BLUE LIGHT OF THE SCREEN: NOTES ON HORROR
THE TV IS A STONE or it is overcome with movement. Slim volume of granite with a sheared-off, polished face. The TV, like a mirror, is a portal.
Most nights inside my house it is a lake of streaming images: a ghost wants to reclaim her feral children; a well-dressed, pale-skinned man will slowly drain a girl of all her blood. You will be sick and trembling again. A blue-lit box where phantom flowers bloom.
- In this world, which is our world
- enough sun must spiral out
- that lovely eyes can wade through
- blue night-woods
- The blue light is the night’s name
- is a filter on the day
- The first moon in the sky
- masked by the second moon
Television is a medium of ghosts. Its false liveness and simultaneity—the virtual reality that the watcher enters into—aligns TV with other modes of illusion: psychic vision, fantasy, hallucination, dream. To watch horror narratives on the screen is to enter the mind’s dark theatre. The experience of watching opens up a room for thinking about evil, violence, grief; psychological and physical pain; death and possible afterlives. To welcome ghosts instead of struggling to banish them. To raise the dead. To get to know each thing that merits fear.
Blue language of the dead
My favorite subgenre of horror is the ghost story. The horror of the ghost story is grief. The more I’ve watched, the more I’ve learned that these narratives begin with a character who loses something, and that loss, like a crack, lets in a world of danger. So many haunted house films revolve around a family in crisis: a child or spouse has died, divorce has taken place, some act of violence happened, or pure financial ruin has unmoored them. The family moves to its new home (which is always an old home—grand and strangely underpriced) out of desperation and in an attempt at a fresh start.
But there are no new beginnings in the ghost story—all ghosts are backwards-facing. Time cycles, returns. The temporalities of past (the ghost) and present (the family) are always thatched together. The ghost becomes a shimmering figure for this interruption: a disjunction of our sense of time that is horrific in itself.
The Shining (1980): A family heads to an isolated hotel for the winter where an evil and spiritual presence influences the father into violence, while his psychic son sees horrific forebodings from the past and of the future.
Insidious (2010): A family looks to prevent evil spirits from trapping their comatose child in a realm called the Further.
Since its inception, TV has been criticized and feared for its uncanny ability to suck in and trap viewers.
- electronic wasteland
- technicolor netherworld
Some claim the act of watching is a dangerous though passive vice. As if TV has the power to annihilate one’s sense of self, moral values, true desires, thoughts. The “overwhelming vividness” of TV—its techno-magical ability to conjure liveness and the feeling of existing in two places at the same time—has provoked extreme responses: mass devotion and strict censure. Perhaps because of this, St. Clare of Assisi (1194–1253) was retroactively named the Patron Saint of Television in 1958 by Pope Pius XII. During her lifetime, she experienced a televisual miracle: too ill to go to church, she watched an entire mass projected on the wall of her convent room. The picture was so clear that she could easily name the friars who performed the service.
St. Clare, my namesake. Patron saint I share with the TV.
- Not sure how I got here—both ends blank—
- house made from a woman’s hair
- The black-winged girl is cut off at the waist
- and she will die of fragmentation
- My favorite song: the love song
- My favorite pain: a kind of Here lies inscription
- A girl can lose her sight as the result of her
- identification with her father’s blindness
framed and silver portals
- diaries or swimming pools
During my childhood, my family lived in a big colonial house with black shutters and five acres of land. It was built around the turn of the last century, and though it was a lovely place, I remember feeling sure my room was haunted. I said I felt the spirit of my art teacher, who had died the day before, press down on me in bed as if to hug. I said I saw a door close by itself. I said that I heard noises from the crawl space in the attic. I said that I felt feelings that I couldn't place or name.
I remember this period only as a sequence of stories I told and not by the events themselves. I don’t think that I lied. I slept on the extra mattress in my younger brother’s room for years because I would not sleep alone.
The Haunting in Connecticut (2009): After a family is forced to relocate for their son’s health, they begin experiencing supernatural behavior in their new home and uncover a sinister history.
An instant of pain
Between the screen and my experience of watching exists a space where the horrors of the real world and the screen-world can merge. My capacity to feel fear in my life—to have the anxious turn of mind that finds threats everywhere: phantoms, curses, supernatural and earthly evils—is exactly what allows me to be terrified by horror on TV.
I think fear, like many feelings, dwells less in real objects and more inside a series of dark tunnels. Rivers underground. Thus horror’s paradoxical appeal to the anxious and the melancholic: the genre makes visible—through light, shadow, noise—our barely conscious (ghostlike) fears and traps them in the mansion of the screen.
- Scenes from horror films that don’t exist
- (from my notebooks: 2013–2015)
A family goes to a Fourth of July fireworks show at a local park and the fireworks are set off too close to the crowd. Everyone watching is covered in ash and sparks; some suffer small burns.
Walking through the woods, someone hears a cry that sounds like a woman’s. They follow it and find the sound is coming from a fox, hung on a tree to die. Two rotting holes where its eyes should be.
