Incident in a Ghostland is a story of two teenage sisters. The younger one, Beth, loves to write and read horror stories, the other one, Vera, is mostly annoyed with everything and especially them moving with their mom to a house of a deceased aunt in the middle of nowhere. We see them first in the car, driving to their new house. First a solitary Amish boy in the middle of the road. Then, a candy truck popping up behind them, with the ‘alarms’ on, driving ridiculously fast. A dark figure waves from inside. Strange. The aunt’s house happens to be even stranger. It is an old, big house and every inch of it is packed with pictures, lamps, figurines and dolls. Dolls everywhere. Not a good omen. Not at all. And then it starts.
The movie opens with a reference to H.P. Lovecraft, and there are more horror references and tropes. The solitary boy (Children of the Corn), the trouble starting when Beth gets her first period (Carrie), an early jumpscare behind a mirror, to name a few. But, is it a horror movie?
Vera asks Beth what her horror stories are even supposed to mean. Beth replies that they are supposed to be scary. Earlier I said that horror should be scary, but in a specific way. They have to be scary in a way that cannot be. It cannot be real. It cannot happen. Horror emerged after the Enlightenment. After that period it was scientifically established what can and cannot be the case. For example; something cannot be alive and dead, animate and inanimate, etc. Horror transgresses these lines of possible and impossible. In horror, the world as we know it shows cracks. The world’s fundamental categories are under attack. Sometimes with an scientifically impossible monster, sometimes with a morally impossible monster. And sometimes it comes from within. It is not the world that becomes unknown and fearful, but the protagonist itself.
In horror the protagonists play a specific role, because they inform us about the horrific beings. In a way the focus is on the monster, through the eyes of the protagonist who usually tries to survive and figure out the monster. Of course, it is possible that the account of the protagonist is not reliable. Maybe the world is still as we know it, but the protagonist is having a psychotic break. Then, what the protagonist experiences (and what we get to see through his or her eyes) could be like a horror, but in the story world all is still well.
However, there is one other element that usually categorizes something as a horror. Torture. The opening up of the body. The body seems to have become a category on its own: a body should stay complete (except when it needs to be saved medically). This has not always been this way. Torture has not always been a moral impossibility in society. At the same time as the horror stories emerged, the public torturings and hangings disappeared from the public space. They were deemed ‘inhumane’. The body was no longer a place to make the criminal suffer, as he had done unto others. A torture was ‘personalized’ to restage the ‘horrors’ that had been done. Punishment was an art of unbearable sensations, to quote Foucault. It was open for all to see, so everybody could witness the truth of the crime committed, often for hours on end. A spectacle. And sometimes that spectacle ended in a rioting public with the criminal saved, failures to execute a certain torture, a last minute redemption or witnessing the criminal repent.
Director Pascal Laugier plays in Incident in a Ghostland with the reliability of protagonist Beth. We know that what she sees is not always correct. Her delusions are an escape from a horrifying reality. That reality is one of torture, she and her sister are in the hands of ‘a witch and an ogre’ who already brutally killed their mother. The ‘witch’, a man dressed in women’s clothes, dresses her up as a doll. The ‘ogre’, a formless huge man that seems to have the capacities of a child, sniffs her genitalia, hits and rapes. Man-woman, child-adult, doll-human, it is a play with (soft) categories, but it is not supernatural. It is however torture.
To compare Beth’s family with the other two families I have used to define horror, hers is not traditionally ‘complete’: there is no father. In the opening minutes we see Beth grab a horror book called ‘Daddy’s home’. Maybe there is an extra layer there. The people who do come to the house are men: the witch and the ogre. However they are both mixed: man-woman and man-child. The first ‘actual’ man in the house saves them.
Director Billy O’Brien said in a Q&A after I Am Not A Serial Killer, that the moment you introduce a supernatural element half of the viewer base will love it and half of them will lose interest immediately and think the movie is bad. Incident in a Ghostland tricks you but it is not supernatural. Scientific boundaries are not transgressed. Everything we see is possible. Moral boundaries are transgressed. Torture makes it horror.