People have been drawing connections between dreaming and movies – Oneiric film theory – since the beginning, reaching a sort of pop apotheosis with Christopher Nolan’s Inception; if you haven’t already, do check out Devin Faraci’s NEVER WAKE UP essay. In a nutshell, Oneiric film theory suggests that, like dreams, movies hide all kinds of unconscious goodies even beneath subtext, and that our brains process dreams and movies in very similar ways. Viewing a film can put us in a dream-like state; our pulse rate slows, our body temperature cools, and we give in to images in the dark. This means that a good horror film might have a lot in common with an actual nightmare.
Here’s a variation on a dream we’ve all had:
Inexplicably, you’re a teenager again. You’re living back at home with your parents. As you explore the house, you feel both a sense of familiarity and a sense of foreignness. Something isn’t quite right. The colors in the halls match what you remember, but the rooms aren’t in the right order, and the carpeting has an odd texture… and what on Earth is your old roommate’s Dawn of the Dead poster doing on the bathroom wall?
This sense of anti-deja-vu actually has a name: Jamais vu. It’s a by-product of how our brains process information in dreams, and sits at the root of why certain horror movies can hotwire our fear response, even at the expense of reason and logic. There’s a reason we remember nightmares far more often than we can recall other dreams, and some of the cleverest storytellers know how to exploit it. Especially Dario Argento.
Engage in a discussion about the movies of Dario Argento, David Lynch, or Lucio Fulci, and you’ll eventually hear the term “dream logic.” But what does this term actually mean? Is it shorthand for “illogical and crazy, with maybe some Freud up in there,” or is it there a more meaningful definition? Great horror movies like Suspiria, Deep Red (Profondo Rosso), Pulse (Kairo), Eraserhead, and The Beyond have “dream-like” qualities, like inappropriate music, cartoonish gore, or Kairo‘s impossible (and utterly horrifying) stumble, but is there a common element that binds them? More importantly, what makes it scary?
–SPOILERS FOR DEEP RED FOLLOW–
Deep Red, Dario Argento’s outrageously psychoanalytic Blow Up riff, can help us find the answer. Preamble: I’m not tackling the subtext of Deep Red here. Phallus-wielding feminists and weird sexual politics are better suited for a different discussion, not to mention the Freudian subtext so blatant that it may as well be text-text.
Deep Red follows Marcus Daly (David Hemmings), an English pianist who, while wandering the streets of Rome at night, witnesses the murder of a psychic. This kicks off a cat and mouse game between Daly and the killer. The killer’s calling card? He plays a children’s song on a tape cassette prior to every murder. It is – on the surface, at least – a silly, gory romp loaded with leather-fisted Giallo tropes, and features face-boiling, teeth-bashing, a graphic elevator decapitation, and a galloping animatronic doll. Although Daly gets help from his buddy Carlo and manic pixie journalist Gianna, as a gumshoe, he makes Jeff Lebowski look like Philip Marlowe. Here’s my favorite bit of exposition:
[In an office, Marcus Daly consults two associates about the case]
Parapsychology Expert: Uh… I’d like to add something much less scientific about this case… this business about the children’s song. If you recall, Helga [The murdered psychic] also said something about a house, as well as a child singing. And, well, I remember having read a little book quite some time ago on folklore. I think the title was “The Modern Ghost, and the Black Legends of Today.” The author spoke about a haunted house from which the neighbors could sometimes hear singing, like that of a child. The conjecture is that an act of bloodshed was once committed in that house.
Daly: “Do you have that book??!?”
Daly follows an unsolicited, unscientific hunch of this guy (who is never again seen in the film!), which leads him to the folklore book. In the book, Daly thumbs to a picture of a foreboding house, which happens to be the home of the killer.
This is how Daly breaks the case.
Deep Red‘s plot is just as silly as Daly’s investigative techniques. Much like dreams, Deep Red may be internally consistent, but its logic doesn’t jibe with how things work the real world. Still, we play along anyway.
My point is this: Deep Red is still an affecting movie, not despite, but because of its weak ties to everyday logic. Its Horror doesn’t live in the plot; it lives deeper in the fiber of the film. Deep Red takes multiple, meaningfully conflicting ideas, and merges them together to create a more intense viewer response. A death scene scored to Goblin’s driving funk rhythms? Something’s not quite right here. Christmas trees and screaming children? That’s just unclean. Then there’s the film’s portrayal of Carlo’s lover, who’s played by a female actor, but is dubbed with a male voice. It’s this constant sense of incongruity that drives the film. It’s also important that Argento takes household objects, like cooking knives, a freshly drawn bath, or even a boring coffee table, and turns them into death implements. Our homes are now an arsenal of murder weapons. We’ve all stubbed our toe on a coffee table or been burned by hot water, making these death scenes all the more personal, and merging two very different ideas – the home, and the grave.
