Through the Lens of Terror – Shutters to Shudders
Since it’s first introduction into modern society the camera has been a source of superstition, fun and fear. Some people believed that a picture taken of you could steal your soul, or at least a small part of it. There are also superstitions about the placement of the people in the photograph.
If you’ve ever wondered why people are so solemn in older pictures you have to take into account that in those days having your picture taken was an expensive, serious business. It also took a while to set up the equipment and that’s a long time to hold a smile. As the ease of taking pictures and having them developed became easier, the subjects became much more informal.
With the advent of the camera in Victorian society it had a huge influence on the spiritual movement. Spirit photography was a booming business for psychics. Most pictures that were debunked at the time still had it’s undaunted supporters. The spiritual movement had it’s supporters even in noted public figures of the time, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Even with the camera becoming so omnipresent we still have retained our fear of it. It’s present in many varieties of horror media. Movies, books, games feature them prominently. Even with the found footage style of horror movies the still pictures of a regular camera has still held it’s place in horror fiction.
One of the newer entries in the camera horror sub-genre is a movie called Camera Obscura. The plot has a veteran war photographer with PTSD whose pictures reveal the imminent deaths of people, putting those he loves in danger and makes him question his already fragile grasp on sanity (IMDB). I haven’t seen it yet so I have no idea how effectively they employ the device but it’s interesting that in this day and age of almost purely video found footage horror they rely on still photographs.
Other movies have employed the camera as a device of horror as well. Shutter is a great movie. It was originally a Thai movie and, after the success of The Ring, became one of the many American remakes. Personally I prefer the original but it’s a matter of preference, I suppose. In 2007 it was also made into an Indian movie, Sivi.
Ringu, the original Japanese title for the American remake, The Ring also uses a camera to further the tension of the plot. The videotape is the main star of the show but the stills from a camera are used to creep us out, the faces of the cursed becoming distorted in the photographs. In fact, cameras appear quite frequently in Asian cinema, mostly known as J-Horror, which seems to encompass the entirety of Asian horror cinema even though the mythologies and customs can vary wildly.
Other movies, even though the camera many times is not the main focus, also use the camera to further the plot and create creepiness and atmosphere. In Oculus one of the main characters tries to use her phone camera to try to distinguish what is real and what is not. The Others creates terrific atmosphere when Grace Stewart (Nicole Kidman) finds a book of the pictures of the dead. Which was a common type of photograph in certain time periods as, often, it would be the only picture people would have of their loved ones.
In books, also, the camera makes an appearance. Probably much too often to list in detail but a few good examples are The Sun Dog, by Stephen King from the quartet Four Past Midnight. Another more recent entry is a book called Shutter. You can read Lilyn’s excellent review of it here.
The camera has even made an appearance in video games. Not quite as often but it is used in a great variety of ways. In Silent Hill: Shattered Memories you can take pictures of the past to uncover more of the story and the past. In DreadOut you are trapped in an abandoned town equipped with only your smartphone camera to help you solve the puzzles and save your friends.
The best use of the camera in video games, however, is in the Fatal Frame series. You are equipped with the Camera Obscura, an antique camera created by Dr. Asou to exorcise spirits. This is your only weapon against the murderous spirits that inhabit the various locations in the games. I have to admit that this is my favorite survival horror games (outside of Silent Hill) and Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly was the only game to ever make me shriek and jump.
Although video seems to be replacing the camera as the go-to for recording horror, I believe that the camera will still have it’s place in horror. With the thousands of pictures being taken professionally, personally and privately every day who knows what we’ll eventually capture within the lens?
Have I forgotten any books, movies or any other camera-oriented horror? I’d love to hear them. And because I’m horribly egotistical I have a music video that I made ages ago setting clips of the first three Fatal Frame games to Iron Maiden’s ‘Fear of the Dark’ if anyone is interested I’ll leave the link here so you can have a good laugh at it. Because a good laugh never hurt anyone.