The horror genre has been an integral part of fiction cinema for decades. When moviegoers want a good scare, they head over to the multiplex to catch the latest big-budget studio horror film. And it’s safe to say that these popular horror films are always created from scratch as pure fiction. Even ones that claim to be “based on a true story” have to be heavily dramatized in order to create sequences of heightened suspense and shock value. The narrative side of the feature film industry has a solid grip on creating compelling horror and thriller films, but when it comes to documentary – of capturing real horror in the real world – can these kinds of films also bring out the same feelings of fright in us?
Oftentimes, fictional horror films even resort to the handheld documentary (or mockumentary) style of filmmaking to convey a sense of authenticity. Films such as [REC], The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, and countess others have relied on this spontaneous-looking documentary aesthetic in order to convey a feeling of realism as horrific events are inflicted upon its fictional characters. The question is, are genuine documentary films capable of capturing the same kinds of horror and thrills that are artificially constructed in fiction films?
There have certainly been multiple attempts over the past decades by a myriad of documentary filmmakers to make compelling features about horrific events that have occurred throughout history. Films such as My Amityville Horror and A Haunting in Connecticut use expert testimonies and first-hand accounts to provide an alternative context and viewpoint to classic horror tales. There have also been films that examine the theories and intentions behind fictional horror stories. The recent doc Room 237 searches for the true meanings behind Stanley Kubrick’s infamous horror film The Shining by highlighting multiple theories, including references to the staging of the moon landing and World War II. However, all of these films are different from the structure of fiction films in the respect that they attempt to reconstruct a horrific event. They are not themselves first-hand accounts of the event, and thus, do not capture the original incident on screen. Fiction films have the upper hand in this respect, as they have the ability to stage these events and have them unfold as if they were happening at that very moment.
Despite this apparent failure of documentary films in capturing the genuine appearance of ghosts and ghouls on screen, it succeeds where most fiction films fall short: being able to capture the horror within mankind itself. While there appears to be no true empirical evidence to suggest that evil ghosts or spirits haunt the Earth and cause mayhem in some poor people’s lives, there is unfortunately plenty of horror within people themselves.
Documentaries such as Capturing the Friedmans focus on the mental illnesses that cause people to perform horrific acts of their own. Many of the subjects in these documentaries claim that evil spirits compel them to commit these heinous acts, but as a result, these works are able to explore the depths of the human condition, as well as the psychology behind these rare individuals whose stories are often both chilling and wildly compelling. As a result, they create a fascinating connection between the exploration of the unknown and the dark side of the real world.
My new documentary 30 Ghosts is similar in this respect, as it begins as a search for existence of the paranormal, but then evolves to become a case study of uncovering the ghosts in one woman’s closet. 30 Ghosts chronicles Kim Hadfield, an eccentric horse boarder by day, and paranormal investigator by night, as she risks her finances and her family’s well-being to prove that spirits exist. But perhaps that’s what good horror documentaries do, after all. They highlight a seemingly spooky story on the surface, but uncover something far more frightening inside their subjects. I didn’t set out to do that with 30 Ghosts, but there was certainly an unseen force guiding the story and camera along.
30 Ghosts premieres in Toronto on October 27th at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema. Like us at facebook.com/30GhostsMovie and follow us on Twitter @30GhostsMovie. Distributed by IndieCan Entertainment.