Essay #2: To Fear the Monster. How Film Techniques Dip Into a Cultural Consciousness.
i. How Avatar Exploits What We Fear in Film and TV…
Noël Carroll, in The Philosophy of Horror, describes “art-horror” as designed to “elicit a certain kind of affect”: more specifically, “some state of abnormal, physically felt agitation.” And while Avatar itself is not a horror series, in more than one episode it effectively utilizes and subverts certain filmic techniques to achieve just that sort of “physically felt agitation” towards monstrous figures. Let’s explore a few of these instances.
Since its creation by German Expressionist directors, the Dutch Angle has been used in film to induce disorientation and dizziness in the viewer (perhaps most famously in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari). The technique literally involves tilting the camera at an angle, and the slightly vertiginous sensation that results is perhaps what makes it so effective in creating the “physically felt agitation” that horror is meant to provoke. See the similarity of these screen captures from Avatar (ATLA, 2.10) and The Third Man—while the latter is not a horror film, in both these film scenes, the Dutch Angle is used to cause the audience a feeling of unease:
And a measure of unease is similarly the goal in several of the Dutch angles used in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night—
In the above Avatar scene, unlike in the scenes that we explored in the previous essay, Avatar encourages not empathy and identification with the monster, but a fear of it. And this fear of the Owl Spirit that the series seeks to provoke is doubled when we get this shot, just a few minutes later, of the owl turning its head all the way around—
Does this shot feel familiar? Look at this screen capture from The Exorcist, where Regan turns her head in a nearly identical manner—
The brilliance of the scene in Avatar is multilayered. It’s a well-known fact that owls are capable of turning their heads 180 degrees in real life—in fact it’s such common knowledge that normally people think nothing of it. But almost overnight and single-handedly, with one of its most famous scenes, The Exorcist turned head-turning into a scary image and one of the most iconic in all of horror. The reason for the scene’s effectiveness in provoking fear perhaps lies in Julia Kristeva’s characterization of the abject in “Approaching Abjection”: “the border has become an object” (Kristeva, 97). In the scene from The Exorcist, the border between the human and the animal is given a physical form—it’s turned into an object—when Regan does something only a non-human animal should be able to do.
Notice also how neatly this ties in with Jeffrey Cohen’s third monster thesis, that of category crisis: what makes Regan appear monstrous to the viewer is the way she appears to physicalize the border between categories that appear non-overlapping. And so, whether you’ve seen The Exorcist or not, this image of head-turning exists in film audiences’ collective subconscious as deeply unnerving. And because of that, in Avatar an owl—a creature which can naturally turn its head!—can come across as frightening when turning its head. The show is able to play on this image popularly associated with horror, and because of that popular association it can create a feeling of horror even when the subject recreating the image is not itself truly blurring any category distinctions (at least not in this action—on the other hand the Owl Spirit does speak, and so category crisis is certainly still taking place, likely furthering our feeling of abjection).
Let’s look at one more still image from this same sequence—
Notice how we only see the Owl Spirit from behind in this shot. Compare this to the introduction of Darth Vader in Star Wars—
In both scenes, a certain amount of fear of the monstrous figure is engendered by the fact of our not being able to see the figure’s face. It is, most basically, a fear of the unknown: the same fear that was at least partially responsible for cartographers labeling unexplored stretches of ocean with monsters, as Surekha Davis discusses in “Here Be Black Holes.” But, as Cohen discusses in his fifth thesis, “it is possible…medieval merchants intentionally disseminated maps depicting sea serpents…to establish monopolies” (Cohen, 46). That is, when Cohen says that the monster “polices the borders of the possible” (45), part of his meaning is that the figure of the monster is often used by those in power to maintain a strict definition of what is “normal” and acceptable. And the fear of breaking the rules, and thus incurring the monster’s wrath, informs both the scene from Avatar and the one from Star Wars; even without knowing the nature of either monstrous figure well by these point in the episode and in the film, respectively, the fact that they loom in the foreground of these shots and that their faces remain unseen lend them a monstrous authority—a fear of breaking with the figure which refuses to be fully seen and whose power is therefore impossible to gauge.
But there is a crucial difference in these scenes: in the one from Star Wars, Darth Vader is moving forward, while in the Avatar scene it is instead the scholar approaching the Owl Spirit, while the Owl Spirit remains firmly in place. And I would argue that stability in the Owl’s position in the frame creates an effect of strength and insurmountability that only enhances the sense of authority that we’ve been discussing; in other words, it takes the same basic setup as the Star Wars scene but accomplishes its goal of striking fear even more effectively, by making the monstrous figure stationary—a true physical embodiment of an uncrossable border.
