Have you ever had an experience with a ghost or spirit? Odds are, like most haunted house movies, the set up involved an unfamiliar setting and a kid, or kids. They are more willing to ‘expect the unexpected’ after all. For instance, perhaps you can imagine a situation in a house in the middle of nowhere, say, miles outside of Midland/Odessa (home of Friday Night Lights), with little population and little pretension of something abnormal taking place. A kid staying with his grandmother in a two-story house with a completely wooden stair separating the floors and no one in the house but him and his grandmother. No one upstairs. I can imagine him waking up in the middle of the night and hearing rhythmic steps walking up or down those creaky-wooded steps. Eventually he gets enough courage to go in the other room and open the wooden door to the stairway to see what is on the stairs. Surprise. Nothing. Confused and a little scared, he returns to bed only to continue to hear the same plod…plod…plod. All. Night. Long. Eventually giving in to his need for sleep but, subconsciously, on the guard for any noises moving beyond the space of that stairway. What a vivid imagination that kid must have! Or maybe just superb hearing…
The apparition sub-genre is the perennial darling of the horror movie industry simply because a large majority of people have, or thought they have, experienced something akin to a ghost or spirit. Whether every case is legitimate is beside the point, the fact that very few people (dare I say, none) have experienced zombies or creatures or invincible, inhuman slashers automatically puts these in a second tier position in the subconscious of the normal person. Most of the other sub-genres are cyclical, but ghost stories and haunted houses come back year after year. People can’t get enough of these tales from the invisible (potentially made visible) realm. One of the films that haunts my mind consistently is considered to be one of the greats: The Shining (1980).
Not only does it have the necessary creepy kid scenes, but it suffocates the viewers in the same claustrophobia that the characters, especially Jack, are suffering. Apparitions abound; driving Jack crazy and making him succumb to his own demons with horrific consequences. All of the best films of the genre show just enough to make the viewer’s imagination run away with it and get under their skin for days to come. Something that is consistently disappointing in ghost and haunted house movies, today, like The Apparition (2012), is that they are too willing to give an explanation and show everything rather than letting the audience bake in the tension of its disorienting uncertainty and unknown. Say what you want about the old school black and white films (i.e. The Haunting of Hill House  and The Innocents ), but they made up for their lack of CGI and other F/X technology with suspense and by keeping aspects of the world of the film ‘hidden’ from the viewer.
Thacker, once again, provides a discussion starter for why this element of the unknown and ‘hiddenness’ in films about apparitions induces fear in humanity:
…the examples of Lovecraft’s “From Beyond” and [Junji] Ito’s Uzumaki…imply, we are already bathed in the invisible viscous hiddenness of the world. In a kind of perversion of Kantian philosophy, Lovecraft and Ito suggest that the world-in-itself [Earth] is only ‘hidden’ to the extent that our phenomenal experience of the world is determinatively a human one. In fact, Lovecraft and Ito implicitly make the argument that not only is there no distinction between the natural and supernatural, but what we sloppily call ‘supernatural’ is simply another kind of nature, but one that lies beyond human comprehension—not in a relative but in an absolute sense. Herein lies the basis of what Lovecraft called “cosmic horror”—the paradoxical realization of the world’s hiddenness as an absolute hiddenness. (p. 80)
Even though Thacker, here, seems to be attempting to place, what most would call, the ‘supernatural’ realm under the category of an empirical ‘nature,’ there is still an element of truth in questioning the distinction between natural and supernatural. If all is created and sustained by God then the merely naturalistic explanation that science presumes is too human-centric, too limited in scope and does not take into account the fullness of the cosmos beyond that which is observed or experienced by humanity. All things within the view of God’s creation are, in fact, ‘natural,’ but not in a modern sense. That is the beauty of Lovecraft’s and Ito’s view of the world-in-itself being absolutely hidden from and outside of a limited humanity. Our disbelief is not the final word or proof. Those entities in the shadows of the world are not uncovered by empirical means, but, instead, reveal themselves whenever and however they so choose.
After a truly effective film about ghosts like The Sixth Sense (1999), The Ring (2002) (or Ringu ) or The Changeling (1980), I would often scare myself later on during the night by imagining that there were entities that were standing or sitting right next to me, but, because I wasn’t able to experience them, I would never know if they were truly there or not. My observations by no means being the end-all-be-all of final judgment of their existence. Christians believe that there is a whole spiritual realm beyond this world, not just the visible, but the invisible world. It wasn’t unusual for people throughout the Old and New Testaments to be confronted with a being that was outside of their established experiential world. What was the usual response of those spiritual beings or God himself? Do not be afraid (i.e. Gen. 26:24; Dan. 10:12; Matt. 1:20; Luke 1:20; Acts 18:9).
Nothing really has changed. Whether it is a real life experience or being swept away by the narrative and effects of a film, in the face of apparitions revealing themselves to our experientially-confined ‘you-niverses’ we react the same as those people recorded in the Bible. Unfortunately, not every entity comforts us with the opening of “Do not be afraid.” Most of the time, they reveal themselves as evil goth girls coming out of television sets, items moving by themselves or simply steps on a wooden staircase.
At the end of the day, what scares us in films about ghosts is that the only way we know about them in our experienced worlds or the only way the characters in a movie (and the audience, as well) know about them is, once again, because they reveal themselves to us. We can’t search out all that is held within the ‘hiddenness’ of the world-in-itself because of our limitations. Self-revelation implies no control on the part of the receivers. And that is exactly what we fear in the face of the invisible world making itself visible. It is out of our control and isn’t that what all human fear comes down to at some level? Not to mention where the origins of our fear and awe of God, who reveals himself to a world that is so talented at suppressing our own knowledge of Him, come from. I can assure you that lack of control was an intricate part of the fear felt by the kid looking up that dark stairway.
A scene from one of my all-time favorites, the 1959 classic The House on Haunted Hill: