JILLIAN MCDONALD ESSAY BY MILENA PLACENTILE
Grand old houses, introduced from their exteriors, stand in varying states of occupation and repair; some are clean and filled with well recognized indicators of wealth, while others have been abandoned and sentenced to decay. Sharing what appears to be a quiet residential street, these houses also share the presence of dark energies and the tragedy of restless spirits.
Natural rumblings of rough weather are punctuated with the sound of squeaking doors, the tick tocks of old clocks, drips of water and blood, and whispering and faint moans emanating from unidentified sources. The normally charming twinkle of a music box quickly becomes foreboding, and squeals of feedback among other pitched abstractions affirm paranormal movement across time and space.
Drip. Drip. Drip. Blood falls from light fixtures, faucets, and down walls, onto the floor in puddles, into sinks and tubs swirling to pollute running water. The collected glimpses of rooms in the houses overcome with supernatural activity are crosscut with evidence of apparitions, still with vacant gazes, moving with mysterious intent, or locked in the experience of harm. Do they represent memories of past violence, signs of present danger, or do they foreshadow new terrors yet to be visited on this neighbourhood? The attire donned by these spectres reveal them to have walked these sites as living beings in different eras but, living on in states of confusion, distress, and pain, they are now connected. What brings them to this condition, and what provokes them to make themselves known?
A quick look into the legacy of horror in film reveals that creative depictions of inexplicable phenomenon and other unknowns were pursued early in the history of lens-based practices including the doctored negatives of American photographer William H. Mumler in the 1860s, and experimental shorts by French film visionary Georges Méliès in the 1890s. At this time, such work was not categorized as being motivated by either artistic purposes or commercial interest; rather, the aesthetic strategies developed were deeply linked to culturally-specific storytelling traditions. For example, Japanese filmmaking concerned with dark themes arose at the end of the 1890s and resonated with stories popular in the Edo/Tokugawa period (1603 - 1868) and Meiji Period (1868 1912) about spirits unable to rest in the afterlife due no living relatives performing the rites necessary to bring calm. The German Expressionists (1920s 1930s) embraced diverse media including painting and dance and, when film entered their vocabulary, they used it to continue investigations into topics such as madness, often in relation to the rise of modernity. Two highly recognized films connected with this movement that depict horrors both real and fictive include The Cabinet of Dr Caligari by Robert Wiene (1920) and Nosferatu by F. W. Murnau (1922). When the Nazis came to power in the early 1930s, various German artists escaped to the United States and brought with them their unique aesthetic that was quickly adapted by American film companies and employed in adaptations of popular Gothic era novels including Dracula and Frankenstein.
From this era onward, the genre of horror film became widely popular and thus commercially successful, both motivating and justifying the use of new technologies to produce special effects. The content of horror films also expanded. Just as the German Expressionists sought to explore the violent nature of modernity, filmmakers reflected on war and the space race through narratives that created the related genre of science fiction throughout the 50s and 60. In 1968, the Motion Picture Production Code that controlled film content was repealed at a time when social interest and fear over the occult was growing. This led to a new wave of horror films taking up themes related to the darker concerns of religion including, for example, demonic possession. Interestingly, it has been noted that most of these film involve possessed and otherwise evil women and children The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976) are two well known cases in point.
There has been no shortage of horror films since this peak period when many now classic works were produced; however, in this time, the quantity of films focused almost exclusively on extreme gore as a device is noteworthy. It is now somewhat rare that a mass market horror film provokes fear without relying on dramatic special effects instead of hints and almost gentle gestures as an invitation for viewers to fill in the rest with our own fears and anxieties. Blair Witch Project (1999), in addition to successfully employing unique promotional strategies, was applauded for its low-budget and thus low-tech approach, its partially improvisational character, and focus on storytelling that emphasized psychological horror. The Others (2001) by Spanish director, Alejandro Amenábar, was not quite as minimalist, but stands out as a film that captivates audiences with generally disciplined visual and spoken cues.
Psychological horror thus stands apart as a distinct vein in the wider genre of horror through its subtle strategies such as unnerving audio effects manipulated beyond the scope of reality to prompt and peak sensitivity over situations and build feelings of guilt, fear, or other emotional tensions for depicted characters and, ultimately, for the audience. This, combined with the inclusion of archetypal forms such as mothers and children -- help emphasize personal connections between the audience and the characters in question, further enhancing uneasiness regarding the darker aspects of human nature, which exist in everyone, yet everyone is trained to repress, or at least hide.
Beyond an homage
Beyond titling her work Redrum, Jillian Mcdonald reflects on Stanley Kubrick's classic adaptation of Stephen King's widely popular novel, The Shining, in aesthetically and thematically interesting ways. In The Shining, Jack Torrance accepts an isolating, off-season job at the old Overlook Hotel said to be built on the site of an Aboriginal burial ground, and moves there with his wife Wendy and son Danny. Unbeknownst to Jack and Wendy, their son is capable of communicating with supernatural beings and, in this case, the energy of the hotel itself. The hotel has a scenario it wishes to unfold and, not wanting to be interrupted, it possesses Jack and moves him to kill his wife and son. Redum is murder spelled backwards, and is a statement Danny see, writes, and speaks.
