When people think about the horror genre, they usually associate it with words like ‘dark,’ ‘scary,’ ‘violent,’ or ‘gory.’ Oftentimes, they expect a film that will terrify, either through shock, disgust, or dread. However, despite having distressful elements that would normally repel a viewer, the horror genre still manages to attract audiences and offer some sort of pleasure for them in their viewing experiences. (Carroll, 1990)
The Innkeepers (2011), directed by Ti West, is not a typical horror movie. Its tone is lighter than most – it is even funny at some parts – and its pace is slow. There are some who might consider it more of a comedy, or at least call it light horror, because the story itself was not that scary. The series of events that happened in the film were predictable, almost like a ghost story one would tell a friend for entertainment – and that is really what it was, a typical ghost story – however, what I personally found interesting was its defamiliarization of the horror genre. The Innkeepers presented a familiar ghost story, one with relatable characters and situations as well as predictable events, through an unfamiliar manner of unveiling of the narrative as compared to other horror movies. It was in its defamiliarization that I realized through experience an explanation as to why audiences enjoy horror films.
As I watched the film, I constantly found myself in the state of anticipation. Perhaps it was because I was primed in the beginning with Luke’s jump scare prank video to watch until something happened, or the fact that some parts were starting to bore me, but I found myself wondering during different parts of the film about when the story was going to turn scary. I would ask, “When will things get weird?” in my head, because of how the film dropped hints or revealed certain information to the audience, implying that maybe these things would be used to scare them later on. The story of Madeline O’Malley, the recordings that Luke and Claire were collecting, and the suspenseful music that accompanied some scenes teased the audience, making them wonder if something supernatural was finally going to happen. When the film reveals a totally normal cause for the suspense, or adds something comedic that shifts attention away from something that could possibly lead to a scary plot point (like Claire following some sounds she heard only to find Luke behind her), the audience cannot help but feel disappointed or frustrated, because they felt like they were getting close to the revelation of a Monster (in this case, the ghost of Madeline O’Malley). When let down this way for most of the film, audiences grumble about how boring the film may be. It is in the latter portion of the film when the supernatural is revealed that audiences seemed to have more positive reactions. Strangely, it is when the repulsive is shown that audiences like me felt the greatest satisfaction while watching the film.
This just goes to show that a reason why people seek out the horror genre is because of fascination – that the narrative structure of disclosure appeals to people’s natural curiosity. This was why audiences may have felt some frustration over the delays in revealing the existence of the ghost. Like Luke, the viewers doubt the existence of the ghost, but at the same time, they are curious about it like Claire. There is always a push-and-pull dynamic going on with the film and the engaged viewer – always a question of whether or not Madeline O’Malley’s ghost exists for real or not. As the film progresses, the audience is engaged in the processes of “disclosure, discovery, proof, explanation, hypothesis, and confirmation.” (Carroll, 1990) They follow Claire and they want to go through all these processes, because they reveal something that is unknown to them.
When it comes to ghosts in horror films, they become so fascinating to viewers because they are unknowable. They are impossible beings. What this means is that they are outside the bounds of our conceptual schema, possibly because some part of them is disturbing, distressful, or repulsive that they do not naturally come to mind. (Carroll, 1990) That, which disgusts us, also piques our curiosity. Therefore, any plot involving the possible existence of these impossible beings, as seen in horror films, is a plot audiences want to sit through to satisfy their curiosity, especially if they recognize the processes of unveiling happening before their eyes. If, during the revelation, audiences experience some kind of discomfort, it becomes a price they are willing to pay because the pleasure of knowing that the Monster exists outweighs the repulsiveness of it. In the film, when the piano keys played by themselves, I found myself strangely satisfied because I was waiting for more signs of Madeline O’Malley’s existence. Later on in the film, the old man was somebody that seemed creepy, his suicide was gory, and him chasing Claire may have looked a little silly, but I found myself cheering the ghost on, not because I did not like Claire as a character, but because I was banking on events getting weirder and weirder in the last few sequences. Madeline O’Malley’s physical appearance is considered repulsive, yet I found pleasure in finally seeing her in the film since the confirmation of her existence was pretty much what audiences were waiting for throughout the majority of the movie. The Innkeepers may not have been my favorite horror film, but I appreciate the way it was both familiar and unfamiliar to me, ultimately revealing a new perspective in my understanding of the horror genre.
The famous adage says that curiosity killed the cat. Indeed, Claire’s curiosity did bring her to her unfortunate ending. Thankfully though, with horror fans, curiosity will not kill them – it will only bring them some degree of discomfort, but the pleasure derived from the viewing experience is more than enough for them to withstand that.
Noël Carroll, ‘Why Horror?’, from The Philosophy of Horror Or Paradoxes of the Heart (New York, Routledge Inc., 1990), pp. 158–95. Reproduced by permission of Taylor & Francis Ltd/Routledge, Inc., http://www.routledge-ny.com.