Fear has a twin, you know... a sister. She’s a fraternal twin, because the two are not identical, not by a long shot, but they are twins nonetheless. And these two sisters aren’t always present together in film & literature, but they’re each at their most potent when they are together.
That twin I’m talking about is Grief. Grief is the grim follower and sometimes harbinger of Fear. Fear often strikes first, and as she wanders away, satisfied at the destruction she has laid down, that hopeless, sinking sensation of loss that she leaves in her wake is not her absence, but rather the approach of her sister, Grief, who always takes up where sister Fear leaves off.
While Fear bites to rend and tear and pierce, Grief has a slower, more insidious attack. Hers is more of a sickening injection. One that slowly infects and leaves to die. One that lingers, and eats away at us, rots us from inside, starting with the heart. The fever, the chills, the aching, gnawing pain that never seems to end... And it always comes after dear sister Fear has left us bleeding on the forest floor.
But sometimes... sometimes, sister Grief comes first, and when she does, the horror film becomes emotionally 100 times more powerful, and that’s what I want to talk about here.
I recently did an unscientific poll online to see what kind of horror film people would rather see -- one that excites, terrifies and thrills? Or one that brings sinking dread and despair and moves them emotionally.
You’d think it’d be the exciting fire-show thrill ride, but surprisingly, in my poll of about 100 people, most wanted to be moved emotionally. Don’t get me wrong, the two kinds of films are not mutually exclusive, you can get a thrill ride that moves you and you can get an emotional journey that excites, but at the end of the day, every film will slide toward one end or the other on the scale.
Looking inward, to my own tastes, I listed out many of my favorite horror films. Some were terrifying and thrilling, some were dread-inducing and emotional, and most were in between somewhere. As a filmmaker and an audience member, I tend to go where my mood takes me, as does everyone else.
But I will say one thing for films that begin with grief. Inevitably, they involve you quickly and get you behind the protagonist faster than any other kind of horror. If you start with a gut-wrenching tragedy and fade to black, then see the words “ONE YEAR LATER”... you always have the audience by the throat. They FELT the pain of the protagonist. They SAW what hurt them, and now, with time between the tragedy and the story that’s about to unfold, we’re interested and invested in what’s to come.
As a film/writing tool, grief early on in the film does another thing besides invite the audience to invest in the emotional and physical well being of the characters... it also throws the audience off balance. They know, even if only subconsciously, that as a filmmaker and author, you are willing to inflict the heaviest of human emotions on them, all in the first 4 minutes of your story. And when they’re thrown of balance like that, they’re more easily frightened, terrified and filled with dread.
And in this world, that’s always a good thing.
To illustrate my point, I decided to compile a list of horror films with heavy grief components, whether they’re the engine that drives the plot or the protagonist, (or even the antagonist), or whether they use grief in the first moments of the film to reel you in emotionally, all of the following 10 films use Fear’s dear sister Grief to great success.
I’m listing them in no particular order rather than a “Top Ten” because as most of you know I hate top tens. Each of these is just a solid film that you should see if you haven’t.
1. Don’t Look Now (1973 with Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie)
2. The Haunting of Julia (1977 - Mia Farrow)
3. The Changeling (1980 - George C. Scott)
4. The Haunting (1963 - Julie HArris & Claire Bloom)
5. Mama (2013 - Jessica Chastain)
6. Ghost Story (1981 - Fred Astaire)
7. Ju-On - The Grudge (2000 - directed by Takashi Shimizu)
8. The Orphanage (2007 - starring Belen Rueda)
9. Insidious (2010 - with Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne)
10. Martyrs (1008 - Morjana Alaoui)
In each of these films, watch how grief plays it’s part, hand in hand with fear, and note how each comes forward or steps to the back as needed during the film. Once you realize the interplay between the two, you’ll see how closely related the two are, and why the metaphor of twin sisters is so appropriate.
Gaudium per atrox.