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Why Movie Ghosts Always Start With Small Scares First

Things that go bump in the night, odd noises coming from the basement, spectral shadows in the hall. You know what that means. Time for a ghost to show up. What can we learn from these and other tropes of the genre and why do they all follow the same formula?

It begins with a bad dream and a thump in the other room. Perhaps a vision of an ethereal face, maybe a glimpse into a frightening future. From there, it’s a whisper in the dark or something out of place in the house, a chair or a doll, or a perturbed pet. Then it slowly escalates, with a closing door or a spectral reflection in a mirror. Maybe it’s some strange markings on the wall or dead animals strewn about the property. It’s not long after when demons or spirits show up and there’s fire or beams of hazy light, creepy creatures or little gray-skinned children lingering in the corners. And then comes the violence. What are we watching? It’s . . . the ghost movie.

No matter the plot in this horror genre, there is a rule that filmmakers rigidly follow when it comes to telling their stories. We’ll call it G.H.O.S.T. (Ghosts Haunt One Step at a Time), the perplexing exploratory nature of ghosts and demons in movies. There is no exception to this surprisingly uniform rule. It is the standard for which all films in the genre follow, and every story rigidly adheres, from Poltergeist to Paranormal Activity, all ghosts play the same game.

Before explaining why, let’s look at some classic examples to better illustrate the G.H.O.S.T. formula, and we might as well start big. The Shining (1980) is widely considered to be one of the greatest horror movies ever made, where a man, his wife, and their young son arrive at a remote hotel resort as caretakers for the off-season. Little do they know about the ghosts that haunt the halls. It starts small, with little Danny (Danny Lloyd), who already has telepathic abilities, seeing some odd visions.

The Shining, 1980

Then his father, Jack (Jack Nicholson) begins to lose his grip, having nightmares and suffering writer’s block before increasing demonstrations of anger and frustration. He begins talking with ghosts. By the film’s end, he’s slaughtered an innocent man and is chasing his family about the place with a fire ax while rivers of blood pour from the elevator shafts. In-between are a steady rise of creepy and disturbing images that steadily raise the tension.

Jack Nicholson (The Shining, 1980)

Then there’s 2013’s king-sized jump-scare party pack The Conjuring, about a young couple and their five children who move into a rundown farmhouse where naturally, their pet dog Sadie already senses something off and refuses to go inside. Not long after, the clocks all stop at the same time and then Sadie is found dead outside. There are odd noises in the hallways at night. Better get some help.

The Conjuring, 2013

By the film’s end, there is a full-on possession, a number of attempted horrific murders, an exorcism and lots of violent spiritual attacks. And did we mentions the jump scares?

Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga (The Conjuring, 2013)

2011’s Insidious (Hey, Patrick Wilson again), tells the story of a family whose young son suffers a minor fall and slips into a bizarre comatose state, becoming a portal for ghosts and demons. As expected, things start small: a few sketchy voices on a baby monitor; a rocking horse moving by itself; some random sleepwalking; a ghostly figure standing in the corner.

Insidious, 2011

But things eventually build to ugly demonic possessions, a trip to the ‘Further’ where tormented souls seek escape, and supernatural violent rage and murder.

Patrick Wilson (Insidious, 2011)

This year’s Keven Bacon entry in the genre, The Darkness, about an autistic boy who inadvertently takes home some rocks from the Grand Canyon and opens a portal for some Anasazi demons, starts out with some erratic behavior, a few blackened handprints on the bedspreads, and a small fire.

Kevin Bacon (The Darkness, 2016)

It then escalates to wild animal attacks, possession, attempted murder, visits from ancient demons, and a crossover to another dimension where a battle for a son’s soul rages.

The Darkness, 2016

Even the classics aren’t immune. As mentioned, the Steven Spielberg produced Poltergeist is a perfect example of this phenomenon. A family moves into a new suburban home (which happens to be built on an ancient Native American burial ground) and becomes the target of an aggressive haunting. It starts innocuously, even playfully at first, as the ghosts rearrange some chairs and open cupboards. They even have some fun with a few toys.

JoBeth Williams, Heather O’Rourke (Poltergeist, 1982)

But then it’s full-scale horror armageddon as a massive portal is opened, they kidnap a kid, then try to swallow up the neighborhood. What is that thing?

Poltergeist, 1982

And of course, Paranormal Activity, the now current standard for horror tropes, which tells (at least the original) of a young woman who has been plagued by odd occurrences her whole life. Her husband sets up cameras around the house in hopes of documenting anything strange going on while they sleep. Naturally, things begin small with quirky noises, doors opening, lights flickering and more.

Paranormal Activity, 2007

By the film’s gruesome end, it’s a full on possession with lots of screaming, violence, death, and a demon on the loose.

Paranormal Activity, 2007

These are just a very few of the titles that follow the formula, with more and more being made every year. The concept’s success isn’t hard to understand, nor the reasons behind it. Like the old maxim “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey”, we enjoy the build-up and discovery far more than the payoff. It’s also essential for storytelling, allowing the (good) filmmakers a chance to create backstory and even purpose behind their actions. But it’s more than that.

Fear is an autonomic response, triggered in part by the peripheral nervous system that regulates a number of internal organs and is perhaps best know in association with the term “fight-or-flight”. We don’t have any conscious control over this mechanism and when it is stimulated it travels along two distinct paths in your brain, nicknamed the high road and the low road. The low road is the shorter and without getting overly-detailed, is quick-reacting. With limited information, say a sudden noise, it shifts your body into protect mode, raising your heart beat, tensing muscles, preparing you to engage. It is your pet cat in the kitchen or has an intruder found a way in? The low road assumes the second. Better to be safe than sorry. The high road is a bit more refined. It takes that sound and considers the possibilities. It compares the noise with ones you’ve heard before. Does it match? It also assembles other options for what might have made the noise. It’s a slower process and reason why it takes a moment to settle down after you get startled.

Jessabelle, 2014

Ghost movies understand this well, or rather, the baser reactions that the two paths are made from and then exploits them. The jump scare is a textbook example of these two paths at work. By why doesn’t it wear off? Like a comedy we see over and over that loses its punch, why don’t we get used to the fear and become less frightened? In fact, why do they seem to get scarier?

It’s called fear conditioning and truthfully, helps keep you alive, or at least unharmed. Fear conditioning is a behavioral state where you learn to predict a fearful or dangerous situation. A crude example would be touching a hot stove. You do it once, and you’ve learned to always question the stove’s state afterward. It’s the same for spiders. Take that loud noise from above. It began with a neutral situation or context, in this case, the kitchen. The loud noise occurs, called an aversive stimulus (or unconditioned stimulus) and paired together form what’s called classical conditioning, where fear becomes the conditioned response. You learn to be scared.

Ghost movies stimulate that conditioning and each time your fight-or-flight response is triggered, the more it learns to stay sharp. No ghost movie would succeed if the family moved into the house and on the first day the demon possessed the little girl and in an eruption of wind and fire went on a spree. It would also be a short movie. So while the tropes of a slow-starting ghost are getting a bit tiresome and even predictable, their effectiveness rarely fails. Every scare primes us for the next and we sit in a heightened state waiting for the inevitable. It’s why ghosts always start with the small scares first.

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