“Remember: that giants sleep too soundly; that witches are often betrayed by their appetites; dragons have one soft spot, somewhere, always; hearts can be well-hidden, and you can betray them with your tongue.”
– Neil Gaiman, Instructions
I emerged from the depths of my desk a few nights ago to drag myself into the living world and watch Lights Out with my fabulous Final Guy.
Based on the elegant short film that led to the feature length production, I was really expecting something a bit smarter and slicker – that said, it was still visually lovely and well-acted, with a few satisfying jump-scares thrown in. The perfect complement to an evening of snuggles and popcorn.
Sorrows and Shadows
Being one of the many living with that long-fingered shadow lurking just over their shoulder, I appreciate it when an artist in any discipline explores and expresses their experience of depression (and mental illness as a whole). Horror especially lends itself to this raw and tender subject matter, which is one of the many factors that makes it such an appealing genre to me. But on a more superficial level, I’m also content for a monster to be a monster and nothing more.
On the (long, dark) drive home, we got talking about the workings of fear, and what makes something truly fearful. The best artists know that the power to scare often lies in the use of rules and restraint.
Dragons Have One Soft Spot, Somewhere, Always
When a protagonist faces a fearful thing, their salvation lies in its limitations. The Wolfman can be killed with silver bullets, the wraith flees before fire, the Martians fall prey to a common virus – every monster, every threat has its Achilles heel. Diana of Lights Out is a creature that can exist only in darkness – and the creative way the story’s protagonists use that weakness against her is my favourite thing about the film.
Another great example that comes to mind is that of the homunculi in the Don’t be Afraid of the Dark remake. They won’t come for you as long as the nightlight stays on – but what happens the moment they discover how to flip the switch?
By giving the monster or the threat a set of rules to operate within, the storyteller can start eliciting a Pavlovian response in the audience – we tense up when we see our protagonist unwittingly step out of the safety of the light into the perils of the dark. It also allows the protagonist (and vicariously, the audience) to experience the Hope Spot; the moment of sanctuary, the glimmer of relief that makes the fear seem so much crueler when it inevitably returns.
Lights Out starts off well by giving Diana a very strict set of rules to work within, but loses its impact towards the end as those rules begin to bend and break down.
The Threat on the Threshold
The struggle to keep the darkness at bay is something the human mind can relate to on a primal level. It’s also something many of us work to do in a more metaphorical sense.
Throughout history, in both fiction and reality, we’ve warded off threats with sage smoke, with circles of salt, with just the right shade of blue. We create the creatures that would harm us, yet we also create the rules that protect us from them, and naturally they comply.
It’s useful to think that the things that threaten and scare us in our day-to-day lives can be put in their place in a similar manner. This might not make them any less fearful, but it does give us those rare moments of safety where we can catch our breath – and sometimes, that’s all we need to get up and face the monsters again.
Keep your hearths blazing and your thresholds strong. Your fears are less powerful than they’d have you believe.