Halloween is here, and with it comes the devoted celebrations and horror movie marathons with friends. Now, I’ve never been a fan of horror movies. But recent releases have intrigued me with the ideas they present. One trend that’s stood out is how they play with sensory deprivation. In the movies watched, I’ve noticed that the absence of one sense adds to the tension. And that tension captivates the audience’s attention and keeps the suspense tight.
Here are examples in three films that use sensory deprivation well to create tense scenes:
1. ‘Bird Box’
Released on Netflix in January 2019, “Bird Box” follows Malorie (Sandra Bullock), a single mother trying to keep her kids safe from a supernatural entity that drives people who look at it insane and to kill themselves. The movie itself is split into two parts, each providing something distinctive. The first is the present action, where Malorie takes her children to a rumored haven down the river. During the journey, she is forced to rely on the current when rowing. But on land, she’s forced to use ropes and linear guides to help her get from potential resources to the boat. And then there’s the flashbacks five years prior, where Malorie and a group of survivors try to make it through the apocalypse at their door. These scenes are where the movie shines, and how the characters show their resourcefulness. Windows are blinded and any survivors they take are covered under a blanket before being brought in. One of the greatest scenes is when one of the survivors go to an abandoned grocery store and, before driving, they black out the windows and windshield while relying on the GPS. The bumps and close collisions you see them go through have you on the edge of your seat. As the characters are forced to rely on sounds and touch to navigate the world, the seeing audience can’t help but to tense up at how close they come to calamity.
Another Netflix original, “Hush” is a slasher film that uses a deaf woman as the victim. The movie follows Maddie Young (Kate Siegel), a deaf writer who lives isolated in the woods with her cat. One night, a masked killer (John Gallagher Jr.) follows another woman (Samantha Sloyan) he’s been hunting down and watches how unfazed she is by the bloodied woman at her door. The fact that Maddie’s deaf hooks audiences right at the beginning by adding tense moments. The killer gets into her house and steals Maddie’s phone while she’s unaware of the intruder, and his atrocities. It isn’t until she gets pictures sent to her from her phone that she realizes what is going on. Tension only escalates with the fact that Maddie’s also a mute; she’s forced to communicate with writing messages out to the killer, be it a plea or a taunt. This takes a familiar sub-genre in horror (home invasion) and applies Maddie’s disability to give us a take we haven’t seen before.
3. ‘A Quiet Place’
John Krasinski’s “A Quiet Place” has himself and wife his wife, Emily Blunt, play a couple trying to keep their kids (Millicent Simmonds and Noah Jupe) safe in an apocalypse where they’re pursued by creatures that hunt their prey using sound. Taking place a year and a half into said apocalypse, audiences see the precautions taken over the years to keep out of sight and sound from the monsters. They communicate with sign language, they walk on sand paths that muffle their footsteps, and they build a sound-proof room. Sound determines the movie’s pulse, and as such, when the monsters invade the family’s farm, the sound design plays a major role in creating tension in what otherwise would be another boring CGI monsterfest. Louder sounds are also strategically used to shield smaller sounds. When a firework set goes off and lures one of the monsters chasing the pregnant Emily Blunt, there’s a catharsis when she’s finally able to scream while giving birth. When the movie is silent, each noise drops as if they were stepping on nails.
Speaking as someone who’s not a huge horror fan, I always look for fresh ideas for film. And when I was watching these films, sensory deprivation not only accentuates the tension but puts the audience in the character’s mindset. Whether it plays with sight and sound, the absence of a sense adds tension and can make familiar stories seems fresh, even if they fundamentally aren’t.