Most films I’ve seen tend to open with extreme long shots. Likewise, the cinematography employed in first minute is often termed to be establishing shots since this is where audiences are granted their first taste of perspective; and in these shots, the camera is impartial in being parallel. Subjects are occluded by a literal and figurative bigger picture as visuality unfolds along a linear axis. But this indistinction isn’t exclusive to long shots. Even in close ups or medium shots, impersonality can be effected since subjects themselves preclude the absence of narrative. Ambiguity may also maintain characters as unknowns if we can’t discern or relate to their motives.
Which is probably why nothing gets under my skin quite like psychological horror. It’s a subgenre whose horrors I have yet to fully describe, but maybe that’s the point; maybe it’s meant to invoke aversion—angst, fear, irresolution, loathing—by an inarticulate form of unnerving. It’s a distinct vein in the body of horror. There’s no pun intended when I say the body of horror has become a corpse. It’s an apt figure of speech since the horror genre has become oversaturated with a multitude of half-assed tropes whose imitability have devolved into pastiche and clichés which cheapen narratives as camp and disingenuous. The vein of psychological horror isn’t exempt from the corpse-like genre’s autolysis, which explains why it’s acclimated—if not, collapsed—with hallucinatory dei ex machina purported to be abstract.
For me, good psychological horror films lead down a path which turns outs to be along a hillside. You don’t think to go on because the rise is unassuming; but no matter how far you go, something seemingly innocent or happenstance always occludes the apex. When you finally reach the top, you settle in to take in the view—only to realize that all along, there was a path next to yours. Not only is it adjacent, it’s well-trodden and whoever has walked it is worlds ahead of you. When you retrace your steps, you discover that your path wasn’t a ‘path’; not because it was fundamentally different, but because you’ve got nothing to prove there was ever any path at all. Still, you know there was a path. There had to be. How else could you be here? After a cursory glance, you realize you actually aren’t at the top; but the path you’re so sure of has yet to manifest. However, whatever lies ahead is on even ground. There’s no up or down. There’s just forward. It just makes sense to distrust whether you proceed or pack it in. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Given humankind’s tendency to destroy itself, you have to wonder if there’s such a thing as an advance. Except this outlook isn’t about logic or entropy. It’s personal. Everything in your life has led you to this point. You lived under the impression that you were going somewhere; you were meant for somewhere.
Now, you’re in the middle of nowhere.
Psychological horror plays upon the mundane. It evokes fear in the fact that life as we know it is and always will be fractal despite the totality of the human mind. This subgenre’s best movies effect that catharsis comes down to alienation and disenchantment; and living under the weight of revelation that you were never really alive to begin with, wondering if you’ll ever feel alive, or resigned to the conclusion that one can never truly feel alive in the absence of delusion. These prospects aren’t fantasy-like or speculative. They’re real, if not imminent. Life itself as a phenomenon is novel, but each life as it manifests is empirically unremarkable. Existence is recurrent. Evolution doesn’t boil down to cultures or technologies because everything is already preset. In this way, history is bound to repeat itself because the knowledge of the past hasn’t inclined us to heed it. There is no God or angels regardless of how miraculously one may take flight because any ascent is contingent upon obliging demons a priori. Any happy ending or inspirational anecdote is moot, if not fallacy when disparity has a predetermined meaning.
It’s been a while since I’ve cracked open Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, or Ligotti; but I remember what they were on about. I’m sure when I dust off their classics—wherever they may be in my never-ending library—I’ll be able to better relate psychological horror to continental philosophy for an academic article down the line. Which makes me think of a recent exchange I had on campus. These days, as a PhD student, I’m usually the most senior in my [required] elective classes. I happened to take one last semester which concerned philosophy and artificial intelligence, specifically if the latter could be capable of sentience or actual intelligence.