The film is about a popular TV soap opera where all the actors are really dead people (ghosts). No one who watches the show will ever know this and that is why it’s scary.
A young girl loses consciousness whenever she walks by a certain tree. It is a beautiful tree, planted to give a good look to the school. In one school year, three other children also become possessed.
The dog has a voice like an old woman’s.
A man is singing hymns loudly in a cafe—is he insane or very spiritual? He intersperses his singing with questions like “How old is this building?”
A woman who is afraid of people with red hair gives birth to ginger twins. At night, she rouses them from sleep so she can secretly dye their hair black. She’s obsessed with thinking she can see their red roots growing in. A recurring nightmare for her: a pack of red-haired children running in a field like tawny sheep.
A demon lures a woman by mimicking a baby’s cry. This is about the manipulation of female pity.
A gaunt horse stands on its hind legs and walks like a man. Maybe we call it “man-horse.” One night, a woman hears a knock at her front door and when she peers into the peephole, she sees the man-horse standing there, full height.
A character says, “If you like tragedy, you’ve come to the right place.”
There have been periods in my life when my interest in or ability to watch horror goes away entirely. When my cousin was killed suddenly and violently in an accident a few years ago, I didn’t want to look at any images of ghosts or the undead. A few months after her death, my grandfather also passed away, and my family returned to Buffalo to mourn. At the funeral home I was too scared and sad to stand close to his casket. From across the room I saw his body lie—all powdery and white—so clearly void of him.
The next time I watched a horror film, home safely in LA, I thought about how strange it was: a real dead body in a room with me and I could not go near it. So different from the scripture of dead bodies I had memorized from screens.
- World big as a linen closet
- blue night taller than the sky
- Ghost whose voice is everywhere in trees
- and sounds like copper, wire-cold
- Ghost whose crypt could not, in fact, contain her
- That we were born despite ourselves
- That words are only tokens for dead mouths
Night-sick, moon screen
Common sense advice: Don’t watch horror before bed or you’ll have trouble sleeping. You’ll have nightmares. You’ll let the horrors of the screen-world own the horrors of your mind. Night horses running through fluorescent screens—
I keep reading about how blue light from screens tricks our brains into staying awake. Something about halting the production of melatonin—that sleep-inducing “darkness hormone” I’ve taken as a pill each night since I was twelve.
There are an endless number of websites with how-to-cure-insomnia articles that instruct readers not to look at screens before bed. “Does blue light keep you up at night?” And if one does happen to fall asleep but wakes again, the insomniac should know to leave devices off. “Read a book instead.”
Pulse (2001): Two groups of people discover evidence that suggests spirits may be trying to invade the human world through the Internet.
The experience of insomnia is uncanny. People seem to turn off streetlights with their bodies. What you are estranged from is yourself: your wish to sleep, your undeniable physical need for rest. Yet some part of you (which part?) resists. What haunts is not the dead. You’re estranged from where you find yourself awake—there without wanting to be, as if on some terrible vacation. The sky is black (or bruised and brown with city light). No neighbors seem awake when you look out. So many hours until dawn and nothing good to do with them. When I close my eyes, it’s winter—snow comes down in small white teeth. To think that sleep rehearses us for dying.
- “The moonlight fiction disappeared”
- “Moonlight was an evasion” — Wallace Stevens
- Klonopin, Xanax, melatonin, empire of veils
- Moon held captive in the screen.
- Images that hover over bedsheets
- Black horses leaping from a cliff into the sea.
- Glassy eyes of haunted dolls that start to blink.
- Unholy rhythm of the rocking chair the ghost mother returns to.
- Black hair floating towards me from the portrait down the hall.
- Memento mori photograph: three dead bodies propped up like they’re a living family, open eyes
- painted over closed eyelids.
- The dead girl hiding in a camping tent inside the psychic’s house.
- The dead girl, vomit in her hair.
- The murdered wife emerging from the bath, her face half-rotten now.
- The way a body moves when it’s been broken by the stairs.
At the nursing home before he died, my grandfather mistook drifts of snow outside his window for lost children. “The orphans,” my mother says he called them.
Do you see them?
- It looks cold out there.
- Why doesn’t someone do something?
It’s sad. The ghosts are sad. The ghost story: a genre about sadness. Horror: a genre about pain and fear of pain. Like melodrama, horror is a realm of excess weeping. Pain becomes a landscape. Pain in absence of redemption. If Christ died on the cross without a resurrection. Image of those bloody prayer cards passed around at Sunday school.
The Sixth Sense (1999): A boy who communicates with spirits that don’t know they’re dead seeks the help of a disheartened child psychologist.
Is it Evil?
My mother likes to send me emails about why certain things are Evil. Many of these are simply links to articles on her favorite conspiracy blogs, which have lots of theories about the nature and dissemination of Evil in our world. One popular theory says that Evil is drawn to any “negativity”: negative thoughts, negative emotions, negative actions, negative media of any kind—even fictional negatives, like those of horror movies, heavy metal, violent video games.
