This month, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit came to theatres across the nation. This film has been receiving oddly mixed reviews, with some reviewers claiming it was an enjoyably odd mix of horror and comedy, and others saying that it was just an attempt at horror that is so bad it’s laughable. In this film, two young children go and see their grandparents who they hadn’t seen in years and they film a documentary about their visit. What they find is that their grandparents appear to be psychotic maniacs who are attempting to murder them by having furniture “accidentally” fall on them, cooking them in an oven, and even just physically assaulting them. This movie has all the elements of a classic horror movie: jump scares, suspense, the found hand-recorded footage trope and even two creepy old murderers. So why do audiences end up laughing hysterically at screenings of this supposedly “scary movie?” Let us unmask the world of horror movies and see why some of them seem to terrify us while others just make us laugh.
For some of these old tropes, it’s pretty easy to figure out why we get scared so easily. The jump scare for example is simple. It takes advantage of our mind’s sense of expectation. When a character in a movie starts talking, we expect them to finish their though. So, when the thought is interrupted by a monster eating that character’s head straight off. It obliterates what we expected to happen and makes our brains go crazy as they try to figure out why things aren’t going the way we expected them to. The Shining famously uses this technique by introducing the creepy Grady twins and then immediately cutting a still image of their bloody corpses in a hallway. The jump scare is no different than a friend who pops out of a bush and screams “boo” at you. It takes advantage of the fact that your mind isn’t quick enough to process everything that’s happening in such a brief time.
Slightly more complicated than the jump scare is the creation of suspense. This is an essential tool for any horror film maker who wants to resort to something with more buildup than a simple jump scare. The 2012 movie Sinister has become very famous for its use of suspense to send fear to viewers. The movie revolves around a family moving from house to house because in each house the father, a struggling author, finds that the house is haunted and that if he stays the entire family will be murdered. Viewers spend the entire movie following the father on his journey to escape Bughuul, the deity who is attempting to kill him. The suspense comes from the fact that viewers only know as much as the father, and have no idea what form his murderer will take. This type of suspense correlates with fear because we know there is danger, but we don’t know when or how it will arise, and we feel helpless as we watch the danger finally come and destroy the protagonist.
Another newer trope in horror movies is “found footage.” This trope, popularized by the Blair Witch Project basically just means that the film was recorded by hand on a regular video camera, and that viewers are basically watching a home video gone wrong. This is used to try and make the audience feel that what they are watching is reality, causing them to be scared that the horror they are about to watch is real and could happen to them.
So then if The Visit utilizes all these classic tools of horror, why is this movie being considered a comedic horror? It may be because people are just having a tough time being scared of two elderly grandparents. Perhaps the concept itself is just too ridiculous for anyone to actually take seriously and be scared of. Whatever the reason for audiences laughing at this film, M. Night Shyamalan has at the very least created an entertaining and interesting film that may just become a cult classic if it continues to make enough people laugh.