Let’s move on from the Owl Spirit now and take a look at another great example of how Avatar uses filmic techniques to create a sense of fear of, and distance from, the monster. Take a look at this shot from Yojimbo—
And let’s compare it to this two-shot from ATLA (ATLA, 3.8)—
The Yojimbo scene depicts a band of villains, and the way they’re spread across the frame so as to occupy it completely lends them power. The shot embodies the monstrous potential of a large group; it calls to mind W. Scott Poole, who, in “Fascism and Horror,” spends some time summarizing the events of Fritz Lang’s M., and at one point states: “The criminal underworld joins the hunt for the murderer…[They] find it pleasing to imagine that they act according to their own code of thieves” (Poole, 160). In that statement we see the strange power of the monstrous to seem acceptable or even morally right when it is spread across a large group or system. There’s some of this too in Mark Fisher’s characterization of capitalism as “a system which is no longer governed by any transcendent Law…it dismantles all such codes, only to reinstall them on an ad-hoc basis” (emphasis mine) (Fisher, 6). But this feeling of communion within the rules of a group is subverted in the scene from Avatar.
In the Kurosawa film, all the people’s placement together in one frame is to be read as their being of one mind, a single villainous intent, while each individual’s closeness to the camera indicates hierarchy—we see the frame and instantly understand that the person in front is in charge. In the Avatar scene, all of this is upended. Hama, the old woman, is out in front, and indeed she intends to be a leader/teacher figure for Katara—but then Katara rejects Hama’s teachings and the thought of giving in to some monstrous potential within herself. In other words, she chooses to distance herself from the monstrous. Suddenly, the fact that Hama is way out in front of Katara becomes symbolic not of Hama’s leadership, but of the divide between these two characters, which is doubled down upon by the lateral distance that exists between the two characters as well. Unlike for any of the figures in the Yojimbo scene, there exists a real gap in the frame between these two. Our unease, our fear of Hama, is justified; the characters and the camera feel it too.
ii. …And How What We Fear Is Changing
We’ve seen now that Avatar has on more than occasion made effective use of cinematic language and techniques in order to make its audience fear certain monsters. But of course what a society fears changes over time, and the film techniques that best embody fear must necessarily change with them. Now we’ll explore how the imagery of Avatar reflects ideas of the monstrous that are arguably more contemporary than the examples previously discussed.
And we’ll start by looking at the old monster’s-tentacles-grabbing-you-by-the-leg trick. Here’s a scene from Legend of Korra (LoK, 2.12)—
Now compare those two shots to the following two from Lord of the Rings—
The shot composition, you’ll note, is very similar. Yet there’s a striking difference in the lighting and color schemes between the two scenes. In LoTR, part of the danger is that you can’t really see this tentacled monster attacking you; it’s obscured in shadow (again, think of the sea monsters that both Davis and Cohen discussed). In Korra, however, the colors are bright—they’re practically neon. I’d like to argue that this reflects a collective consciousness that’s moving away from the idea that the monsters are “hiding under your bed”—instead they’re out in the open, in the light, and that makes them scarier. Of course, this sort of argument can’t be made without more evidence. So here are some scenes from horror movies that all came out within the last six years, and which all use a brightly lit space and white walls to unnerving and horrific effect—
From The Voices:
From Velvet Buzzsaw:
From The Neon Demon:
Consider the film Get Out, where, at the end of the day, the true monster is the racism that’s out in the open—mostly in the form of numerous microaggressions—and yet which the perpetrators seem oblivious to. The horror isn’t that the monster can’t be seen—it’s that we choose, in our own willful ignorance, not to see it.
After all, look at how brightly visible these monsters are in LoK—
And look at how good we are at ignoring the monsters in life even still.
Amirpour, Ana Lily, director. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Kino Lorber, 2014.
Carroll, Noël. The Philosophy of Horror. Routledge, 1989.
Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses).” The Monster Theory Reader, edited by Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis; London, 2020, pp. 37–56.
Davis, Surekha. “Here Be Black Holes.” Aeon, 2020.
DiMartino, Michael Dante and Bryan Konietzko, creators. Avatar: The Last Airbender. Nickelodeon Animation Studio, 2005-2008.
DiMartino, Michael Dante and Bryan Konietzko, creators. The Legend of Korra. Nickelodeon Animation Studio, 2012-2014.
Fisher, Mark. “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? 0 Books, 2009, pp. 1-12.
Friedkin, William, director. The Exorcist. Warner Bros., 1973.
Gilroy, Dan, director. Velvet Buzzsaw. Netflix, 2019.
Jackson, Peter, director. The Lord of the Rings: the Fellowship of the Ring. New Line Cinema, 2001.
Kristeva. “Approaching Abjection.” The Monster Theory Reader, edited by Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis; London, 2020, pp. 95-107.
Kurosawa, Akira, director. Yojimbo. Toho, 1961.
Lucas, George, director. Star Wars. 20th Century Fox, 1977.
Poole. “Fascism and Horror.” Wasteland: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror, Counterpoint Press, 2018, pp. 157-204.
Reed, Carol, director. The Third Man. British Lion Film Corporation, 1949.
Refn, Nicolas, director. The Neon Demon. Amazon, 2016.
Satrape, Marjane, director. The Voices. Lionsgate Entertainment, 2014.