Ok, everyone, listen up. It’s time to start thinking critically about what your horror films are doing for you. Halloween is over and done with, so the rampant consumption of sub-par horror is no longer acceptable. We, as a culture, are settling for the most mundane and unimaginative scare tactics that directors and screenwriters can brew up, namely what I will refer to as “the non-diegetic jump scare.”
Let’s fill you in on a little terminology before we delve into our discussion of the increasing laziness in the horror movie world. When we refer to something as “non-diegetic,” it means that something exists outside of the universe of the film plot and is made evident only to the audience. In other words, the characters of the movie neither see nor hear the non-diegetic element. An example of a non-diegetic film element is the soundtrack, usually perceived only by the audience.
All that’s meant by the phrase “jump scare” is the plot device in movies within horror, thriller and suspense genres that literally causes audience members to jump or startle due to some unexpected action onscreen.
So now we can talk knowledgeably about the greatest scourge in today’s horror films, something that is magnificently unforgiveable, manipulative and largely pointless – the “non-diegetic jump scare.”
We’ve all seen it. A character is wandering around the screen, doing whatever they do, and suddenly the movie’s ghoul appears somewhere in the screen margins, unbeknownst to the onscreen character. This development startles the audience, but then serves no further purpose to the plot development.
Further, this plot device usually doesn’t even help to develop suspense, because by the time the filmmakers are resorting to this cheap tactic, the audience is very aware of the presence of the monster.
Therefore, the “non-diegetic jump scare” serves no purpose other than to acknowledge and titillate an uncritical and passive audience into believing that the suspense and plot is somehow furthered by the continued appearance of the monster exclusively to the viewer, but rarely to the horror and disgust of the diegetic characters.
As with everything, examples make the understanding of new ideas much easier to swallow. The most glaring example that comes to mind is Guillermo del Toro’s “Mama.” Watching this movie, the ghost-mama appears several times in dark closets, around corners, etc. only to the benefit of the audience’s superficial satisfaction with the horror movie that they (better) have paid to watch. As a ghoul that has the option of invisibility, del Toro’s ghost has no motive to reveal itself if it is not going to be seen by the characters. Therefore, the appearances of the monster in these circumstances only serve as a nod toward the audience instead of furthering the plot or engaging with the actual characters in the plot. It’s a cheap ploy that attempts to fool audience members into thinking there is some sort of real horror or danger happening, when really it only reveals the lazy and uncreative half-efforts of the filmmakers.
Are horror directors just trying to be artistic, breaking the fourth wall of the silver screen? All signs point to the contrary, as the purpose of most narrative films, especially horror, is the keep the audience engaged and enthralled with the plot, not shake them out of the illusion by acknowledging their presence.
These appearances do not reveal any danger to the characters in the film, nor do they move the plot along in any important way. They seem only to be an assumption of the viewer’s low attention-span, therefore constantly begging for the audience’s visceral reaction to danger that isn’t actually there.
To rephrase, “If a monster appears out of eyesight, does it MATTER?” No. It doesn’t.
This is not to say that all jump scares are bad. To show and ultimately break the tension of a scene in which diegetic characters are actively engaged in the screen action is artistic, skillful and frankly terrifying when executed correctly.
Just think of that horrifically tense scene in Ridley Scott’s “Alien” when the crew of the Nostromo are closing in on the location of the homicidal xenomorph, relying only the blinking sensor of their motion detector. As they close in on a closed locker door, the suspense builds to a terrifying jump scare as the locker door bursts open to reveal what’s inside.
Or, if you’re craving a more contemporary example, what about the jump scares in “It Follows?” Every single scare serves the plot, and although they do effectively terrify moviegoers, these jump scares never pander. The audience is scared when the characters are scared. The audience is tense when the characters are tense. For the audience to be tense when there is no cause for immediate tension within the plot is absurd.
Overall, the use of “non-diegetic jump scares” proliferates only because we, the audience, allow it to. Without our passive acceptance of this cheap and unimaginative tactic, the practice would fizzle out and be relegated to the purgatory of novice horror directors still wet behind the ears. Be critical and stop settling. We deserve to be horrified, not cheaply pacified.
“Hit me again.”
