WARNING: Contains spoilers for such films as Thriller, City of the Living Dead, and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.
An Introduction to Reality Collapse horror
Everyone who loves horror movies has a particular form of horror they love the most. It might be witches, or zombies, or slashers, but there’ll be one genre that’s a little closer to their hearts than others. For me, it’s something that’s a little hard to pin down. It’s not about a particular monster, and it’s not about a particular style. It’s more about a particular concept – the concept of the fabric of the universe starting to unravel, or twisting into a new form. It’s a horror genre I like to call REALITY COLLAPSE.
What is Reality Collapse horror? Clear, dependable definitions are very much against the spirit of this genre. After all, it derives a lot of its power from the absence of reassuring intelligibility. Nonetheless, there is a definite cluster of related themes, tropes, techniques and concerns that, when taken together, map out a longstanding tradition within horror film.
I could just start parcelling out those markers here. But one of the main themes of Reality Collapse horror is the subjective overwhelms the objective… So with that in mind, lets save the neat bullet points for now. Instead, let’s make the rest of this introduction more autobiographical. I’m going to sketch out the main horror films I came across before I hit my mid-teens; the films that really set the stage for what a horror could be. Together they point towards the idea of a collapsing, untrustworthy, mutating reality.
In later instalments I’ll run through a lot of films that I think are Reality Collapse, partially Reality Collapse, or Reality Collapse-adjacent horrors; then I’ll suggest a final definition of the genre; and then rank my top examples. But, for now…
A autobiographical pre-history of Reality Collapse horror
Most people have stories of the first horror films they saw, and how they got into horror through them. But most people have a kind of pre-history of horror awareness. Before they even see horror films, they are aware of horror films, from reading about them, or hearing references to them, or seeing them spoofed on TV or in cartoons. My first encounter with Reality Collapse horror has its roots in my own pre-history of horror – specifically, in wandering the aisles of video rental stores.
Going to rent a movie, I’d usually come away with a Christopher Reeve Superman film, or somehow wind up with one of the many hokey 80s comedies with Bette Midler – Ruthless People, Outrageous Fortune, Big Business, or Down and Out in Beverly Hills. Perhaps something with Richard Pryor (Brewster’s Millions) or Gene Wilder (Haunted Honeymoon) or both (See No Evil, Hear No Evil, in which they team up to take down Kevin Spacey). I even rented Critical Condition.
But there was one kind of movie that was off-limits. Horror. Not off-limits in the sense of being physically segregated from the other movies, though. No, they were right there, inches away from Michelle Pfeiffer in Grease 2 or John Travolta in Perfect. I might not have been able to rent them, but I sure could pick them up and read their covers. I think in this era this was one of the main ways for people to get into horror, especially if you didn’t have an older sibling. Just take one step to the left, pick up whatever you could reach, and get reading. I’m sure for some it was the covers and titles that set their expectations of what horror was; that laid down the template for everything they would come to look for in the genre.
For me, though, more than anything, it was the taglines that stuck with me. To this day, I can remember those taglines. I think those taglines that sank down into my subconscious, like a skull slowly falling through the still waters of a forgotten lake, and coming to rest on the murky floor. I think they lie there now, casting a hidden spell over the surface, dictating what goes on above. These are the four taglines, or back-cover blurbs, that I remember most clearly.
- “Man is the warmest place to hide” – The Thing
- “WARNING! If you see the Stuff in stores, call the police. If you have it in your home, don’t touch it–get out. The Stuff is a product of nature–a deadly living organism. It is addictive and destructive. It can overcome your mind and take over your body, and nothing can stop it.” – The Stuff
- “First it controls your mind…then it destroys your body” – Videodrome
- “The dream can fade but it will never go away as Jesse is about to find out…so beware, because the thin membrane that separates nightmares from reality is about to be ripped apart – the man of your dreams is back!” – A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge.
Now, my grasp of what these movies were about wasn’t necessarily the best. But I got the general idea. In The Thing, something evil was inside your body. Your body itself was corrupted by a malevolent force! In The Stuff the malevolent force was no longer content to infect your body, it was taking over your mind too. In Videodrome, it was taking over your body and mind, but here it wasn’s something as comprehensible as an organic entity. Now you were at threat from something abstract, elusive, impossible to corner – information itself, somehow, was warping you.
And then we come to A Nightmare on Elm Street 2. (Note: The original Nightmare seemed to exist only by implication, as the store didn’t stock it. I assumed at the time it was simply too frightening). Judging from this tape’s blurb, it was no longer just your body or your mind being warped and corrupted. No, now reality itself was untrustworthy. Now body, mind, and the very fabric of existence could no longer be trusted. Now “the thin membrane that separates nightmares from reality” was “about to be ripped apart.”
For me, that was it. This was horror. Sure, my mum said Psycho was good. My dad said The Exorcist was the scariest. Didn’t matter. I’d read the blurbs. I didn’t need slashers or devils. This was where it was at.
I looked forward to finding out more.
Not longer afterwards I was introduced to what you might call my first horror movie, if music videos count. Our shiny new VHS player meant that not only could we rent tapes from the local video shop/newsagent, but we could record things directly from the television too. The legality was debated – some maintained you could record things to watch them later, but not to keep. My parents steered happily into the grey zone, however, and recorded certain things very much for the purposes of keeping. Live Aid (spread across many numbered tapes). Klute (not allowed to see). Salem’s Lot (not allowed to see). And Thriller.
Thriller was the first time I’d seen a werewolf, and the first time I’d seen zombies. Now, I’d heard of people hiding from Doctor Who, but had never personally felt the need. For Thriller, however, I excused myself from the room pretty quickly whenever things seemed to be going south. From the doorway I’d ask what was happening.
“Well… they’re zombies. So they’re coming out of their graves.”
“Do dead people come out of their graves in real life?”
“Well… they shouldn’t.”
Every time my aunts, uncles or cousins came over Thriller was once again resurrected from its cardboard sleeve and brought back to life, so I had to leave the room a good many times, and listen to the ‘funk of forty thousand years’ from the safety of the kitchen.
Zombies and werewolves aside, though, there was something extra in Thriller that hit a nerve. Jackson’s a werewolf, sure – to begin with. But then it turns out he’s just watching that on the cinema screen. Instantly, something here isn’t right. His date seems scared, and he insists (a la The Last House on the Left) that it’s only a movie – something called See You Next Wednesday, John Landis’s habitual off-colour in-joke nod to 2001. But Jackson and his date are clearly the same people as were acting in the actual film. So either they already knew that it was only a movie, or they somehow haven’t recognised themselves. The fact it is them up on the screen yet also them in the seats simply doesn’t register.
Maybe they’re just waiting for the film’s headline star, Vincent Price.
Later, Jackson is transformed into a zombie – but via no visible mechanism. This isn’t a Romero-style case of infection, or of his being killed and reanimated by whatever has awakened the other corpses. No, he’s just transformed, Fulci-style, by the sheet intensity of the situation. It happens because it’s terrifying, and because something is very wrong, and because logic cannot save you now.
Finally, his date wakes up. It was all a dream – until Jackson’s eyes turn werewolf yellow, and he turns to the audience to share a devilish grin. Freeze frame, with a cackling laugh.
There are four levels of reality going on here:
- See You Next Wednesday, the film within the video, which appears to follow the standard internal logic of a werewolf film.
- Then the minor disorientation of a switch to the zombie attack on the filmgoers, which seems to follow the standard internal logic of a zombie film, until Jackson himself is turned into a zombie- despite no visible mechanism for this happening.
- Then the ‘waking nightmare’, which might excuse some of what happened – it was all a dream – before somehow looping back, Möebius-style, to the threat of the first section. Somehow the werewolf from the film within the dream is here too? Any rational framework for processing what’s happening is now under severe assault.
- And finally the fourth level – Jackson turns and recognises the viewer. He is, perhaps, aware of himself as a fictional construct, and directly threatens the viewer with a potential jump from the screen to the viewer’s own reality. As if to underscore that, the frozen image paired with the continuing soundtrack suggests an ultimate breakdown of the music video’s own grammar and internal logic. Reality within the video is now completely unpredictable, and threatening to seep into our own, as Jackson’s eyes lock into ours.
Even on your sofa, you’re not safe. Hence my habitual journey to the sanctity of the kitchen.
A little while after that I got a chance to watch my first ever actual horror film. An uncle had made the decision to purchase a pub and become a landlord, and the cellar of the pub contained a box of ex-rental VHS tapes, each with an identical yellow sleeve. My uncle played us part of one that he particularly liked – Mad Max – and then offered to let us pick one to watch while we got on with other things. Two were off limits – The Exorcist (a film so terrifying that my dad had specifically forbidden my mum from watching it) and The Evil Dead (also out of bounds because someone got a pencil through their ankle). Those were removed, but anything else was ok. So we rummaged through, and underneath Krull and Beastmaster I found something different, something that sounded interesting. I held it the yellow case, the film’s title written in black on the spine.
“I think this is too scary for you all,” I was told.
My mouth opened, and the completely untrue phrase “it’s fine, I’ve seen it before” came out.
And so it was that I, aged 8, and my cousins, aged 5-8, were left alone to watch Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead.
This is, again, a classic example of a film where reality starts to disintegrate. I don’t think that it’s all that successful as a film – several decades later I would discover that the follow-up, The Beyond, does a far better job in juggling pacing, tone, imagery and theme within its unravelling dream-logic plot. But I can’t deny it’s a great example of Reality Collapse horror. I wish I could say what I thought of it at the time, and reverse-engineer an explanation of how it fed into my love of this strange genre. Instead I have a vague memory of being transfixed, before extremely angry adults arrived to turn it off, shortly after a screaming woman was buried alive in a coffin and nearly impaled by the pickaxe of a man trying to dig her back up. A finger slammed into the eject button and voices were angrily raised. The rest of my memory is pretty fuzzy, but I definitely got a sense that something in the film just wasn’t quite right.
I finally re-watched City of the Living Dead last year, and there were some surprising points of connection with Thriller. The zombies teleport, without explanation (shades of Michael Jackson’s inexplicable transformation). With the gates of hell open, the waking world is increasingly susceptible to irrational collapses of logic (see also: Jackson’s Thriller werewolf eyes that cycle back, impossibly, to the film within the dream in that video). And due to budget constraints, Fulci chose a cheap ending he thought he could get away with – just as the evil seems to be over, and the nightmare is vanquished, a character turns towards the screen.
In these last few seconds, Fulci breaks through even the sketchy dream logic of the film up to that point, and rips up his established film grammar. He ends with a freeze frame, character heading towards us, a scream, and a shattering screen effect – just as Landis ends with a freeze frame, a character turning towards us, a demonic laugh, and glowing eyes.
It definitely felt like real horror wasn’t primarily anything to do with monsters. In real horror, the monsters were just a symptom. No, the more fundamental threat was our reality just wasn’t as dependable as it seemed. Everything I watched seemed to involve our universe struggling to repel incursions from somewhere else, somewhere that didn’t adhere to our standards of rationality. That could be the realm of Gozer the Gozerian in Ghostbusters (a nightmarish dimension, impossibly glimpsed insides someone’s fridge), or the Other Side in Poltergeist II: The Other Side (a nightmarish dimension, separate from conventional conceptions of heaven or hell). Both films featured denizens of those other realities seizing control of human minds in an attempt to more open portals to our own world, at which point it would be lost forever. In hindsight, this is possibly a somewhat conservative theme.
The last horror film I saw in that era was also the first horror I saw at a sleepover, and the first film I actually saw in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. It was not, in the end, Freddy’s Revenge, whose box had made its promise of the thin membrane between dreams and reality being shredded. I think by this point that dusty, murky video store had been closed down, and it’s trove of VHS and Betamax oddities lost forever. Now we were in the era of Blockbuster Video, and the film we rented was A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master.
