The effect of Hollywood’s tall tales on the perception of the paranormal
I am officially a hypocrite, as although I chastise Hollywood and popular culture for its portrayal of the paranormal and the unexplained, I have to admit I am also part of the problem of which I complain.
I had my first encounter with the paranormal as a child on the farm where I grew up. At the time I had been frightened by the experience and would later learn from cinema I was right to be so. For movies showed me how these things start small, a faint knocking sound on a wall, whispers in the dark and then, before you know it, you are being dragged from your bed to goodness knows where, through a wardrobe! In fact, so profound was the effect of these portrayals that for a number of years I actively turned my back on all things paranormal, too fearful of what I may stir up should I dare to acknowledge their existence.
But there did eventually come a point where rather than being afraid of the paranormal I became annoyed of how it was portrayed in films. The first example of which was The Sixth Sense, and not just because I am probably the only person on this planet that didn’t see the twist coming, but because every apparition displayed gruesome evidence of how they died. Whilst I am no expert, and my sightings of such things may not be numerous, I cannot honestly imagine that such sights are as common or as grisly as the movie would have you believe.
That being said, I rather enjoy indulging in a good horror movie and, despite my initial reservations, I think The Sixth Sense is actually a very good film. I even enjoyed the beginning of Paranormal Activity, most notably where the female lead stands eerily for hours on end at her husband’s bedside. But unfortunately, as the way so many of these films go, it too ends up descending into fantastical chaos, with Ouija boards spontaneously combusting and the ever prevalent ‘dragged out of bed by one’s feet’ scene.
But does any of this really matter and does it cause any harm if the paranormal is represented realistically or not? It’s just a movie, after all?
In most cases the aim of a film is entertainment, but they can and do have the power to influence people’s behaviour and understanding of the world. No doubt it will be argued till the end of time as to whether violence in films causes violence in real life but there are also things such as people’s perception of phenomena which can be influenced in a much more subtle way by what is depicted on screen. Just look at the effect Jaws had on the reputation of sharks. Shark attacks are incredibly rare and it is said you are more likely to die from falling out of bed than by being attacked by one. But despite the reality, the movie conjured up enough fear that it resulted in a large culling of sharks in the years subsequent to the film’s release.
This led me to wonder, are these movies creating the fear or are they just tapping into and exploiting those we already have?
When the Exorcist was released in 1973, it broke box office records with people queuing for hours on end, in all weathers, just to purchase a ticket. A documentary was made at the time recording audiences reactions to the film. Much of it was shot in the cinema’s lobby and, throughout the film’s showing, the ashen faces of those who could not handle it began to emerge. Some shook as they recalled what they had witnessed as others fainted. There were even reports of people throwing up in the auditorium. But why did some people’s reactions go beyond the visceral and into the physical?
At one point in the documentary, the narrator notes that most susceptible to being profoundly upset by the movie were those already believing in the devil, and especially those of Roman Catholic faith. Quite honestly the film alone is enough to scare some people, but a preconception or belief of what it portrays undoubtedly raises that fear to another level.
I myself had and still have a very negative reaction to The Exorcist, albeit not as extreme as those featured in the documentary. This, however, is not because of any religious beliefs or notions, but due to my father’s vivid recollection of his own reaction to seeing the film for the first time. To this day, my Father cannot even see a picture of the actress, Linda Blair, without the hair on his arms standing on end. This, combined with being petrified after watching the infamous interview with Janet Hodgson (of the Enfield Poltergeist fame) as a kid meant I was already predisposed to find the Exorcist absolutely terrifying. For me, at least, those fears were already in me, The Exorcist just brought them to life.
But do we really want films and books to present phenomena in a more realistic way? I am not sure we do. Whilst a movie about a house where things only go bump in the night once in a blue moon might be more of an accurate portrayal of real-life hauntings, would it really entertain us in the same way as the more outlandish tales do? After all, isn’t the whole point of stories to escape from reality?
As I said at the beginning, I am a hypocrite for I am a writer of such fantastical stories which explore and capitalize on the paranormal. But I hasten to add that I do not do so without a great deal of thought and consideration. In fact, there have been many occasions where I have reflected on and questioned why I write what I do. And over time I have come to the realisation that, more often than not, it is a manifestation of my own fears and inner demons that I am portraying in my work rather than the reality of supernatural phenomena.
But is the way the paranormal is portrayed in movies and culture actually harmful to people’s perceptions of it? I would have to argue yes and no.
Yes, it can exacerbate existing fears and misconceptions of the paranormal, but on the other hand it can also get people to think more openly about the world around them, even sparking an interest and curiosity to explore the subject further. Plus, there will always be those of us who simply love a good scare!
So, pick up the popcorn and relax with a scary movie safe in the knowledge that it’s unlikely you will be dragged into another dimension through your wardrobe tonight, because nothing like that happens in real life…. right?
Jedburgh Castle Jail, Male Block upper floor study31st October 2021/
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