Horror documentary ‘Fear Itself’ reveals philosophy behind scares.
“Tiny specks of light become spirits. The smallest hint of movement is an intruder, ready to attack.” As a woman narrates these words in Fear Itself, a new horror documentary from 24-year-old filmmaker Charlie Lyne, a scene from Post Tenebras Lux drifts across the scene. A child meanders through a muddy field, flanked by dogs, a haunting dusk sky in the background. It’s an obscure film, albeit a 2012 Cannes winner for best director, but one that underscores Lyne’s zeal for finding meaningful connections in this film essay dedicated to horror’s emotional impact.
You might not have seen Post Tenebras Lux, but you know the terror Lyne is describing.
To Lyne, horror’s appeal is not just those “shocking moments in a film that are intriguing,” he says in an interview from his London home, “but what stayed with me more were those eerier moments I couldn’t explain.”
In Fear Itself, currently enjoying a film festival run across the world (and available to stream in the UK on BBC iPlayer), Lyne asks whether horror movies know us better than we know ourselves. Beyond the slasher gore and jump scares, horror activates in us a raw feeling of terror that is difficult to reproduce. Evoking genuine fear is a difficult feat for filmmakers, and in Fear Itself Lyne writes a script describing horror’s terrorizing qualities while pairing them with scenes from classic films.
In fact, the entire film is made up entirely of scenes from horror cinema, from 1923 to 2014. Atop a scene from the Japanese horror blockbuster Ringu, the narrator says, “Maybe when we indulge the things that scare us…we stop being the innocent victims of fear and become coconspirators.”
A scene from the Japanese horror film Ringu. Basara Pictures.
When Alfred Hitchock’s The Birds enters stage right, the narrator intones, “As long as fear’s still out there, sanctuary is just a sticking plaster…slowly peeling away.”
Lyne says he’s long been fascinated by how fear ripples within us. His horror documentary aims to raise more questions than it answers, though. “We don’t know how fear works. It works on a more instinctual level than a rational level.”
Wes Craven once said, “Scary movies don’t create fear; they release it.” Lyne says he believes the most memorable horror films examine the terrifying anxiety over our own mortality. “For me the films that get under my skin are those that deal with the ultimate fear of death,” he says.
He wanted to include those many evocative films in his horror documentary, including many foreign films, because he recognizes how the genre cannabilizes itself by offering us a loop of the themes, signals, villains. Look at how John Carpenter’s The Thing has inspired X-Files episodes and The Fly. Look at how anyone wielding a chainsaw (eg the Evil Dead series) brings to mind Tobe Hooper’s seminal Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
“These films don’t exist in a vacuum,” Lyne explains. “Everything you see [in horror], you are responding to something that came before it. In horror, remixing is the order of the day, even if filmmakers are not doing it literally.”
Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. Universal Pictures.
Through his horror documentary, viewers can feel how terror-filled movies aren’t just meant to gross us out, to have us cowering under covers. Lyne says horror can be a channel for exploring everything from political unrest to personal trauma.
His sentiments are echoed by Tony Williams, the head of Film Studies in the Department of English at the University of Southern Illinois. “The best horror explored taboo subjects, such as family oppression or the ill treatment of minorities, like in The People Under the Stairs,” he says.
Today’s horror crop fail to be socially conscious, Williams adds, decrying the many modern horror films that rely on torture porn (see Eli Roth) or CGI effects.
What Lyne accomplishes with Fear Itself is exceptionally unique but not all that surprising in today’s remix culture. By splicing in frightening and tense scenes from dozens of films, Lyne ensures his horror documentary acts almost like a horror film itself. As the narration carries us from terror to terror, we don’t know what’s around the corner. We don’t know what the narrator will intone to us about finding the nightmares in the ethereal, in the overlooked.
Lyne was so inspired by analyzing horror cinema for Fear Itself that another documentary has risen from its shadow. Blackout is a three-minute short simply showing the many films that have used pitch-black scenes to evoke responses in audiences.
Charlie Lyne has also released a film inspired by Fear Itself called Blackout, featuring pitch-black scenes from horror films.
“I wanted to compare and contrast different depictions of darkness on-screen,” says Lyne. “It’s interesting to me because darkness is very closely associated with cinema and yet films are actually very bad at depicting the literal experience of darkness. That forces them to think creatively as to how they conjure the illusion of darkness for their viewers.”
Lyne is passionate about creating films on cinema and has delved into the horror documentary field before, in fact. Copycat, released in 2015, looked at how Wes Craven’s Scream may have been inspired (without credit) by a short film made five years earlier by 19-year-old Rolfe Kanefsk.
Fear Itself, paired with Blackout, engage us to look at how cinema is fluid. How the tropes used in a modern horror can be traced back to influential masters. And how the blood and murder can be a bridge between the known and unknown.
A scene from The Shining, which Charlie Lyne cites as one of the scariest films of the last century. Warner Bros. via Getty Images.
We see this with any art form, but the casual horror viewer might view a slasher flick as a lazy way to frighten us. Or they might see a zombie film as another boring retread of the same path George Romero paved. But Lyne is imploring us to see the scream-filled forest through the trees; what might seem like another bogeyman film could actually be a philosophical critique of the flaws peppering the human condition, of the wrongs that need to be righted.
The best films build tension, establish conflict creatively and craft characters we empathize with, no matter their situation. Fear Itself is more than a horror documentary paying homage to an oft-derided genre; it is a horror film that can scare us into realizing the monsters under the bed might be a reflection of us.
And that’s true terror.