Asian vs Western horror: What Hollywood can learn from The Conjuring franchise

Asian vs Western horror: What Hollywood can learn from The Conjuring franchise

Channel NewsAsia’s Genevieve Loh finds out why Asian influences and perspectives in Hollywood horror films work.

A movie still from Annabelle Creation
Annabelle: Creation is the latest creepy instalment in The Conjuring franchise. (Photo: Annabelle: Creation)

SINGAPORE: Four years ago, Malaysian-born director James Wan’s The Conjuring came out of leftfield, took the international box-office by storm and was heralded as one of the scariest movies ever made - a reputation usually reserved for classics like The Exorcist, Alien, Psycho and Poltergeist.

Based on a true story, the film introduced us to Ed and Lorraine Warren (played by the excellent Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga in the movie), who are real-life paranormal investigators or “demonologists”. They were called upon to help out the Perron family who found themselves terrorised by a dark presence in their newly purchased old farmhouse.

The Warrens would go on to become noted for their investigations into the paranormal, claiming to have worked on more than 10,000 cases, including their involvement in the controversial real-life Amityville haunting case (the basis of 10 subsequent films).

The Conjuring also introduced us to Annabelle – the “demonically possessed” doll at the centre of what the Warrens considered as one of the most frightening and baffling cases they’ve ever taken on.

Annabelle Creation
Annabelle the doll is back in the latest instalment of The Conjuring film franchise (Photo: Annabelle:Creation)

The actual Annabelle, a Raggedy Ann doll, currently sits in a glass box at The Warrens Occult Museum in Connecticut and has served as inspiration for two more films in The Conjuring franchise - Annabelle (2014) and the upcoming Annabelle: Creation which opens in Singapore on Aug 8.

So what’s the big deal about yet another “based on a true story” haunted house yarn dealing with demonic supernatural dolls?

Well, in the dime-a-dozen horror film world of CGI and other cheap tricks, The Conjuring was a welcomed surprise.

Perhaps one of the main reasons for the movie’s phenomenal success was simply that this was a Hollywood horror film approached with a classic Asian horror sensibility.

Sarawak-born Wan’s Asian horror proclivities were out in full force and used to its greatest advantage. A great horror film is one that plays on your imagination and lingers even after you’ve long left the cinema, and The Conjuring - with its demonic doll trope - is exactly that kind of movie.

Whether or not you appreciate Asian horror movies, they've certainly given seemingly innocuous objects an unexpected air of menace. The very way horror films from this region bring out the creepiness in the everyday might just be the very reason why they trump their western counterparts.

“Growing up in Malaysia, when I was much younger, my aunties and uncles and grandparents would tell me ghost stories and I loved that. I can’t help but be fascinated by that world," said Wan in a previous interview.

“When I was growing up, my mum used to work in a hospital in Malaysia and she would tell me these stories (about what happened) in the hospitals she worked at, and in some ways I’ve put them into Insidious and I’ve put them into The Conjuring. In a lot of ways, the stories that I’ve heard have found their way into my films.”

Asian frightfests are successful because they invade the audience's personal space, according to Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom, co-directors of the 2004 Thai horror film Shutter.

''In Asia, it's mainly about something we feel close to, as opposed to Western films that put the emphasis on excitement and special effects,'' said Banjong in an earlier interview.

''Ghosts in Asian movies tend to relate to us and our lives. For example, the spirit that is staying in your house,” said Parkpoom. ''For Western horror movies, Christianity is often involved and also the devil. For me, the scary ghost is really about the darkness and sound. I believe that the ghost we have invented in our mind is the scariest ghost.''

A movie still from Hideo Nakata Ringu (1998)
A movie still from 1998's Ringu directed by Hideo Nakata (Photo: Ringu) 

In a 2005 International Herald Tribune report exploring Hollywood's recent affection for horror films from this part of the world, Tony Borg, president of American film distributor Tartan Video, said: ''There's an uneasiness one has when watching an Asian horror film that you just don't get from Western cinema.''

The Conjuring is one of the few recent Hollywood successes that did manage to create a similar sense of psychological unease.

Asian horror - as evidenced in very successful films like Hideo Nakata’s Ringu (1998) and Dark Water (2002), Takashi Shimizu's Ju-on (2002) and Thailand's Shutter (2014) - depends on a readily available supernatural framework and hinges heavily on the creation of its own myth.

And perhaps no place is as rich as Asia in its supply of ghouls, ghosts and superstitions.

Take Singapore’s Haw Par Villa theme park for example. Their infamous Ten Courts of Hell attraction explains in detail the torture and punishment for each sin one commits in a lifetime. Or the Malay folklore of the Pontianak (or Kuntilanak) – the mythical female ghost with long black hair, red eyes and a white dress who haunts and seeks revenge for her own death during childbirth, as well as the loss of her child.

With so much steeped in folklore and superstition, this may explain just why few original American films in the same tradition have emerged, and why the success of the never-ending wave of Asian horror is inescapable. 

Source: CNA/gl