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Sinclaire Sparkman: The lost art of creepy movies

Sinclaire Sparkman • Updated Oct 14, 2016 at 12:00 PM

This week I had the horror of watching a movie circa 1977 called Eraserhead. It’s a black & white film about infidelity and the creeping conscious. The best word I can use to describe this film is ‘unsettling’. It is considered a horror film, but it’s a far cry from what we watch in the theaters today. Being that it’s a cult classic and pretty unique in itself doesn’t take away from the fact that most scary movies circa 2016 are all about ‘jump factor’ or some flashy special effects. 

We have lost the power of suggestion. 

Directed by David Lynch, ‘Eraserhead’ is an abstract movie that melds silent films, black & white cinematography, dark humor and eerie horror. The lighting, random sound effects, stretches of silence, gory images and bits of dialogue come together to create the atmosphere of creepiness. It doesn’t leave you looking for monsters under the bed, but instead leaves a spooky impression and a sense of wondering about the true meaning of the film. 

There is no hand holding by the creators spelling out why the action on the screen takes place. It doesn’t assume a dimwitted audience unable to draw conclusions with their own critical thinking. It lets you wonder. There is much left to interpretation, but if you have half a brain you won’t miss the important stuff. 

It’s a story of a story of domestic dissonance; a man experiencing situations that seem out of his control, like he’s just along for the ride. The main character, Henry Spencer (played by Jack Nance), gets his girlfriend pregnant and her parents force them to marry. The baby –if you can call it that– is a grotesque, goat-like, skinless monster that wails and wails until the mother finally leaves to go back to her parents, leaving Henry there to watch over it. What follows is a sequence of dream-like scenes portraying some of the horrors of domestic life, including drowning in the bed with the prostitute across the hall. To try to explain this film in depth becomes a trifling matter, and that’s my point. It’s artful in that you must look beyond what is on the screen to interpret it. 

It was surprising and unsettling at first just because things weren’t being explained, but the intellectual in me found it refreshing to watch a movie that didn’t assume the ignorance of the audience. It was creepy not because of ghouls jumping out or an overarching threat of death. It was a different kind of scare entirely. 

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of scary movies being put out today that will get your heart racing and have you leaving the lights on at night. But ‘Eraserhead’ creates a world, an atmosphere that makes you wonder what is going on. It uses suggestion to make the watching uneasy, not just jump because of a sustained musical stanza ended with a staccatoed scare tactic. It is a bit of a niche film, beyond its time and beyond our time as well. And it’s very creepy and distrubing. 

There’s something intrinsicly linked to suggestion that creates creepiness. 

The power of creepiness is tied to not knowing what is going to come of a suggested threat. Something is creepy when there is a suggestion of evil or wrong rather than an outright exhibition of such. It’s about the unsure and unexplained, the downright different. 

I enjoy figuring things out for myself in art and entertainment, or if it at least leaves something open for interpretation. That way there is something left up for discussion besides how real the special effects looked or the quality of the acting.

Suggestion leaves it up to us to figure out. Maybe today we’re just too scared of our own intelligence. Or movie-makers think we don’t enjoy using our brains.   

My suggestion to you for a good horror movie night, go back about 20 or 30 years and see what the masters left behind. 

Sinclaire Sparkman is The Democrat’s news editor. Email her at ssparkman@lebanondemocrat.com and follow her on Twitter @wilsoncoreports.

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