Perception isn’t reality.
I know that. You know that. Everyone knows that.
And, yet, we give in to treating our perceptions like reality all the time. It’s almost like it’s a self-indulgent game the vast majority of people play near-constantly with the Universe.
It’s so pervasive, in fact, that some people make careers that depend on making particular perceptions seem like a specific reality. We even ask them to do it! Examples: actors, singers, magicians, “spiritual mediums” … and writers. These are people who rely on convincing the rest of us to look over there and not over here. Talented performers in those fields play that game with other people’s perceptions. They convince the entire world to watch the jangling keys, that the hands behind their backs aren’t up to anything, and that what’s happening in front of our eyes is real – or feels real, at least – even if it’s obviously impossible.
And, a lot of the time, we go along with this. Happily, in fact. We’re willing to play along and take part in the game because these are pleasant fictions. We enjoy them – even when we play games pretending to talk to the dead, to use the example of spirit-mediums. Take the Ouija board. We put our hands on its planchette, and we play at talking to the dead despite all that this could entail. Despite the amazing possibilities of what it might really mean to commune with the dead. Do we think of talking to the great minds lost to time? No. We ask about ourselves. We let the lie of magical thinking overtake us and we play along, and we insist “it’s only a game.” We’re not going to admit that we’re the ones moving the planchette. It’s that person over there, across from us.
But what if it was real? Who wants to entertain that thought? Almost no one. If it were real, there might be implications. Consequences. We want the real world to be magical, but we don’t want to admit how terrifying a magical world would actually be.
Terror can be giddy, and magic is fun. There’s an immediate motivational reward in playing along – and rewards can be that pervasive. We wave our hands. We specifically dismiss our doubts in order to get the reward. We want to be entertained. We want good movies, or a memorable show, or a sense of calm that our long-lost aunt is tending to her begonias in a benevolent afterlife, instead of rotting in the ground in a nullified state.
Over a lifetime, we train ourselves to indulge these pleasant fictions, and to seek out those rewards to the point that we learn it’s easier to get that reward if we don’t care about looking behind the curtain.
But that’s the precise moment when things really start to get dangerous.
Because you know who else relies on making perception seem like reality? Politicians. Con artists. Murderers. And when they succeed at pulling off their big tricks, it’s far from harmless. It ends up with folks manipulated, bankrupted, or dead.
And, yet, our desire to be entertained pushes through our common sense even then. We keep voting for the same kinds of politicians. We turn con artists into celebrities – once they’ve retired, of course, so we know they won’t get us. And we turn murderers into folk heroes.
That’s how much we want to be entertained. We can put up with anything if you give it a soundtrack and some flashy lights. And that scares me. A lot. Because there are smart people out there, right now, relying on our lack of critical thinking skills to do the world a lot of damage.
Everyone should know that. You should know that. I should know that.
Which is why it’s important for stories to have a point that connects to reality in some way. That stories should never exist in the vacuum of being “just stories.” Stories have to tie in to something real for us to enjoy them, even if it’s on a rudimentary level. Even if it’s basic and fundamental. Because that’s the tether that links us back to the real world, no matter how entertained we are.
Some people dismiss this kind of storytelling as “having an agenda.” But my favorite stories always have agendas.
Oliver Twist is a classically entertaining period novel, but it also exposes the horrors of child labor and the toll of bureaucracy on young lives. And To Kill a Mockingbird isn’t just a gripping courtroom thriller; it has much to say about society and the divisions we force upon each other.
And then there’s Cujo, my favorite book of all time.
Cujo is about a woman and a child trying to survive a series of terrifying attacks on them by a diseased dog. But that’s just a metaphor. When I first read Cujo, I got about a third of the way in … and then, suddenly, I realized something important: the story in front of me wasn’t the whole story. Sure, the reader gets the usual Stephen King creep-and-crawl hijinks. But when I looked deeper and really thought about it, I found a much bigger and much more intimate story beneath that surface: A family breaking down and disintegrating. And the theme to that disintegration was vicious, unrelenting abuse. The woman and child weren’t just incidentally “woman” and “child” here; they represented the man-woman-child dynamic of a “typical American family.” The woman and child were being victimized by the enormous, muscled, sick, and vengeful Cujo as a symbol of someone who is part of the family getting sick – outright diseased – and turning on people American culture symbolically identifies as unable to defend themselves. Almost everything in Cujo can be seen as some kind of metaphor. Conflating Tad’s fear of the dark with his anxiety over his often-absent parents; the anti-monster incantation is an IOU as much as anything else. Consider, too, that no matter how hard Donna fights, Tad is dying in that car anyway – because she’s fighting an abstract battle beyond the literal one on the page. Cujo isn’t really the enemy. Time and heat and dehydration are. it’s destruction in slow-motion, by degrees. And consider, too, how the book is obsessed with blending elements of horror and the banal: children’s breakfast cereals that wind up terrifying parents, the monstrous eyes in Tad’s closet that foreshadow his dark fate. They all tie back to undercurrents of evil lurking beneath a placid and pastoral exterior, an American way of life that’s dying in King’s book and our real world as well. It isn’t a rabid dog that’s poisoning the world of the story. It’s us. It’s the way we don’t deal with the fears and anxieties these metaphors represent.
And horror, especially, always needs these metaphors. Because horror, whether as a craft or as an art form, absolutely requires a core of real emotion to work since it’s rooted in real human emotions: dread, unease, and fear. Sure, you can force someone’s instincts to kick in with a loud noise or a transient visual surprise, but that isn’t horror. If it were, we’d call it horror whenever someone dropped a plate at your favorite restaurant. I mean – you jumped, right? But that’s just electricity in your brain. We know that there’s more to horror than just the surprise of unexpected data.
Metaphors are the difference.
Horror uses the most primal symbols of our subconscious language to get at places we don’t visit in conscious awareness. Those plates dropping – that’s the surface. Adrenaline – that’s just a chemical reaction. The thing we call horror, the thing we love, is so much more than these elements.
Horror as a genre is about our real-life concerns and anxieties, pulled from our own collective subconscious and made manifest by artisans and craftspeople for all to see and to cope with. And that’s key. Horror isn’t just about the unknown being there, or horror would be a dark room and nothing more. Horror is about creating representations of ourselves as we venture into that dark room, and find or lose the courage to turn on the light and see what’s actually in there. It’s about exploring. Coming out on the other side and being okay.
That’s also why my favorite medium in which to experience horror is through film, because that journey can be actively shared by so many people at the same time.
There is nothing like going into a dark theater with other people – a packed house, ideally – and seeing a new horror movie. Not a jaded legion of critics, but an audience who’s there to really experience the horror. To explore those anxieties together in a safe environment. Horror movies are at heart participatory experiences. In most good films, the audience is often relatively quiet. In a good horror movie, in those moments right before the big reveal of what’s lurking on the other side of the curtain, the audience is silent.
But then comes screaming, or laughing, or both. Gasps. Exhalations. And, at the movies, we do it together – and we come out fine on the other side. This is essential to horror because the genre is self-reflective even as it most often addresses the unseen.
Go back to the Ouija board and consider the tropes. Despite the aunt with the begonias, that’s not really what most people are asking Ouija boards. They’re asking about themselves. They’re asking for secrets and truths. “Where’s the family money hidden?” or “Did you love me?” or “Was I responsible for your death?” We care about ourselves more than the dead. We use the board to wake the dead, and check up on them or to ask them for clarity. Consider that. If the Ouija board were real, it would be a tool with which we would ostensibly be using to draw the dead from the commonly-presumed peace of some afterlife to answer questions as we demand that the spirit move a little planchette across a game board.
Now, reverse the pleasant fiction and really consider this from the other side. Could any good come from that? Would we really want to bother people we care about if the board and planchette really had that power? If the pleasant fiction were actually real?
It is this conflict between the pleasant fiction and the horrifying implications of that fiction that’s at the heart of one of my favorite horror movies: Ouija. It takes the paradoxical nature of talking to the dead with a children’s board game, and tells a story that plays out the conflict inherent in those disparate elements by using metaphor in ways that lets the audience question human nature.
Ouija was written by husband-and-wife duo Juliet Snowden and Stiles White, with the latter directing. It tells the story of Laine Morris (Olivia Cooke), a young woman who suffers a terrible loss that drives her to use a Ouija board. Part of what I love about Ouija is that you have to pay attention to really see into the lives of the characters, and I don’t want to take all that away from anyone who hasn’t seen the movie. It’s not about twists and turns and shocks. It’s about the way events impact the characters and the audience, too. There are surprises, but sharing the learning experience with the characters as they delve deeper into the film’s mysteries is more important.
So don’t expect this film to reinvent the wheel. In fact, the film was sharply criticized for being derivative and unoriginal. But many of those critics missed vital material of Ouija that not only make it unique, but something to celebrate in the horror genre.
It’s worth noting that Ouija made $100 million dollars. Now, popularity isn’t an indicator of quality, but there’s something else going on with the movie that helps explain the disconnect between critic and audience, and what many critics missed or didn’t bother to investigate, which contributed to the film’s success, while also tying into the shared experience of horror.
Ouija is principally about observation. About seeing the surface versus seeing the truth. It’s about the fight we all struggle with about accepting those easy answers versus being critical, aware, and attentive in the moment. It’s about the way, when someone kills themselves, we tsk and say, “But she seemed so happy.” It’s about the way we judge by appearance: where beautiful means nice and ugly means horrible. It’s about how we view innocence versus guilt. It’s about where and how we assign blame. It’s about loss and grief.
Grief, especially, factors in as a big part of the story of Ouija in ways we don’t typically see in horror.
Example: in the Nightmare on Elm Street series we see funerals for characters who have died at the hands of Freddy Krueger. These are usually brief vignettes, often serving the purpose of finding the hero character struggling to explain what caused that character’s death so that the adult contingent of the story can express exasperated disbelief.
In Ouija, virtually the entire first half of the film deals with Laine’s grief. And that grief comes back, again and again, and we still experience this through Laine by the time the movie has ended. That’s not just unusual for a horror movie – it’s virtually unheard-of, save The Sixth Sense, Paperhouse, The Orphanage, and The Reflecting Skin.
But that’s not the norm. In horror movies, people die, and the story moves on. As with the aforementioned Nightmare on Elm Street series, you might get a few scenes of tears, but for the most part you just don’t get to follow characters along as they come to grips with loss. And if you do, there’s usually some gut-wrenching twist where we find out the protagonist caused the loss or was the killer all along or some other such out-of-left-field nonsense.
After all, grief is a difficult emotion. It’s tough to experience, and can be almost as tough to write – let alone write well. But it’s the emotional core of Ouija, the idea of how we cope with loss, and the lengths we’ll go when we want – need – the pain of grief to stop, even if just for a little while.
Since Ouija was written to have this powerful emotional core at the heart of the story, that is why so many critics missed the point of the film. The emotions at play flew past them.
And a big reason for this is that the vast majority of critics are men.
Because here’s the other amazing thing about Ouija – it’s about women.
And I mean ALL about women. Women talking to women. Women engaging with other women. Women fighting other women. This movie owns the Bechdel Test and the Sexy Lamp Test and owns them both well.
There are men in Ouija, yes, but they are not at the core or heart of the film. It’s not their story. It’s Laine’s and Debbie’s and Liz’s and Sarah’s and Doris’ and Paulina’s – and that’s a big deal. Heck, even Laine’s absent mother, who isn’t even in the movie, figures significantly into the overall meaning of the story.
And, yes, women have been an important part of the horror genre for a long time, which has been written about extensively. In fact, if you’re unfamiliar with this topic, I urge you to Google “horror and feminism” and read all about it.
Ouija isn’t alone in its focus on women, but it is unique in just how strong and important that focus is to the story, with Laine at the center. I praise the cast across the board, but I do want to emphasize that Olivia Cooke gives a reserved performance that never fails to make clear Laine’s feelings for the different women in her life.
I love Ouija for taking the time to do that as well, and that we get to see the film explore concepts of sisterhood, motherhood, women’s friendships, and more. We get to see a wide variety of relationships, from connections to conflicts, between this small cast of characters that matter to women.
But Ouija was scoffed at by critics, like Brian Viner who called the film “… like High School Musical, only with screaming”. Jonathan Romney remarked that “The bumps and thumps are mechanical, the young stars insipid and the otherworldly entity the kids contact is called Doris.” And finally, Alonso Duralde said it was “a bloodless kiddie horror show.”
These critics miss the point. They watched Ouija, but they only saw the surface and it didn’t compute because they didn’t look through their metaphorical planchette. Instead, they saw ghosts, but they didn’t see what the ghosts meant. They saw simple scares, but didn’t think about the emotions behind them. In other words, they only saw the creep-and-crawl. They saw the building blocks, but missed the art and craft of what the blocks had built.
And I think it’s because the movie centers on women. We’re increasingly seeing male critics attack movies centered on women simply because of that fact, and often before the films even come out. Like when a noted Men’s Rights advocate demanded a boycott of Mad Max: Fury Road because he felt the film was “feminist propaganda.” Or the innumerable critics who attacked the new Ghostbusters without having seen it simply because women made up the lead roles.
But stories with agendas will keep being made because social commentary is part of storytelling and always has been. It’s why fictional stories get told in the first place. And if you don’t watch horror movies like Ouija with attentive eyes, you’re going to miss out like the critics when they didn’t notice what’s right in front of them.
It’s a shame when you miss out like this because that’s the point of horror: to dare to explore things more deeply than those surface elements. To hold the planchette up to your eye and see what you’re told can’t be seen.
Go ahead. Take a look. What are you afraid of?
It’s only a game – isn’t it?
Crash Analysis Support Team:
Dee Emm Elms was born in 1972 in Glens Falls, New York. Dee writes about many subjects ranging from social justice issues to Lost In Space, and often mixes them together. Her favorite topic is horror, and horror movies in particular. Her novel Sidlings may be read at sidlings.com, and she would be pleased for you to check it out. Dee may be contacted at her email firstname.lastname@example.org, or her Twitter: @d_m_elms.
(Movie still from Movie Pinas.)