The Formula of Horror

Riniki Sanyal
Published: March 2018

The spooky films had kept audience in their thrall for ages. What makes them click and where do the genre of horror fails?

The evolution of horror films from blood and gore to quieter, disturbing plots in order to elicit primal fears has come a long way. What remains constant though is the grammar of horror as a genre. There needs to be a sense of disquiet, an eerie setting, and above all a dreadful and unsettling silence encompassing the subject. If it is a home that is haunted, which is largely the case, then it is usually not situated in a bustling neighbourhood. Or if it is an apartment, then either there aren’t any neighbours, or if there are some, then they aren’t the usual sane people we have around us. Showing normal neighbours helps add credibility to the plot, a point often ignored.

The concept of countryside in India is a far cry from its Western counterparts. We do not boast of sprawling cottages every few miles. Rather, the landscape is dotted with regular small houses usually in clusters where the local labourers thrive. Most ghost stories in India come from the rural populace, laced with folklore. Yet films are not set in rural landscapes to explore the existence of an apparition. Or perhaps if we were to focus on a dreadful tale in an urban milieu, why not choose old government bungalows as a setting? How can modern day apartments make room for trepidation without any interference of the quotidian way of life?

Notwithstanding the creative liberties a director takes in depicting fear, multiple questions crystallize around the rhetoric of horror. Why do most films not rationalize the plot? Why do directors take a centrifugal approach in concluding a film? And why are all other sounds in and around the central characters always drowned out?

Sound or noise is a key element in horror. It is only when all other sounds are ignored, that the approach of something unusual is expected. The conventional approach of sticking to ghosts in the darkness works in that case, given that everybody oblivious to the central characters would be in deep sleep. But what about the morning ghost or the one that appears any time of the day. It comes as a surprise that the Indian way of life does not perturb the depicted silence.

A pressure cooker whistles from the neighbour’s kitchen, a child wails, the grating noise of a mixer grinder at work, all of these and certain other distinct sounds are a part of our everyday lives –sounds which are unheard of in horror films. Or if they are used in a film they are cleverly manipulated to invite terror. They do not occur simultaneously as it would under normal circumstances.

It would also be plausible if the central characters were gilded victims, having a mansion to live in, away from the regular and ordinary people. But no, simple middle class people fall prey to ghosts in films, yet all you are made to hear is the creaking of a door, a leaking tap or a sinister theme music.

If one rationalizes the film and questions the credibility of the plot, one will hardly have much left to be scared of. It is this grammar of the genre that directors pander to instead of juxtaposing the unusual with the familiar, something that could actually be disturbing. Rather the unusual stands as a singular weapon to evoke fear, and yet most of us fall prey to it. We embrace the implausibility without a question, getting scared and thus helping the director succeed in his attempt to draw that very emotion. What could be more unsettling than that?

 - Riniki Sanyal is a student of Journalism and a freelance journalist.