ByTom Cox, writer at Creators.co
Staff writer for Moviepilot. Tweet me @thomascox500
Tom Cox

On screen the door inches open to reveal the pitch corridor beyond. You catch your breath, heart thumping, and peep through clammy fingers. The shot lingers over the darkness. Invisible footsteps scuffle. You can't breathe. The blackness pulsates with the trembling weight of what could be.

This kind of sustained fear is reliant on the audience's lack of knowledge about something unknown. Use of the unseen runs through all movies with any kind of thrill factor. Take 10 Cloverfield Lane for example. Though it offers an original plot, it also follows a well-worn track in its evocation of an invisible threat. The strength of the movie lies in taking advantage of how viewers have an instinctive belief that what we don't know can hurt us.

10 Cloverfield Lane sees three people forced to seek refuge from an unknown attack in an underground bunker. For the majority of the movie, released on March 11, our knowledge and fear of this faceless threat is based only on signs of unclear origin — a woman with a skin infection; a character's descriptions; scratches on a window. Even the marketing campaign was uniquely vague.

Both 10 Cloverfield Lane and its predecessor rely on probing our inbuilt fear of the unknown. So without wanting to sound trite, less is more. The taut energy of the 2008 predecessor Cloverfield is rooted in it being filmed in the style of found footage with a hand-held camera. Though we are afforded glimpses of the Godzilla-like beast tearing up New York, the camera does not confront it full-on until the final scene.

"10 Cloverfield Lane"|Source: Paramount
"10 Cloverfield Lane"|Source: Paramount

These shreds of monster act as teasers. The audience constructs a patchwork image of the monster in their mind's eye. This makes a far more terrifying apparition than a glittering 3-D colossus — like the magnificent but totally unscary Indominus rex of Jurassic World.

With the Cloverfield franchise we are transfixed by the conflicting sensations of fear and curiosity. The latter stems from a desire to confront our fears — instinctively we feel, like Beth in Cloverfield and Michelle in 10 Cloverfield Lane — that if we can see the monster we might understand it more and so protect ourselves better, even as viewers.

Shadow approaches in "A Nightmare On Elm Street."
Shadow approaches in "A Nightmare On Elm Street."

The suggestion of a creature is more effective at making your eyes widen and face blanch than the appearance of a blubbering puppet. Hence the title of the 2002 thriller with Mel Gibson: Signs. For the majority of really scary movies, the face of the demon is formed through marks rather than matter, implied rather than shown.

These marks range from nail scratches dragged down a wall (Jeepers Creepers) to shadows (A Nightmare On Elm Street) to crop circles (Signs). Being an incomplete representation of the perpetrator amplifies what the beast in our minds might be. Our natural fear of the unknown colors the darkness with a shapeless anxiety.

Ron's boggart in "The Prisoner of Azkaban."
Ron's boggart in "The Prisoner of Azkaban."

We fill in the blank space with what is most terrifying to us as individuals. Whatever is naturally frightening to us is conjured up to fill the void left by filmmakers, like a boggart in Harry Potter. Some movies prove this rule by ruining themselves by showing the monster — as in Robot Monster, Mansquito and The Gingerdead Man. The titles say it all, really.

Examples of monsters who fell short include: Night Of The Demon, The Happening and It Came From Outer Space. This is not to claim there are no movies where watching the monster is as terrifying, if not more so, than the build-up — as with The Ring. But these also lean for the majority of the plot on the certainty that the viewer does not know what is going to lurch out of the television.

I've seen scarier potatoes: "Night Of The Demon."
I've seen scarier potatoes: "Night Of The Demon."

The fear of the unknown may be traced to our awareness for the shadowy depths in ourselves, what Freud introduced as the unconscious. The unconscious is the idea that there is something active within our minds influencing every thought and action. It is under the radar of consciousness, invisible. Humans believe we are masters of our ships, in complete control, while in fact body and soul is at the mercy of the elements of the ocean that is the unconscious.

Fear in movies is provoked by an evocation of this unknown. It explores ideas that exist in every human through what Carl Jung called the "shadow self." This is the part of our psyche we repress and is the direct opposite of the face with which we smile at the world. If someone is a loving mother, their shadow self might be a violent rapist. She would never indulge this dark side by even raising a hand to her child, but the capability remains in the mind. Horror taps into this to create great cinema by not telling you what there is to fear. Viewers envision their worst fears, their shadow selves, as the monster.

There but not there: "Jaws."
There but not there: "Jaws."

Because you don't know what the innocuous threat is — the "jaws" in Jaws and the "alien" in Alien — your mind paints a more graphic image onto the unknown, dredged from the depths of your unconscious, than anything a screen could throw up. The best example of this is in scary movie trailers. It doesn't matter that the censors won't allow gore or monsters on screen. A well-produced horror trailer (like those below) has enough signs of SOMETHING BAD to gouge your heart with a nightmare knife.

Here's how five classic movies riffed off of your fear of the unknown:

5. 'The Blair Witch Project'

The Blair Witch Project used the power of found-footage style — as Cloverfield did — to completely avoid confronting the terror. A group making a documentary about a witch story get lost in the woods during their project. The audience craves to see the cause of escalating trauma. We assume this is the witch, described only as "an old woman whose feet never touched the ground,” but the only witch we receive is what could be inferred from crackling sounds, slime and a rattling tent. The movie ends with a girl being struck hard by something unseen before dropping the camera. It goes black.

4. 'Paranormal Activity'

The 2007 independent movie Paranormal Activity also used found footage. The filming supposedly comes from a couple who decide to record the supernatural occurrences blighting their house. The thing's presence is only revealed through activity — footsteps, moving things, ruffling sheets. Oren Peli's low-fi production proved once again that you don't need expensive CGI for a good horror: It cost only $15,000 to produce.

3. 'The Amityville Horror'

Again, in The Amityville Horror (1979) no beast materializes. The strength of the movie comes from making familiar the surroundings of the home become the monster. The most entire creature we glimpse is a pair of red eyes gleaming outside a window. The rest is haunting action — car brakes failing, steering malfunctioning, a window thudding down on a hand, a torrent of flies. Viewers dig into their unconscious to supply the terror.

2. 'Signs'

Although the attacking alien does appear in the final scene, it is absent for the vast majority of the movie. Instead, a network of clues and events fuel our fear — crop circles across the globe, strange lights appearing in the night, dogs losing their marbles, and a single green leg. When an alien does finally appear — a slow man-sized thing allergic to water — it's difficult not to giggle.

1. 'Jaws'

The movie that spawned a generation of shark films, Jaws is beautiful for its general lack of a shark. Until the final scene. For the bulk of the movie we are teased with death, boat pulling, limbs and a shark tooth. Shots of open water galvanized with the awesome soundtrack make your heart pump more than a real shark ever could. Excessive CGI monsters ruined the sequels. Jaws 4 anyone?

Can you name movies with an unknown monster?

Sources: The Guardian, Brogano Callaghan

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