver­sal than being afraid of the dark. In the dead of night, our biggest night­mares can become a real­i­ty. How­ev­er, there’s also a fas­ci­nat­ing tra­di­tion of scary movies set in bright sun-drenched out­door spaces. More­over, some of these movies are among the scari­est in cin­e­ma his­to­ry. So what is it about pair­ing hor­ror with bright, colour­ful aes­thet­ics that unnerves us so much?

Take, for exam­ple, Ari Aster’s creepy day-lit hor­ror film Mid­som­mar that’s cur­rent­ly in UK cin­e­mas. The film focus­es on a group of Amer­i­can tourists who trav­el to a seclud­ed com­mune in Swe­den for Mid­som­mar cel­e­bra­tions (and we won’t say any more than that). In stark con­trast to the director’s pre­vi­ous movie Hered­i­tary, which drew on the more tra­di­tion­al dark haunt­ed house’ tropes of the hor­ror genre, Mid­som­mar rel­ish­es in the per­pet­u­al­ly light, lus­cious scenery of its Swedish loca­tion. Its colour palette has more in com­mon with Cbee­bies than it does with Drac­u­la or Franken­stein. The result is a dis­ori­en­tat­ing, queasy mix of night­mar­ish hor­ror with hyp­not­ic nat­ur­al beau­ty. In the tra­di­tion of Folk Hor­ror, the movie lends an objec­tive, mat­ter-of-fact view­point on the hor­rors that human beings inflict upon each oth­er. It shines a light (lit­er­al­ly) on the cal­lous­ness of human­i­ty. It may be less tra­di­tion­al­ly hor­ri­fy­ing than Hered­i­tary, but Mid­som­mar will still linger with you long after you leave the cinema. 

Mid­som­mar owes a huge debt to Robin Hardy’s The Wick­er Man – arguably the most famous exam­ple of a hor­ror film using day­light to ter­ri­fy­ing effect. Sergeant Howie (played by Edward Wood­ward) finds him­self the vic­tim of a reli­gious rit­u­al sac­ri­fice on the Scot­tish island of Sum­merisle. The Wick­er Man doesn’t rely on tra­di­tion­al” hor­ror tropes to scare us; there are no jump scares, no mon­sters and no dark, stormy nights. Instead there’s a grow­ing sense of unease as we wit­ness, in cold objec­tive day­light, Woodward’s Sergeant Howie being slow­ly manoeu­vred to his inevitable trag­ic end. The final sequence, set against a beau­ti­ful, sun-drenched, rur­al land­scape shows Sergeant Howie slow­ly burn to death in a giant effi­gy before the cred­its roll. Yikes. 

Both Mid­som­mar and The Wick­er Man belong in a niche sub-genre of hor­ror con­cerned with iso­lat­ed rur­al com­mu­ni­ties, folk­lore and super­sti­tion known as Folk Hor­ror. One of the pre­dom­i­nant aes­thet­ic tropes of Folk Hor­ror is its reliance on day­light set­tings. Some of the ear­li­er entries of the sub-genre (Witchfind­er Gen­er­al and The Blood on Satan’s Claw) are set almost entire­ly in the beau­ti­ful, green British coun­try­side dur­ing a bright day. These movies instil a fear of the real world more than ghosts, ghouls or mon­sters. In Witchfind­er Gen­er­al, it’s not witch­es we’re afraid of, it’s the pious, hyp­o­crit­i­cal witch hunters and their small-mind­ed fol­low­ers, ready to burn women to death at the drop of a hat. Sim­i­lar­ly, in The Wick­er Man, it’s not pagan (or Chris­t­ian) Gods we have to fear, it’s iso­lat­ed com­mu­ni­ties and their unwa­ver­ing beliefs that are real­ly frightening.

It’s not just tra­di­tion­al Folk Hor­ror that dab­bles in day­light. Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Mas­sacre, often (cor­rect­ly) cit­ed as the scari­est movie ever made, is set pre­dom­i­nant­ly in the day­time. Many of the hor­rif­ic images we asso­ciate with the film – such as that deranged final shot of Leather­face scream­ing and wav­ing his chain­saw in the air – are set against the glow­ing orange sun and vast, bar­ren Tex­an land­scape. Spielberg’s Jaws ren­dered us all ter­ri­fied of sharks by sub­vert­ing the safe, famil­iar set­ting of the busy sea­side on a hot summer’s day. More recent­ly, Dan­ny Boyle’s 28 Days Lat­er gave us stag­ger­ing shots of Cil­lian Mur­phy wan­der­ing around a desert­ed Lon­don in the mid­dle of the day. These shots, arguably some of the eeri­est images in mod­ern hor­ror, present a clas­sic zom­bie movie’ nar­ra­tive but through an uncan­ni­ly real­is­tic lens.

Anoth­er movie which uses day­light to chill­ing effect is The Blair Witch Project, which despite cel­e­brat­ing its 20th anniver­sary this month, still remains as ter­ri­fy­ing and shock­ing today as ever. The Blair Witch Project broke new ground when it became one of the first main­stream movies to utilise the found footage’ for­mat. Most of the action is filmed through a cheap, grainy home video cam­era to sug­gest that every­thing we’re see­ing is raw footage and there­fore real’. Due to these con­straints, most the action takes place dur­ing the day­time. The few scenes set at night are tru­ly hor­ri­fy­ing in the tra­di­tion­al sense, but they rely entire­ly on sound design to con­vey things going bump in the night. How­ev­er, it’s the day­time scenes that build the world our char­ac­ters inhab­it and crank up the sense of dread, iso­la­tion and para­noia. There’s some­thing excru­ci­at­ing­ly tense about watch­ing our three pro­tag­o­nists – Heather, Mike and Josh – let­ting fear, hos­til­i­ty and hunger over­come them as each of them slow­ly reach psy­cho­log­i­cal break­ing points before our eyes. Yes, there’s also the threat of a scary witch lurk­ing some­where in the woods, but we nev­er actu­al­ly see the witch, instead, all we see are three very real, very flawed humans, los­ing their grips on real­i­ty. The harsh, nat­ur­al light of day makes this ever-increas­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal tur­moil feel inescapable, it also makes every­thing feel star­tling­ly real. 

Maybe that’s what is tru­ly fright­en­ing about hor­ror movies in the day­light, they force us to reck­on with the real-life dan­gers that sur­round us every day: the dan­gers of the nat­ur­al world, of mod­ern civilised soci­ety, or of small, iso­lat­ed com­mu­ni­ties. Night­time hor­ror films make our night­mares become real­i­ties, but day­time hor­ror films make our real­i­ties become night­mares. Films like The Blair Witch Project and Mid­som­mar don’t let us hide in the dark shad­owy cor­ri­dors of sug­ges­tion and ambi­gu­i­ty, instead, they shine a harsh light on the flaws, weak­ness­es and dan­gers of human­i­ty, which is much more frightening.

The Blair Witch Project, with intro by Mike Muncer, host of The Evo­lu­tion Of Hor­ror pod­cast, is screen­ing as part of the BFI Southbank’s Nineties: Young Cin­e­ma Rebels series this Tues­day, 23rd July. 

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