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Light Research @ MMU

Terror in the dark

This blog has celebrated the positive qualities offered by darkness, focusing on the enhanced conviviality, heightened non-visual sensations, interaction with the landscape and imagination that can be solicited by various encounters with gloom and complete blackness. However, chiming with prehistoric and medieval terrors of the crepuscular in eras of pervasive superstition and fear of malign forces, are the more modern attractions of the ghost train and the horror movie, in which such residual fears are transmuted into the carnivalesque delights of the fairground and the movie theatre. Here, darkness retains its capacity to invoke agreeable terror. A growing number of attractions, based on early modern dark rides and walks, utilize darkness to produce an intense, hilarious and pleasurably managed form of terror: walks through confined dark spaces in which actors and technicians join forces to taunt and terrify visitors with a medley of effects. An excellent example is The Fear Factory, situated on a busy street in the bustling tourist setting of Queenstown in New Zealand’s beautiful South Island.

Our party of three entered a red door and instantly pressed a button to dim the lights and install complete darkness, utter blackness except for the small red light – little more than an illuminated dot – that we were instructed to follow along a complicated sequence of twisting corridors. Advised to hold on to each other as we haltingly made our way through the labyrinthine path, tense hands gripped shoulders or midriffs. Right from the start, as we were plunged into darkness, very loud, sharp explosions frightened us into an attentive wariness. Very soon, complete darkness was interrupted by the hideous masked faces of clowns, horned devils and beasts that unexpectedly appeared inches away and which continued to intermittently materialize for the duration of the journey. So sudden were these apparitions that they were difficult to assimilate, as they loomed into view and immediately disappeared. In any case, there was no time for reflection, or to gather thoughts, for the body braced itself for the next shock: we could never be certain of when they would once more flash out of the darkness to jolt us. The attraction works through continual anticipation. The blackness also works to conceal the origin of grotesque appeals and lamentations from unseen presences, sometimes whispers that entered the ear from very close by, along with creaks, clanks and deeper dismal sounds. These wails and soft entreaties were supplemented by hands touching fingers, grasping at feet and brushing across hair and ears, and an enhanced tactile awareness is intensified by suddenly uneven and unstable flooring, strands of hanging material and mild electric shocks that further disorientated the body, which could never be prepared for what was coming next. The frenzy of shocks that continuously confronted passage through these pitch black channels fostered a giddy delirium, as infectious laughter and shrieks produced an intensely communal experience. We blundered through a door blinking into the light, back at the point of entry, suffused with relief that the shocks were at an end, utterly confounded about the length of time and distance, or number of people who had tormented us in the gloomy corridors. Apparently about one in 7 visitors never make it to the finish – they chicken out before the end.

Darkness is thus a condition that offers diverse possibilities for animators, architects, light designers and actors to offer experiences that imaginatively disorder the usual experiences of the visual world. These brief engagements take us back to older fears that are easily rekindled by a host of associations and familiar figures from popular culture that linger to ensure that darkness remains scary, in this sense, pleasurably so.

December 16th, 2016 - 16:21pm

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