As it happens, Dream Master delivers the essential Reality Collapse sequence in the franchise up to that point – like Thriller, it has a sequence with a film within a dream. Freddy Krueger himself turns up a full 3 minutes and 30 seconds into that sequence, but make no mistake – he’s really just a bit of bonus imagery. To my mind, he’s entirely peripheral. A guy with knives on his fingers is not the problem. The disorientation of the protagonist, Alice, is the problem – the unreliability of everything she sees and touches. Alice gets pulled into a dream without realising it, then pulled into a movie within that dream without being able to resist it. Like a Jungian, she projects – or rather, is projected – against her will.
Like her namesake in Wonderland, Alice tumbles into a labyrinth of different levels of reality. This nesting of realities ups the stakes significantly. If you have ‘the real world’, versus ‘the other side’ – be it dreams, or another dimension – then there’s still a degree of stability in that dichotomy. But once you start multiplying the levels, linking them chaotically, mirroring them, sliding uncontrollably through them – then you get the sense of an infinite maze of fairground mirrors. At that point, can you ever be sure you’ve truly found your way back?
Around that time, I became a teenager. I’d go on watch a lot of films, and a lot of horror films, but collapsing realities had already established their place in my heart. Which meant that when Twin Peaks premiered, I was ready. Its White Lodge, Black Lodge, Red Room, Forest, grove, Bookhouse, Bang Bang bar, Great Western hotel and Double-R Diner made complete sense, in that by now they felt like a familiar kind of irrationality. “Other sides” multiplied within Twin Peaks like mirrors, and entities beyond comprehension dragged souls over the border of reality as easily as the local drug dealers hauled merchandise over the border of Canada. Everyone was at least two people, and nothing was entirely anchored in space or time.
I’d find a lot of other examples of Reality Collapse horror over the years – some good, some bad, but almost always loved. After I while I started to wonder what it was that was I found so potent about it.
Storytelling and the roots of Reality Collapse horror
Maybe the very act of storytelling involves the summoning then dissolution of a reality. We look into the campfire, the figures dance… and then they are gone. What does Pooh Bear do at the end of the House at Pooh Corner? He gathers with the other animals at the top of the hill, and waits. Maybe he is waiting for the end of his world, which comes when you close the book. The flip side of “happily ever after” is “and then – nothing! For that is the end of the story.”
Nabokov was particularly mindful of this, ending his Bend Sinister with sudden escape from its nightmare world to the study of the author. He ended Ada or Ardor with an unfinished sentence pointing towards death, and the poem in Pale Fire with a ‘missing’ 1,000th line that loops back to the poem’s start, creating another Möebius strip. These things might make us uneasy, or – if you are so inclined – produce a little shiver of delight. For every closing book, a collapsing reality.
An uncertain relationship between truth and fiction has been a mainstay of horror film ever since The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920). That film’s German Expressionist sets render the substance of its world subjectively, and help to subvert the idea of an objective, dependable, fictional universe. Then, at the end, an asylum doctor turns to the screen, the vignette shrinks to focus on his face, and… his expression remains completely unreadable. Is he Caligari? Not even the vignette seems to know, as it shrinks to swallow him up. As in Thriller and City of the Living Dead the distinction between fact and madness, reality and fiction, reality and nightmare collapses completely in the final seconds.
Right at the birth of horror cinema, Caligari is interrogating something that seems to have already be fundamental to film. We’ve always loved scratching away at the idea of an unreliable relationship between the image and the object, and cinema is an unnerving magic trick that collapses the distinction in an uncanny blur, if only for a moment. It’s said, perhaps apocryphally, that audiences ran from the room at the sight of L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat – as I myself ran from the living room at the sight of Thriller.
The impulse remains the same: the sense of not being sure what’s happening up on that screen, but that to ensure safety you need to get it out of your line of sight. Or in some cases, maybe you need to extract yourself from the screen’s field of view. Before something emerges… and the thin membrane that separates nightmares from reality is ripped apart.
Next up… before we jump into the horror films, a little warm up on destabilised filmic reality more generally… from musicals to superhero movies to sci-fi… what happens when the reality depicted starts to look a little subjective, or untrustworthy, or starts to topple… find out more in Part 2!