I’ve watched a few horrors lately, namely Hush, Don’t Breathe and Pontypool. I enjoyed all of them, to one extent or another and it gets me to wondering, what are the elements a writer needs to master in order to spook the reader. I am going to drift about on this post, and it is not intended to be exhaustive, and is purely opinion based on observation. The topic I am drifting towards is Automata. In this context, the semblance or appearance of life, but with certain things removed with the ultimate effect of dehumanising the automaton.
Hush was a standard slasher film, where an assailant with a white mask that made them look like a mannequin terrorises a deaf girl in her forest home.
Don’t Breathe is about a bunch of thieves breaking into the isolated home of a blind war veteran, trying to rob him, and getting more than they bargained for when he locks them in his house and starts hunting them. (I guess he was meant to be the villain, and for much of the film, all my sympathy was with him)
Pontypool is a zombie movie, where the zombie infection is spread through infected words. The action takes place inside the local radio station, the place uniquely suited to get word out about the new plague, but also risk communicating it.
I also studied the Uncanny whilst at University, if only for a short time and already had a few suppositions about what makes things scary. I am going to go through each film, one by one and try to bring it together with previous studies to draw some form of a conclusion.
Currently available on netflix UK, and worth a watch. If you want a review of it, you can find a good one over on Raistlin0903 Blog HERE (He does frequent movie reviews that I particularly enjoy, and often agree with – his review encouraged me to watch Hush).
So, we have a girl who is deaf living alone and in isolation. First fear factor, without hearing she is deprived awareness of her surroundings except what is in her field of vision. This effectively renders the intruder invisible to her, until he wants to be seen.
We then add to this the fact that the intruder wears a paper mache style mask. Concealment seems irrelevant, since his intent was always to murder her and anyone who gets in the way. So, you have to assume the mask has a different function. I will posit that the mask is rigid, and this was the point. A flexible mask that moves when a person talks, or looks around still feels human up to a point. A rigid mask looks more like a doll, or a mannequin. Taken on its own, each aspect might slightly unnerve us but let us consider what putting them together means. We have an intruder with a face that equates to a mannequin, and a girl who cannot hear. In essence she is deprived of several stimuli that should scream human. Humans have eyes, and faces and sounds. But if something moves like a human, but doesn’t have a face and doesn’t make sound then we are getting into territory that Freud spoke about in The Uncanny. We have something that resembles an automaton. A being that mimics the form of human, and goes through the motions, but is absent defining characteristics. I am going a bit deeper than the film perhaps intended (but maybe it did intend this discussion). One thing I know. Dolls are creepy. The idea of a featureless, soundless being walking or moving in a similar fashion to a human is also creepy. I think we can justify saying that Automota is one element that can be used in horror to unnerve, if not scare.
Don’t Breathe actually takes one idea of horror/thriller, the Intruder, and flips it as the protagonists are the intruders and would not have been in danger had they not broken into the house of the rich, blind, war vet played by Stephen Lang. He has no particularly special powers. He isn’t Daredevil with radar senses. He is just a guy, a trained guy, but a guy nonetheless defending his house. (There was a plot macguffin inserted to make you lose sympathy for him. It kinda worked, I wasn’t keen on it. But my purpose isn’t review).
Lang was blind. His eyes, milky white. And I think this is the most unnerving thing about him. You can read intent in eyes. If not emotion, you can see where eyes are looking and extrapolate intent. But if they are solid, blank and unmoving then you get a similarly uncanny effect as with the solid mask in Hush. Again, we have something taken slightly away from what we expect, moved in a direction that makes it less human and the result is Uncanny.
On a side note, I used this once in a roleplaying game where I had created a Wizard named Felix. Felix lost his sight due to out of control sorcery, however I asked the Games Master if my character could start the game with eyes forged from silver. They didn’t do anything other than see, but I wanted my character to have strange eyes. The Games Master approved, and fortunately we have only encountered undead so far, so it hasn’t been a problem.
As noted, Pontypool is a Zombie movie where the infection is spread through infected words. The infected wander around, hunting, repeating the same phrases over and over. This isn’t necessarily automata or blank eyes as with the other two movies, (though a zombie movie by definition is about automata) however the taking of phrases and repeating them over and over and over makes the infected sound like a broken record player, a broken machine. The fact that the infected are simply transmitting the same phrase over and over also makes their voices “Undead” or “Automata”. In essence, the words emulate a voice but it is only an approximation of voice.
When seeing something resembling human, acting in ways that a human might but deprived of essential human elements, such as active eyes, facial expressions or a voice then we wonder what exactly we are seeing. Is it a biomechanical engine? Does it bleed? Feel pain? Feel Joy?
It unnerves us because we have no frame of reference. How do you deal with a flesh construct? A vicious animal, a deranged shooter, both are terrifying in their own right but we understand them somewhat. They are familiar. We know that they have emotions, and they have motives and in some respects we can try and evade or reason with them. Don’t reason with a tiger. They are notoriously hostile diplomats.
But we don’t understand the automaton. Does it have will of its own? Does it have a master. How do we deal with it?
If it simply looks human but is a construct of other material, is it alive? How does it work?
If it appears human, but outward signs of humanity are gone, in the eyes, the voice, the expression/emotion, then more terrifying is the question: Can it happen to us?
I am not claiming expertise on this subject. What are your thoughts on use of automata in your writing?