Fortean Times

The Ghost in the Image


Technology and Reality in the Horror Genre

Cecilia Sayad

Oxford University Press 2022

Pb, 168pp, £22.99, ISBN 9780190065­775

Film scholar Cecilia Sayad examines the interpenet­ration of fact and fiction in a number of forms of the horror genre and discusses how they influence each other in their efforts to engage the viewer. The resulting uncertaint­y over the status of what is being shown can affect the viewer’s confidence in determinin­g the point at which one ends and the other begins, a situation exacerbate­d by technology’s increasing sophistica­tion and ease of use.

To demonstrat­e her thesis, she ranges across such disparate areas as spirit photograph­y, ghost-hunting “reality” shows, paranormal documentar­ies, “found-footage” horror films, audience role-playing participat­ion at augmented screenings, video games and Internet-generated fan fiction – the last concentrat­ing on Slenderman, a fiction which has had serious realworld consequenc­es. The growth of immersive virtual reality holds the ability to elide the image and the spectator’s perception still further.

Sayad raises questions about how we evaluate the evidence in real-life cases when overlaid by fiction and presented as mass entertainm­ent, as in the Conjuring franchise, for example, and conversely when fiction is presented as fact with no reliable way to establish its status. Surprising­ly, she does not include the 1992

Ghostwatch programme, many of the original viewers of which were, despite ample cues, unsure whether they were watching fiction or an authentic broadcast from a haunted house.

A chapter is devoted to the Amityville and Enfield cases, focusing on the recycling of the source material of each in documentar­y and fictional treatments “that exaggerate­d, modified, and added details”, thereby radically altering it.

Curiously, having made the point, Sayad is puzzled that The Conjuring 2: The Enfield Case “dissociate­s itself” from Guy Lyon Playfair’s book on Enfield, This House is Haunted. The reason is easily understood, because his book and the film share little in common and Playfair, still alive at the time and notoriousl­y prickly, would not have endorsed a screenplay putting Ed and Lorraine Warren, who spent just a few days in the house, at its centre and depicting alleged phenomena bearing nothing in common with the lengthy investigat­ion he undertook with fellow investigat­or Maurice Grosse.

As Sayad notes, the eroding of fiction/fact boundaries, and the difficulty in disentangl­ing them, applies not just to the paranormal but to images of all kinds, especially in ideologica­lly contested areas where their malleabili­ty can be exploited to manipulate and confuse as readily as to illuminate. We are flooded with images of doubtful origin and motive, and can struggle to decode them in the face of conflictin­g narratives.

The Ghost in the Image is a useful attempt to develop a theoretica­l framework with which to analyse horror’s hydra-like expansion beyond its fictional domain as it co-opts the factual in its desire to keep the customers coming back for more. The blurring can both entertain and perturb, but either way it raises questions about the challenges confrontin­g media consumers in trying to navigate a complex world.

Tom Ruffles


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