Although the crux of its was philosophical, this class was cross-listed as a psychology course; and I only mentioned that because that might account for why it ended up being predominantly dudes, some of whom were edgelords (and some of whom I’ve seen lurk and whinge on campus pages). One day, we happened to gloss over the virulent egotism and bigotry of an infamous academic who happens to be a patron saint for today’s edgelords. The fact that those in my class incline people to “consider” them is unsurprising. I found one of my fellow students who proceeded to explain Nietzsche surprising—and amusing. Nietzsche came up since he was frequently cited (and laughably, misread) by the notorious aforementioned academic.
I pretended not to know anything about him; I let this student—who was an undergrad with little, if any background in philosophy (or by extension: early modern and contemporary studies, classics, English, and miscellaneous social sciences or humanities—all of which I was familiar with or had aced)—try to explain what was behind [and what justified that bogus scholar’s reference of] Nietzsche, of all people! I won’t recount the bullshit he proceeded to relay as if it were remotely corrigible; but I will say it was surreal to see someone so woefully wrong feign expertise, even as they registered that their inarticulation betrayed their very own fallacy.
Which is kind of a good segue into the film I watched this week, Abandon. It follows Catherine ‘Katie’ Burke (played by Katie Holmes), a university senior whose ambition and meticulosity ensures she is bound for a corporate ascent. The plot is driven by the pursuit of her ex-boyfriend, Embry (played by Charlie Hunnam) whose estate seeks to declare him deceased given his disappearance two years ago. Benjamin Bratt rounds out the narrative tripartite as Detective Wade Handler who is tasked with privately investigating the case. Although it’s been dubbed as psychological horror and likened to the realm of mystery, Abandon employs psychological horror at its core. It’s a series of everyday albeit eerie sketches which unearth many seeds which have failed to flourish for our three points of interest. Repression is personified mainly in Katie, the austere beauty whose fanatic WPM and hyper-focused scholarship overshadow her sense of self, time, and space; while Embry—the bourgeoise narcissist with a penchant for theatre—embodies sanctimony and mania. Handler represents a grim sense of wonder as his gazes seems to search offscreen, into the distance, in pursuit of something further than answers; something I suspect may reference one of many ruinous machinations of modern capitalism wherein happiness ceases to overcome the technologies which augment reality, prosperity, and celebrity.
Each character, including those peripheral (such as the now wider-knowns: Gabrielle Union, Tony Goldwyn, and Zoey Deschanel), is walking a hillside path despite lacking any concept of summit. Abandon builds upon this, but falls short because it lacks continuity and momentum. Integral aspects of character development are only referenced in passing. These could’ve been explored as opposed to several emphases on impersonal character exchanges. The institutional angle of Abandon—through lenses of post-secondary education, neo-liberalism, and law enforcement—effects just how much success and survival are operant upon quick, superficial, and incisive insights as opposed kindness or principle. In terms of cinematography, the film employs a maximum visual and expressive use of the depth of field in long-shots which are underscored by foreboding scores. Fatalism and disconnected are further conveyed as the characters’ interrelation is conveyed through a singular or flattened planes. These span cool palettes and barren landscapes.
For viewers, the horror of Abandon is one that bleeds in. We’re gradually unnerved as we watch Katie, Embry, Handler, and the rest of the ensemble scurry by because we’re inclined to consider our own paths in contrast. Thematically, this is what defines the film. As we wade onward, even as we may have yet to cultivate any sense of direction, the people and the world as we once knew fall away; but even if we’ve outgrown them, we can never shake the sense that it is us who they’ve left behind. People don’t persist because of any particular objective, but because they are constantly reminded of how little the world thinks of them. As we grow older, we don’t grow freer. We aren’t entrusted with independence and responsibility in adulthood, we’re categorically tasked with such as we’re expected to hold our own on the market.
And, that’s really at the heart of Abandon. It drives home that our most poignant moments ensue when we find ourselves as alienated and isolated, instead of appeased by some abstract sense of reckoning or greater good. People are vainly inclined to emulate some semblance life even as they gradually die inside because of what alienation prevails during our formative years.