Atmospheric Horror

This has been brewing in my head for quite some time.

Ever since I was watching through October with the 31DayHorrorChallenge, I’ve encountered movies that did some things quite effective. And by that, I’m talking about immersing myself into that world. The pacing, the cinematography, the acting, the atmosphere… and that’s what inspired me to do this post.

Atmospheric Horror, what films (that I’ve seen) do it best? There is a rubric that I had to follow which broke everything down into 3 categories: location as in are we staying in one area, the environment or setting, spookiness as in unease, conflict, danger, threats, and finally mortality also known as is death constantly present, around the corner? And the film has to reach at least 2 of the 3 categories.

Let’s get started!

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My immediate response was John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982). This film was my example of what exactly I was thinking of. We’re in an isolated location, we don’t leave said location, and it’s cold. The cold then leads into depression, there’s danger with who exactly is hosting “the thing” and there are deaths. The Thing is very bleak, even with the ending. It keeps us, the audience, on edge throughout the film and it doesn’t let up.

thewickerman_7The Wicker Man (1973) does something similarly with isolation and unknown territory. We are following our protagonist who is very staunch, faithful in his faith and what he believes in and yet even from the beginning when he lands in Summersisle, you can feel this energy for the town vs him. He is the outsider and eventually we find out that he was chosen and basically imprisoned by the people. He cannot leave, he’s the sacrifice to their sun god and the scariest part is that everyone knew but him.

28 Days Later (2002) is traumatizing in a manner of waking up in a new world that you don’t know or understand. The world has dramatically changed and there aren’t people around. You’re isolated, alone and encounter and unknown danger standing right in front of you: the infected AND the survivors. I still would like to know how they made London look completely desolate.

30 Days of Night (2007), very similar to The Thing on a theme of coldness, cold weather, a location where the characters cannot leave yet danger easily enters in when the lack of sun is upon them. Polar Night, is that what it’s called? Vampires descend on the town in Alaska and… something about that environment is unsettling. I live in the midwest, we have all four seasons but I despise winter and it’s so depressing and cold and sad and I cannot imagine experiencing a Polar Night or seeing no sun for 30 days. 

The Blair Witch Project (1999) is a modern take of the woods that are never safe. Yes, the three filmmakers are in a hotel room and even meeting townspeople but once they enter the woods, we never leave. The uneasiness doesn’t come immediately, that builds up over a day or two of them walking and camping and then arguing. When Josh goes missing, all hell breaks loose and the lives of Heather and Mike is unknown.

burntofferings3Burnt Offerings (1976) is a film that I feel is heavily underrated. A family rents a very large estate for the summer and are unaware of the evil, supernatural forces at hand. This movie surprised me in many ways, I have indeed did a review for this here but this movie checks the boxes. Mortality? It goes there. Spookiness? They cannot leave the property, the house entire property is preventing them from leaving when it’s too little too late. Everyone slowly changes and succumbs to these powerful sources. One becomes more tired, hair color changes, feels weak and loses that “spark” while another character is almost transforming into the new caretaker of the house. Everyone is affected, no one is left unscathed.

The Haunting (1963) already has marked its legacy. Before the tv series, before that awful remake, we have the original Robert Wise film adaptation. Though our characters have volunteered to come to the home to investigate and there is a hint of freedom, there are these glimpses throughout the film where our protagonists are trapped because of the paranormal forces throughout the film. Also, one character really doesn’t want to leave and she gets her wish. Death and darkness has haunted this house, the characters are stepping into territory they weren’t expecting and it takes a haunted house to a new level, in my opinion.

thefog_7John Carpenter’s The Fog (1980) does atmospheric horror by keeping the audience into two territories: ghosts and water. The Fog is all about a town celebrating its founding but it correlates with a fog that slowly flows towards the town, filled with ghosts, looking for revenge. Why this fits this theme is the townspeople have nowhere to go. The fog is sentient, it’s alive and purposely flows through the town, looking for victims. The town is sitting on a big secret, lives were taken and five (well six) lives are eventually taken. Also, the music, composed and scored by Carpenter himself, also brings out the uneasiness in a very dreamlike, ambient feeling.

The Shining (1980) is another example of you put a movie in cold weather and isolation, you’re going to be driven into paranoia. The Stanley Hotel is iconic and haunted with many, many spirits. There’s no one up there but a family and a head chef and many hallways and hotel rooms full of bad things.

theevil2The Evil (1978) is the twin of Burnt Offerings to be frank. I also reviewed this film and if you want a thorough review, go there but does this sound familiar: people trapped in a home with supernatural forces… except the supernatural forces are from the Devil? And these people are really trying to better themselves and help by volunteering to bring their hands together to open a rehabilitation center. I think a deep rooted fear is being trapped and being trapped beyond your control. Characters fall prey to their deaths trying to escape, or they are viciously attacked and in a place that had huge potential was snatched away.

If I continued on, this post would be pages and pages long to include ALL of the films I had in mind. I wanted to talk about some great examples but also show some honorable mentions in their own right. Some are quite obvious and some you’ll do some critical thinking on like the first one mentioned is Pet Sematary. Even though we jump from location to location, the tension and uneasiness never wavers. It just gets more and more intense, especially with where they live, the nearby burial ground, frequent hallucinations, constant reminders of death, it’s more heavy with mood and facing death than location but I still count it.

What movies would you add to this? Leave a comment below, let’s talk! 

Recommended/Honorable Mentions
Stephen King’s Pet Sematary (1989)
Hell House LLC (2015)
Crawl (2019)
Midsommar (2019)
Alien (1979)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
The Evil Dead (1981)
Jaws (1975)
Host (2020)
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Sleepaway Camp (1983)
The Exorcist (1973)
Stephen King’s Rose Red (2002)
The Witch (2015)
Hereditary (2018)
Psycho (1960)
The Descent (2005)
The Strangers (2008)

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