But the best example of these “incongruity bombs” is the infamous children’s song played by the killer before each attack. It’s (naturally) a Goblin song called School at Night (LISTEN HERE) and is easily just as memorable and effective as the Jaws theme at creating tension. Unlike the Jaws theme, though, School at Night is different in a few important ways. The shark victims couldn’t hear John Williams’ cello notes before each attack, but each of Deep Red‘s victims recognize School at Night as their own MURDER CAROL. The soundtrack bleeds down into the film, pulling us down with it. And where the Jaws theme is menacing on its own, School at Night is a whimsical music-box lullaby fit best for Geppetto’s toy shop, not a murderer’s den. It’s a harmless, pleasant song.
Or is it? Listen again. Instead of starting on beat one, like most simple, child-friendly melodies, it starts on beat three. It’s always two beats behind, but we don’t consciously notice it. Also, most children’s melodies, from Frère Jacques to Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, don’t include notes outside of their original key. The second note in the fourth measure, beginning at 0:10 in the linked audio, is in a different key.
As a result, School at Night evokes an automatic skin-crawl response.
Dreams themselves play similar games with the brain.* When we encounter a concept in a dream, our brains use two different methods of understanding it: feature binding, and context binding. When we’re feature binding, we’re constructing simple, low level representations, like “this apple is red,” or “that car has four wheels.” When we perform context binding, we’re trying to fit these low-level things into a much bigger picture. Why is Janet Jackson eating my apple, and how did she get into my car? And what’s the car doing up on a roof? As it turns out, context binding requires a lot more brainpower to get right. We’re not only focusing on the tiny details, but we’re also pulling the pieces together and fitting them into complicated scenarios, so our brains muck it up sometimes. When context binding breaks down, the brain creates incongruities, which leads to that peculiar something doesn’t feel quite right effect. And it’s typically very memorable. There’s also evidence that “erroneous binding” plays an important role in the Capgras delusion, in which sufferers become convinced that a friend or loved one has been replaced by an impostor. When our waking brains can’t make these important connections, real life can become a De Palma-esque nightmare.
I think that “Dream Logic” isn’t so much about illogic or fantasy as it is about a careful pairing of conflicting ideas. It’s possible that Deep Red, by sending us viral, unbound packets of incongruous information, hijacks our brains in an attempt to unnerve and disturb from the inside out. If watching a film puts us in a dream-like state, all Argento needs to do is take advantage of our brains’ existing vulnerabilities. And I think that Argento’s fully aware of this, even beyond the fact that the killer’s theme song is a lullaby. The film’s opening sequence has Helga, the doomed psychic, giving a talk at the European Conference on Parapsychology in an auditorium that looks suspiciously like a movie theater:
“I can see things the very moment they occur, but nothing of what is to come. I can feel thoughts the very instant they are formed. And even much later, if the thoughts are very long, for they linger about the room… like cobwebs.”
[Helga convulses in agony. Someone is violating her mind with obscene imagery.]
“…I feel… a presence… a twisted mind… sending me thoughts…. perverted, murderous thoughts!”
Oh God! Argento’s piping this stuff directly into our brains!
*FYI, I didn’t pull all of this out of my butt. Gerrans, P. Dream experience and a revisionist account of delusions of misidentification. Consciousness
and Cognition (2011), doi:10.1016/j.concog.2011.11.003
First things first: Why should anyone read this blog? After all, if it’s going to be weekly dissertations on some schmoe’s favorite movies, shows, games, or books, there are hundreds of better known and well-vetted sources to choose from. Why read this one?
I’ve been writing for the web in one format or another for five years. (Here’s some proof.) This hardly makes me a veteran, but I’ve done enough reading and writing to know when a horse has been beaten to death. The traditional web writer formula – put out a trickle of news commentary alongside big weekly reviews, and wrap things up with an obligatory top ten list at the end of the year – is finished. Opinions are cheap, especially when they’re couched in boring reviewerspeak tropes and hyperbole. Find me a rave review on the internet that doesn’t use the words “compelling” or “works,” and I’ll owe you a doughnut. It gets even worse when you realize that most writers have no idea why a plot point is “compelling” or why something “works.”
And then there’s the scary trend of writers bucketing art into “it’s awesome” or “it sucks” bins. This binarization of commentary lies at the root of fanboyism, and is a discussion killer. To quote my Polish mother in law, “there’s nothing so bad that no good can come of it;” in fact, bad, poorly-thought-out movies can generate just as much healthy discussion as a classic. FilmCritHulk (who is, seriously, 2011’s great new voice) explains this perfectly in his NEVER HATE A MOVIE essay. I’m more interested in why a story connects with us or sends us running rather than treating directors, games, movies, or franchises as our favorite surrogate sports teams. If you’re like me, then please consider giving this experiment of mine a shot.
If you’re still on the fence, here’s a sample of some of my favorite things I’ve written recently: