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.