The supernatural on screen..

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been an aficionado of the spooky and supernatural in literature and film. Note, not horror exactly, or not as it’s been interpreted in modern times, with altogether too much grue and gore, but the kind of spooky that evokes the strangeness of the world’s mysteries. The kind that combines terror and beauty; that knows there is great piteousness as well as great fear in the kind of supernatural talent that might allow a person to see the unseen and to manipulate, however unconsciously, forces which they don’t even half-understand.
The 17th century Scottish pastor Robert Kirk, in his extraordinary book The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies, which looked not only at the hidden world but the human beings, the second-sighters, who were able to see it, wrote of how the second-sighters were terrified and tormented by their gift, which set them apart from the normal run of humanity. That insight is something common to much literature and films about second-sighters and their dealings with the hidden world, whether that be ghosts, psychic powers, elementals such as fairies, elves and so on, or spiritual entities such as angels and demons. But if literature has by and large created some memorable portrayals of the hidden world and its reluctant human ambassadors, it can be a difficult thing to pull off in film. Yet some have undoubtedly succeeded.

The trick with portraying the supernatural in film is not to use CGI or special effects etc; it’s different to fantasy, where creatures of dream and vision are actually embodied. Much of the appeal of the supernatural is that it is suggestive but also deeply sensual; it is caught in the shiver of cold sweat on skin, the strange feeling of hair actually raising on the back of your neck and on your head; the watering of the eyes, the gripping of the heart that makes you feel as if time has stopped; extraordinary sensations, yet also deeply ordinary and mundane, not a mystical ecstasy, for it’s not exactly a coherent vision you’ve been given, but a glimpse into another reality(As someone who’s experienced a couple of intensely powerful episodes of this kind, I know that it is a physical thing, not just something in the mind). All this could and should be rendered in filmic terms, not by over-acting but in fact by a kind of understatement which is thus made all the more powerful.
Hitchcock of course was the great master of this; he understood that the ‘supernatural’ is the ‘inner-natural’ as well. In all of his films, that apprehension of the strangeness of reality and of human beings spices everything; and yet it’s done with a light touch. No grinning skulls, no chains rattling; just a sense that nothing will ever be the same again for those suddenly exposed to the fact the world is not as controllable as they thought it was. His influence is felt in just about every film of the supernatural, and certainly in those that actually ‘get it’. He also completely understood that that shiver of suspense embodies those things I talked about earlier–pity, beauty and terror. Modern films which I think capture the Hitchcockian sense of terror, pity and beauty all mixed, include The Sixth Sense, The Gift, Till Human Voices Wake Us (a little-noticed Australian film I greatly liked), The Others, The Ring, and most recently, at least for me, Intacto, an extraordinary Spanish film written and directed by hot new talent, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo. All of these films never forget that the supernatural is inextricably bound up with human beings as well as some mysterious other reality; they have a genuine compassion for those caught up in the extraordinary experiences; and yet they never try to deny the bone-chilling, life-changing thing that a genuine encounter with the supernatural is.

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