Isolation: An Ideal Time for Horror

Written by Sam Hamilton, Edited by Tijen Mustafa

“Our fears that we might impulsively commit a crime, our fears of the police, our fears of becoming the victim of a madman, and of course our fears of disappointing our mothers.” In his 1998 re-review for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), Roger Ebert presents these four universal fears as the “immortal” horror’s route into the collective unconscious of an audience.

One additionally overwhelming, perhaps more obvious, certainly more universal emotion prominently featured in the spiralling tragedy of Psycho is the anxiety of isolation, shown plainly in the car sequence. Isolation is witnessed palpably throughout Marion’s absence from Sam and Norman’s from Mother. It is felt on each return of the uneasy string’s ostinato, dreaded with every step of Arbogast’s up that famous staircase to his infamous demise. Isolation echoes in the empty rooms of the Bates Motel – “twelve cabins, twelve vacancies!” – and hangs on all three floors of the silent house on the hill. Like the Sword of Damocles, it descends on Marion as she jeopardises her place in society with an act of grand larceny and it slips closer with her fateful decision to turn from the highway to the supposed sanctuary of the California wilderness. Such isolation makes the stomach churn as her body, car, money, and identity are disposed of in a mire unmarked and unknown to map or memory. And it sees the boss, the cop, the salesman, and the stranger encountered along her journey become of equal and utmost threat to her and through her us, because they cannot be trusted, because we are alone.

Rare is the horror film that does not focus on a protagonist’s detachment from the group or victimisation by it. In 1938, novelist John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There? bound the Lovecraftian infinite supernatural to an era-specific fascination with outer space, inspiring four filmic adaptations – three of which are popularly known as The Thing (1951, 1982 and 2011) – and a slew of science fiction films and books which, I contend, includes landmark 50s titles such as novel The Puppet Masters (1951) and The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). These texts are all characterised by a common element: the isolation of the one by the hive mind that controls the many.

With his clear political and social commentary, Campbell presents the ideal horror movie doll house: a scientist hunkered down in off-the-grid Antarctica, exposed to the knowledge that one or all of his crewmates has been assimilated and dittoed by an omniscient malevolence intent on his end. The end result is that same paranoia-prone isolation experienced in Psycho, or imposed by the demon in Ringu (1998), or the predator in It Follows (2014), or the shark in Jaws (1975). From the claustrophobic realism of an evacuated tower block under threat of war in Under the Shadow (2016) to the grotesque surrealist secret world of Coraline (2009) accessible only to the eponymous girl, from empty Belarusian forests (Come and See [1985]) to the intergalactic freight ship Nostromo (Alien [1979]), horror necessarily thrives on progressively isolating its characters in relation to a growing threat.

Enter Rec (2007). Produced amongst a 2000s flurry of ‘found footage’ horror, directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza’s passion project stands out to the British Classification Board for shaking its audience with “genuine threat”. In a 2010 Designing Sound interview, sound designer for three of the franchise’s four instalments, Oriol Tarragó, aligned this experience with the express intention of the film’s soundscape, prepared as to balance the panic-inducing din of “junk, metal, chains, bizarre sounds” from within this quarantined building against the “ambiences of Barcelona” without. The loneliness of the trap is exaggerated by the traffic, chatter and police sirens beyond its four walls.

Tarragó recalls that in the final scenes, where the main character is alone, “we cut the ambiences, allowing for a deep…freezing silence … I was frightened in the editing room whilst cutting it. [Directors] Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza made one of the scariest scenes I’ve ever worked on or seen,” populated by silence, darkness, and deep isolation.

A more literal isolation horror was emergent in the 1970s with a number of movies set in wide and hostile open spaces where the environment presented itself as a superior villain, not least in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974).

An important aspect of the style of these films is rooted in their pruned budgets, subsequent thinness of their production value, grainy stock and flat presentation contrary to the contemporarily popular and more expensive scope presentation, referring in all to the size and quality of the projected image.

Some thirty years later, in Wolf Creek (2005), director Greg McLean persists with these elements of style and, at the opening of the first act, cuts hard from the easy going beach town Broome, Australia, to the cracked turf and bush of the outback where characters once happy, drunk, and significant constitute a sober nothing next to the endless still in all directions. Direct evocation of those classic slashers here and elsewhere continue the focused employment of isolation for horror.

The sheer expanse of the wilderness, and the collapse of isolation felt within as a result, is also keenly felt in Wolf Creek because of the protagonists’ inability to manoeuvre within this space, contrary to the antagonist’s freedom to. When the lovably despicable Mick Taylor does commit to the mass execution of our cast he does so with folkloric calmness and precision, the Edward Fox ‘Jackal’ of the outback. There’s a hopelessness to the protagonists’ efforts in Wolf Creek that would make even The Descent (2005) squirm. But to imagine Wolf Creek set in a town or city, or even a cave, is to imagine an entirely different movie, since its mood is decisively linked to the way McLean captures the oppressive, murderous bell jar of its setting.

Exceptions to prove the point are the many horror comedies that tend away from isolation in favour of duos. Look no further than Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995) whose interplay between Leslie Nielsen and Peter MacNicol or Leslie Nielsen and Mel Brooks or Peter MacNicol and Mel Brooks is the point of the picture and Carfax Abbey is just the setting. For more of the same, take Abbott & Costello Meet the Mummy (1955), Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), Shaun of the Dead (2004), Zombieland (2009), The Laurel and Hardy Murder Case (1930) or An American Werewolf in London (1981) – this final film alternates between horror sequences where the protagonist is mainly solitary, and comically tongue-in-cheek scenes when his friend Jack returns from the grave to advise him. Such examples draw a general line between the circumstances separating scariness and humour.

Alas, with the streets going silent around us again while the days grow colder and the nights longer, England’s second lockdown of the year constitutes, for some, a non-fiction game of survival. For others, still, the psychological burden of imposed isolation is being felt. But I have no doubt that this period, as all challenging ones do, shall produce great works of art to externalise these burdens and meddle further with the relation between loneliness and fear.

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