Although Jack's insanity is explained to be a result of this possession, it is noted well before his encounter with the dark spirit of the hotel that he had a history of violent behaviour that manifested in him beating Danny after excessive drinking. He calls it a one time accident, but the ways in which he verbally abuses Wendy implies that there is more to the story. This provokes two critical questions: what is evil and what forms does it take? If violence is an indicator of evil, we can see that it clearly exists without the intervention of supernatural forces.
Even if Redrum were not demonstrating references to The Shining on this theme, Mcdonald's work suggests family violence as a potential trigger for the supernatural disturbances via a notable absence of adult male ghosts, thus making men plausible perpetrators in each domestic environment. The seemingly different eras associated with the decor of each home, as well as the attire of each spectre, might therefore reflect on the nature of violence as something entrenched within the history of family experience. The popular idiom asks, who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? Indeed, it is the sheer pervasiveness of so much realized evil that makes it so terrifying and just about anyone can be responsible for causing harm. It is something potentially anyone can encounter.
Another resonant theme is the notion of buildings as animate objects. In The Shining, The Overlook Hotel built on a traditional burial ground could be said to be enacting revenge on the cultural ancestors of people responsible for committing horrific violence through colonization. The houses featured in Redrum were built in approximately the same era as that noted for The Overlook Hotel, and their architectural design suggests they are similarly located in North America, making connections with colonial history apparent. Both become awash with blood as preludes to additional paranormal activity. How and why? In the process of being formed by human imagination and hands, can architecture become invested with a life force that enables physical space to become a well for action, memory, and energy? Can a structure absorb supernatural qualities based on the history of place? Is this possibility relevant to all types of architecture? What about our own homes?
The role of makers; the role of viewers
In his recent text, John Massier writes that the most outstanding achievement of Redrum is that, despite clearly employing a deconstructive take on the filmic conventions of horror as a genre, it still evokes very real tensions, thus drawing viewers fully and completely into the world Mcdonald has created and unleashes.
Shot in high definition, this work is not filled with CGI or other highly complicated special effects. Instead, there are moments when the resolution of the visual imagery tells a parallel story: that of Mcdonald as an artist deliberately establishing anxiety and other uneasy emotional responses. Whereas many film/videomakers present theatrical blood it ways that dull recognition of it as merely an artificial prop, Mcdonald's blood is given ample opportunity to look abnormally opaque, or to diffuse in water like distinctly like paint. Toward the end of the video, when this blood is shown rolling down a wall in drips producing small vertical streams in proximity to two aesthetically unrefined works of art, the reinforcement of this blood as paint (and not the other way around) seems to transform the scene from a moment requiring suspended disbelief into a moment of disturbing reality. Mcdonald's capacity to both pull viewers in and push them out in the exact moment serves to underscore feelings of unease, making the overall experience all the more disquieting and transportative.
As is true in the case of all intriguing narratives, a tale is only as provocative as the the vision of the artist seeking to bring it to life. Well timed juxtapositions between what we know, what we think we know, and what we would rather not know are key to forming a gripping psychological journey. Mcdonald's Redrum offers just enough story to carry viewers along and well employs the concept of negative space by leaving aspects open to be filled by each viewer's independent imagination. Her less is more approach is also apparent in the way Redrum is visually stylized. For example, Kubrick's use of blood in The Shining involves waves washing through the hotel in a grand, dramatic gesture while Macdonald evokes similar terror using only limited quantities. Small and pooling drops in Redrum achieve the desired timbre for the work, thus demonstrating that artfully created psychological horror relies less on special effects and more in harnessing elements at precise moments.
Further distinguishing Redrum as an accomplished work is Mcdonald's effective delivery of cinematic horror without the tropes typical of most commercial productions: mediocre acting, overreaching yet still linear plot, unfathomable gore, and established source of malice. More importantly, she doesn't fall prey to the idea that her narrative must be resolved, either due to protagonists defeating the source of evil, or some other means. Redrum ends abruptly giving the sense that only a portion of the occurrences in action have been witnessed, leaving viewers to suppose that these moments are part of an ongoing disturbance without limits or controls. This, of course, encourages the audience to speculate further if this happens when we're looking, what happens when we are not? And what happens elsewhere at any other given time or place?
Yet, by identifying just closely enough with the traditions from which the above mentioned cliché devices are found, Mcdonald benefits from the best of both worlds; she recognizes the familiar moments that entice viewers to build anxiety and anticipation in relation to those narratives, and still encourage them to move through her work in unique and independent ways. The creative act of connecting elements in Redrum moves figures and environments from slightly abstracted shreds of evidence into an increasingly complicated world, turning an otherwise external collection of elements unidentifiable sounds, unknown histories, the harsh qualities of the natural and supernatural world, and the perhaps much more frightening inestimable capacity for humans to cause one another harm from content of a creepy video into an absorbing reflection on the supernatural and fear itself. McDonald invites viewers to serve as co-creators of Redrum she sets the parameters, draws us in, heightens the tone, and lets imaginations run wild.