Amy, played by Jamie Ascher, a snarky swimmer with a secret passion for writing, addresses Ester, played by Drew Mancini, a shy high school senior striving for perfection in the pool. The two stand in the intimate space in front of two benches next to a single row of blue lockers. Ester hits Amy in the stomach. As the exchange between the two students continues, with a little bit of inference from Amy’s constant touching of her stomach and odd requests for Ester such as “Sit on me,” it quickly becomes apparent that the reasoning for the punches is that Amy is pregnant. Carrying out the pregnancy to term never presents itself as an option for Amy; her mind is made up from day one, and there is simply no other option for her or her future at this point but abortion. Throughout the course of the play, “Dry Land”, Amy, with the help of her sidekick, Ester, and through a couple of D.I.Y. abortion methods, hopes to reclaim her future.
However, “Dry Land”, is not an abortion play; in fact, the characters never use the word “abortion.” The Thalian Blackfriars, a student run theater organization, goal was for “Dry Land” to be a play about friendship. “The first thing my director, Geoffrey Douglas, said for our first rehearsal was that I don’t want this to be an abortion play,” Jamie Ascher who portrays Amy and who is a third-year Communications Studies major from Roswell commented. “Yes, it’s a play that involves it, but he wanted to really instill in us that the play was about friendship. It shows how two girls went from being strangers, one of them kind of using the other to help her get rid of this problem, to Amy actually being heartbroken over the fact that Ester has to leave for college.” Friendship is a complicated entity that causes Amy and Ester constant struggle, for as their friendship develops, more issues begin to arise.
As the play progresses, you learn more about the lives of Amy and Ester like you would if you had befriended them off the street. They’re getting to know one another for the first time during the course of Amy’s unwanted pregnancy. The dialogue between the characters is honest and inquisitive, a tone that comes with being in high school and getting to know someone for the first time. They talk of their futures, Ester’s involving swimming for a college and Amy’s involving fancy cheese and books, which signifies a better life for her outside of being a mom and a small town.
The more time the two spend together, the more they begin to open up and rely on one another. The walls that each of them hide behind start to come down little by little. Ester tells Amy of her suicide attempt at one point–– a detail that is not delved into as much as I had wanted. As a matter of fact, “Dry Land,” does not touch on Ester’s issues as much as Amy’s, which is my one complaint about the show. I wish I had gotten to know whom Ester was a little more outside of what we’re told. Ester remains as sort of a mystery, but Amy shows a little of her vulnerability when she shares her dreams of becoming of writer, which is a detail no one knows about Amy.
As easily as the walls can come down, they can go right back up. “Amy bullies Ester after she reveals to Reba[, played by Hannah Martin,] that Amy likes to write,” Jamie Ascher commented: “She betrayed Amy’s trust and it shows that just because you have an emerging friendship with someone that there are still these walls that we don’t necessarily break down until there’s been enough bonding.” The back and forth conflict between Amy and Ester keeps the new and vulnerable feeling of the relationship. If the two had just came out and shared everything about themselves, then the relationship would not feel real because people do not just open right up on a first encounter.
When the play comes to a close the air is heavy. Abortion is not a topic people are normally confronted with on a daily basis, and now they’ve been placed in front of a stage that is doing just that. The play really makes you question how you see the world, because no matter what, life goes on. For Amy and for Ester, life goes on. Amy has to put this traumatic experience behind her. She has to go right back to focusing on school, extracurricular activities and everything else teenagers worry about. She has no time to recover, which reflects the fast pace of the real world. Life doesn’t stop moving.
“Dry Land” is beautifully crafted. “I didn’t know from reading the script the first time that it could be that great,” Jamie Ascher remarked. “The first time I read the script I was like what did I just get myself into, but it was so much more heartfelt and touching than I originally thought. I originally hated Amy. She was so rude, but you gotta dig under that. She’s got stuff going on.” The Thalian Blackfriars create an intense and powerful connection with the characters through the intimate size of the stage in the five-row Cellar Theater; I felt like I was in the locker room with Amy and Ester, like I was a part of their story to the point where I cannot help but hope that Amy and Ester remain friends. I hope they stay in contact and find the lives that they deserve because at the end of the day these characters are all of us.
We all go through struggles and hard times; we’ve all been through high school and the fear of being whom we truly are so I hope, maybe more for myself than anything, that these characters found better lives.