These negatives are force fields. If you choose to watch a scary film, its energy will cloak you in dark, low vibrations that malevolent spirits can sense. Evil is drawn in like shadow-moth to shadow-flame. “Even a small leak in a boat can eventually sink it,” a former Satanist points out.
This belief fits perfectly with what I’ve learned from horror, where narratives are often cautionary tales: meddle in dark arts and you will put yourself into the mouth of danger.
My mom should feel relieved that I, too, am fascinated by a genre obsessed with demonic beings, salvific formulas, rituals of protection, and a complicated, purgatorial afterlife.
- Strangle her to cure her and lay her
- with her dresses like a doll upon the bed
- The ghost can never recognize her own face in the photograph
- Darkness under houses, under footsteps, over trees:
- the ghost sings that there is no god at night
- Drowned church steeples, villages, one city
- always burning—
- We know she is a ghost because our hands go through
Horror ad taglines
“There are some frequencies we were never meant to find.”
“Imagine your worst fear a reality.”
“We tell ourselves there’s nothing to fear. But sometimes we’re wrong.”
“Not every gift is a blessing.”
“If you survive this night . . . nothing will scare you again.”
“Sooner or later they will find you.”
“It’s not the house that’s haunted”
“Some things cannot be explained.”
“Before you die, you see:”
“They won’t stay dead.”
Sooner or later they will find you
Grief becomes a threat to oneself and one’s family. Sadness like a dagger or a portal or a fog. The sadness of the character is doubled by the sadness of the spirits. Exchange or overlap of affect: a sadness not my own becomes my own. Once, we buried what we lost, but it came running from the yard—a spirit is a mood without a body.
From Within (2008): A small Maryland town is gripped by a curse which causes residents to take their own lives, one after another.
- Milk under her breath, the ghost girl combs
- her long, transparent hair
- Many dreams of rain, flood, and bathing
- recall the dead girl washing a small path
Long walks lead us always to the same place
Horror is said to be a self-cannibalizing genre, meaning that it eats its own tropes, narratives, and characters in order to repeat them. This happens both in horror’s obsession with sequels (the horror film’s inability to die) and in new productions, built out of the bodies of dead media.
Through cliffhangers and false endings, the final scenes of horror films suggest their hoped-for progeny. Sometimes these sequels never come—are never asked for by the dollars of the audience. Sometimes they come, but only when our backs are turned. In fact, if a horror sequel claims to be the “last” entry in its line then this is usually an omen that at least one more film will follow. Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984)—the fourth sequel in the Friday the 13th franchise—was not a “final” chapter at all. A year later, Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (1985) was released, followed by seven more films.
Perhaps more than any other genre, horror demonstrates the pleasure of repetition. A ghost always begins by coming back against the calendar. Horror’s conventions are so ingrained that these films can speak in sketches—a narrative shorthand—where characters are types with familiar patterns of motivation, backstory, and behavior. This has been a major reason people criticize the genre, but I find the predictability of horror comforting. Each night at 3 a.m., I hear her weep outside my door. At home in the returning of a trope.
Horror fans are often asked to explain why to people who don’t like or understand the genre—to offer an apologia. There are many reasons, many theories—as specific and as varied as the horror subgenres that viewers pledge allegiance to: the pleasure of a thrill, the appeal of what’s taboo, personal or cultural catharsis, the comic, camp, absurd. But I’ve always felt haunted. There is something about watching ghosts on screens that satisfies this personal unprovable. Human as a haunted house, body with a tomb inside. A wooden box where locks of hair sing secret hymns.
- In overhanging branches, two fists float—
- having detached themselves from broken bodies, flown
- The destiny of some hands is to haunt
- The destiny of some is to be haunted
Memory is a medium of images
Sometime between childhood and adulthood, I begin to suffer in my own mind. Black moods, dreams of dying, images of viscera and maggots when I close my eyes. The sense of dwelling in a space that is infinitely dark and hollow—almost (but never really, thank god) bottomless. Sometimes I leave my body—float above myself in ceiling fans or trees—and need the quiet arms of friends to hold me until I come back down. It is a kind of heartsickness or soul-sicknesss. Deliver us from evil. A mourning for some critical, unthinkable lost part.
In the opening pages of Black Sun, Julia Kristeva writes: “I am trying to address an abyss of sorrow, a noncommunicable grief that at times, and often on a long-term basis, lays claims upon us to the extent of having us lose all interest in words, actions, and even life itself.” Or perhaps the poet Laura Riding: “Appearances do not deceive if there are enough of them.”
On TV, there is a sadness that will tear the roofs off houses. We’re characters trapped in a room that’s trapped in a bad rain.
CLAIRE CRONIN is a poet, songwriter, and doctoral student in Athens, GA. She is the author of the chapbook Therese. Some of her work can be found in Sixth Finch, Vinyl Poetry, Prelude, BOAAT, Yalobusha Review, Cloud Rodeo, Interrupture, and The Volta.