A Rant About the Subjective Camera in Horror

We have to have this conversation ourselves, because hypocritical self-appointed moral arbiters are having it without us

Recently, as I prepared to return to writing for The Blood Shed more regularly (I had to significantly cut down on my output while helping my wife work on her student film, Predormitum; check out the Facebook page here), I found myself kicking around an idea for a listicle (because they are, after all, a clickbait delight) about movie monsters/killers with whom audiences are encouraged to identify (I do still plan to write that article at some point, but I don’t think it’s too big a spoiler to mention that the Frankenstein Monster was going to be a key example). But, like it does, my mind got to wandering, and ended up – again, in fairly typical fashion – at a point that annoys me and merits a rant.

There is a common argument (well, common in the kinds of things I read, anyway) that modern horror movies – slasher flicks in particular – consistently, even primarily, encourage audience identification with the murders by using the camera to capture the killer’s literal point of view, and that the genre is thus drawing in a sadistic audience and/or encouraging sadistic tendencies in viewers. The logic here seems straight-forward and simple enough; the audience naturally sees through the eyes of the camera, so when the camera sees through the eyes of the killer, the audience is positioned as the killer. Makes sense, right? And, hey, it is certainly true that, since the early 1960s, there has been a trend to use subjective shots from the killer or monster’s POV in horror movies, particularly horror thrillers, such as slasher flicks.

Never trust an argument about a complex, nuanced topic that seems that obvious. What it means, almost without fail, is that the person making the argument cannot or will not think of anything BEYOND the obvious (or at least doesn’t trust you to think of anything beyond the obvious), and is almost certainly presenting wholly erroneous conclusions. In this case, the “obvious” conclusion about the camera’s literal POV being the primary factor in defining the audience’s intellectual and emotional POV represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the grammar of cinema and the way that audience identification works.

(As much as this issue may offend me as a horror fan, the truth is that is pisses me off WAY more as a pedantic film nerd who doesn’t like seeing people presenting totally uninformed arguments about film theory.)

THE PRIMARY MEANS BY WHICH AUDIENCE IDENTIFICATION IS ESTABLISHED IN VISUAL NARRATIVES IS THROUGH THE CLOSE-UP. Please excuse the all caps, but that sentence really, really needs to be souted in a lot of people’s faces, and the best I can really do right now is virtually shout it in their… virtual faces? No, I guess you read with your real, literal face, don’t you, you buncha face readers?

Now, it is absolutely true that subjective camerawork can be used to heighten viewer identification in a visual narrative, but this only works when the POV is combined with close-up shots of the person whose POV we’re occupying. Alfred Hitchcock broke the process down to three pretty simple steps: show a character looking at something, show what he’s looking at, then show what his reaction is. This is key: the audience’s reaction to a subjective shot is defined by the context of the face of the character whose point of view the shot represents.

AnnieIn a movie like Friday the 13th, we spend a lot of time seeing things from the killer’s POV, a choice made specifically to obscure the character’s identity. So, if we’re not empathizing with the killer, then with whom are we empathizing? Well, the most famous POV sequence in Friday the 13th has the killer behind the wheel of a car, picking up hitchhiking soon-to-be-victim Annie (Robbi Morgan). And throughout the scene, the camera isn’t focused on the road, as the driver’s vision really ought to be, but rather on Annie. Most of the scene is an extended close-up on Annie, encouraging the audience to identify with her.

Why would the filmmakers lead us to identify with the victim, though? Oh, gee, I dunno, maybe because THE MAJORITY OF HORROR FILMMAKING IS TARGETED AT A MASSOCHISTIC AUDIENCE, NOT A SADISTIC ONE. Most of us don’t watch horror movies to feel like monsters, we watch them to feel like victims, and then to overcome our fears, to ultimately empathize with the characters who defeat the monsters.

Psycho-Norman-Bates-Voyeur-545x307Of course, if the close-up is the all-important key to audience identification with the character, what of movies that use a subjective camera from the perspective of an anonymous or masked character, but view the characters from a distance? Again, the result here is not, as reactionary critics tend to baselessly claim, that audiences take on the voyeuristic pleasure of the stalker. For that to work, we absolutely need to have the stalker’s face for reactions (as in the influential but also wildly atypical Psycho, where we focus on Norman’s reactions during his scenes of voyeurism). Rather, the purpose and the result of subjective voyeuristic scenes is to make the audience feel vulnerable to voyeurism themselves. We don’t feel like we’re watching, we feel like we’re being watched.

Look, I’m a bleeding heart liberal with serious concerns about the content and the implications of many, many of the films in the horror genre. Horror flicks can be reactionary, racist, misogynistic, and ugly in a wide variety of ways, and outside of academic circles, there is not nearly enough discussion of these issues within the horror community. And that’s a problem, because it means the people who most frequently and vocally engage in public discourse about these topics are politicians, overprotective parents and mouthpieces for organized religion who are all speaking from a place of near complete ignorance – ignorance about the variety of themes and styles explored in the genre, and ignorance of even the most basic concepts of how visual media convey ideas and emotions.


For lots of other articles, some of them much less opinionated and bitchy, keep reading The Blood Shed.  And, hey, maybe go take a look at our Facebook page!

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  • MikeOutWest
    3 May 2015 at 7:59 pm - Reply

    Great article, Evan. Personally I haven’t come across such dumb arguments (other than the whole “torture porn” brigade), but its nice to have some eloquent and easy to remember ripostes just in case!