Creepiness, the Uncanny, and Mama

Growing up, I never questioned why I loved scary movies or what I loved about them. But as I’ve gotten older (and more pretentious), I feel compelled to justify my taste by asserting that it’s creepiness (rather than mere gore or shock value) that I love. Somehow creepiness is more respectable, less likely to implicate me as a potential sociopath.

But what distinguishes creepiness from mere horror? Stephen King laid out his own hierarchy of the genre in his book Danse Macabre:

“I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud.”

I would place creepiness above even terror because terror is still just reaction to perceived danger. Creepiness is something else, not fear so much as a mysterious unease, often accompanied by goosebumps “creeping” across the skin. I would argue that it comes from glimpses of the uncanny, a concept defined by Freud among others as something that combines elements of the familiar and the grotesque. The most common example of this, now incorporated into the concept of the “uncanny valley,” is the nearly-human automaton that is somehow definitely not fucking human.

It’s no accident that some of the creepiest scenes in the last decade or so have come from Asian horror films, which often feature human figures who look slightly off, from the child who mews like a cat in The Grudge, to the girl with the hair-obscured face in The Ring. One technique Hollywood has borrowed extensively from these movies is the often digitally enhanced hurky jerky movements of ghosts. Click the gif below to animate.

It can be overdone but it can also be incredibly effectve. While he watched one such scene at the height of the Asian horror boom, the film critic Mike D’Angelo wrote in Time Out New York that he was, “More frightened than I’ve ever been in a movie theater.”

The scene he's referring to is from Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s film Pulse. I saw the movie several years ago, and I remember almost nothing about it (something to do with a haunted website) except this scene, which I also consider one of the creepiest moments of any movie I've ever watched.

I don't think the scene in isolation does it justice; essentially it consists of a woman walking toward the camera in a strange slow motion, almost as if she doesn't quite know how to walk. The moment that makes the scene indelible, unforgettable, for me is the way the ghost woman, as she walks forward, suddenly stumbles. Her walking was already strange, automoton-like, but that stumble is even worse, as if she wants badly to pass herself off as one of the living, but in the time since she died, she's forgotten.

Mike D’Angelo writes of this moment,

That’s the point where I started to lose it, and I can only conclude that what freaked me out was that I no longer had any idea what I was looking at, which meant that I didn’t know what would happen next. This woman’s intentions were not clear. This woman’s freakin’ movements were not clear. She was silent, she was implacable, she was mysteriously clumsy. Looking at the stumble again (and again), it almost seems like a glitch—not as some lame “she’s a computer program” reveal, but in the much more vaguely menacing sense of just plain Does Not Belong."

This is the uncanny, the thing that we both recogize as familiar and yet instinctively recogize as not belonging. And it gives us (or some of us) a shivery thrill of both dread and wonder. We both want to look away and yet can’t.

And so it is by the creepiness factor that I can highly recommend Mama, which came out months ago in the theater but that I (like many, I assume) can finally enjoy on DVD and BluRay. If by some unlikely chance you are reading this before you watch the movie and you’d prefer not to know anything more, I implore you to just go watch it. Few modern scary movies are genuinely satisfying, but this one is.

It’s not a perfect film, and in some ways, I wish the director had stuck with the more low budget approach to special effects utilized in the short film that was the germ of the full length movie. You can watch that short film on YouTube, with an intro by Guillermo Del Toro, which certainly packs an uncanny wollop, though it has only the barest hint of a story.

The full-length Mama is a ghost story, and like most ghost stories, the plot is essentially a mystery, built around the unraveling of the ghost’s identity. A man and his girlfriend take in his two young nieces after they’ve been living alone in the woods for years, only to find that the girls have brought a ghost with them: the same ghost who cared for and protected them while they survived in the forest. Unfortunately, the ghost is a jealous ghost and does not appreciate being supplanted by new caretakers.

What makes Mama unique, and uniquely dramatic as a ghost story, is not how the main characters are affected by the haunting. In fact, the two adult characters’ backgrounds and motivations are sketchy and underwritten at best. What makes it worth watching is the two little girls. They carry the movie, both as characters and as actresses. The movie’s dramatic center turns out not to be unraveling the mystery of the ghost’s identity, but rather the struggle between (and within) the girls of whether to continue their relationship with the ghost.

This struggle is underscored repeatedly by the uncanny visual effects of the girls talking to, interacting with, and even playing with the ghost. Every one of these scenes is creepy, moving, and riveting. The girls radiate wildness and danger from the moment they are first discovered in the woods to the way the younger girl sits in the corner and sleeps under her sister’s bed. I also love how the ghost could be read metaphorically as an embodied and totally pissed off case of post traumatic stress disorder.

And unlike so many recent scary movies, this one manages to reach a conclusion without a gimmicky, false, or surprise ending. Rather than just hoping the innocents would survive or the monsters would be vanquished by the end, I actually cared about decisions these little girls were making. This is what makes a work of suspense (supernatural or otherwise) rise above mere formula. Does it elicit emotions other than fear along with the fear? Mama certainly does. It’s that rare thing: a genuinely creepy movie that a grownup can be proud to have enjoyed.