Though Flanagan’s two films feature two vastly different threats (not much connects tunnels to mirrors), Absentia and Oculus are contextually one and the same. Both hinge upon flawed characters, people whose personal demons allow the supernatural antagonists to do their things. In Absentia, it’s drug addiction and a widow’s mourning; in Oculus, it’s the worst kind of childhood trauma. Much like how in, say, Stephen King’s The Shining, it’s Jack Torrance’s alcoholism that makes him such an easy target for the Overlook Hotel’s horrors.
Flanagan: Because I started off making this collegiate angst movies, character development was the first muscle I ever got to flex. I think that coupled with my respect for Stephen King’s work, and how he does the same thing, leads me to want to focus more on character than anything else. I’ll approach each one of my stories and say, “This has to function first as a drama. If I were doing an art-house indie drama, the characters would need to be the same and be just as well-drawn.” If you do that, once you introduce the genre/horror elements, they’ll feel like natural extensions of those people, as opposed to this separate alien force that’s becoming the star of the movie. The genre elements in a lot of horror movies are the draw, but if we populate movies with characters who are real people? That way, the genre elements will land so much better.
We approach everything with, “Strip out the genre elements and see if the movie still stands up and works.” If it doesn’t, we need to fix it.
The reason the horror genre exists in our cinema and our literature is that it’s a safe place to explore the darker sides of our own nature. There’s enough horror in our real lives that we all have to deal with, and enough darkness, that horror cinema is an environment where we can explore that and pick it apart, but then the lights come on at the end of the day. For me, for characters to really be present in a horror story, that darkness and frailty needs to already be a part of them. And usually, that’s the crack in their foundation through which the horror in the story can gain access. If we’re dealing with darkness and demonic forces, it’s way more interesting to me if they’re already wrestling with their demons. Our cinematic monsters can be expressions of their own psyches and what they already have going on—that just lands better for me.
That’s where ambiguity comes in and becomes really effective, too. Ultimately, the answer to whether something horrific and supernatural in a horror story is real or not doesn’t even matter. We know there’s evil in the world and we try really hard to understand it, and to give ourselves a reason why it exists. We want to give ourselves answers, but there aren’t answers for it in life. The scariest stuff just is. Part of the thing that I think will make my movies stay with people and burrow into them is that we don’t tie things up with a bow at the end. There can be room for doubts and questions after the story’s over. It doesn’t matter if it was real or not—it was real to the characters in the moments it happened, and that’s what important and what makes the horror last.
I like to hope that gives the films more staying power and encourages conversation. I love when people disagree and try to really pick something apart. Some of the most fun I’ve ever had with movies was having a completely different takeaway than someone next to me whose opinion I respect, and being able to discuss that with them afterwards. That’s what makes cinema exciting.