4 Things ‘The Orphanage’ Can Teach Us About Good Horror

Tomas in "The Orphanage" by J.A Bayona
Tomas in “The Orphanage” by J.A Bayona

If there’s always one movie in recent times that I always recommend people to watch, it’s The Orphanage.

It’s the story of a woman who, with her husband and adopted child, return to the orphanage she grew up in, for the purposes of restoring and reopening it for a new generation of children. Her son claims to be talking to a ghost child named Tomas who wears a sack for a mask. When Laura catches a glimpse of this child, her son suddenly disappears, and what begins as a search for a missing child quickly turns into an uncovering of the dark history of the orphanage and a psychological rollercoaster ride for the distraught mother.

Here’s the trailer:

If you haven’t seen the film, go watch it now, and then come back and read this piece. Otherwise, I hope you share my opinion that it’s one of the most complete horror films in recent memory, and handles all the desires horror aficionados crave for with aplomb. I’ve learnt four things from The Orphanage that should be applied to any good psychological horror film, and these are:

1. Personal stakes are essential to a good horror story.

You’ve seen a million horror films use the trope of ‘innocent person in a normal setting stumbles upon unspeakable horror’, but The Orphanage is proof that the more a character’s past, present, and future are heavily intertwined with the horrors that await them, the more fulfilled we feel by its end.

From the beginning of the film, we have the character Laura who returns to the orphanage she grew up in, aspiring to reopen it for orphans along with her husband and adopted son. The premise itself is a beautifully personal touch from the get-go. When a social worker turns up at the orphanage to tell Laura and her husband that Simon has HIV, Simon finds out from his new imaginary friend, Tomas, that he is going to die soon, and that Laura is not Simon’s real mother. Once Simon goes missing, the audience finds out that this ghostly child was an orphan at the orphanage at the same time Laura was there; that he wore a mask to conceal his deformity; that the children made fun of him which caused him to go to a cave at a beach and drown; that the social worker was the boy’s mother seeking vengeance for his death; and that Laura was the last remaining orphan she had yet to kill!

So every plot point is intertwined with the characters, and wrings every ounce of emotion out of them by pitting their unfortunate circumstances against one another. It gives the audience a reason to feel for the characters, and makes them invest deeper into the story than they would normally have done.

2. Suspenseful narrative makes the horror more terrifying.

As good as a story could be, it’s nothing if it’s not told in an engaging fashion. With horror, we’re accustomed to writers and directors front loading the gore and the grotesque, but by the end of the story we’ve become desensitized to the horror that the otherworldly simply becomes the norm.

I’m personally of the suspicion that as horror became a genre in its own right (it was initially an offshoot of gothic literature — download my Psychronomicon if you already haven’t to find out more), it left a lot of tropes and literary devices behind that it has always sorely needed.

Nevertheless, considering all the personal stakes we’ve illustrated before, The Orphanage does justice to its story by presenting them in a mysterious, suspenseful fashion that keeps you on the edge of your seat as the revelations are slowly drip-fed throughout its run time. It keeps the plot along by continuously asking relevant questions: If Simon disappeared, where did he go? If Laura is the only person who has seen the sack headed ghost, is it even real? Why did that social worker have a keen interest in Simon, and what connection does she have to the orphanage?

To illustrate this, there’s a brilliant sequence in the middle of the film where Laura invites a psychic medium to try and contact spirits in the orphanage as a desperate attempt to find her son. In this sequence, only the eccentric medium wanders in the dark, quiet halls alone, while everybody else is in one room watching her through television screens and listening to the audio feed. It’s a white-knuckle moment as she stumbles around in the dark describing what she sees (and what we can’t), trying to unearth some sort of information for Laura. And then, when it almost appears Laura was wrong to turn towards a paranormal investigation, the audio feed betrays the presence of children, who cry, scream, and face an unseen horror as the sequence builds towards its crescendo.

Suspense provides a tasty morsel in the mystery puzzle, setting a film up for its next leg of suspenseful horror, and should be repeated to great effect throughout the course of the entire story.

3. Jump scares are the best, when it’s deserved.

There is a lot of criticism about shock tactics which admittedly have been abused by lazy writers and filmmakers.

It’s the same with writing too. If you’ve ever read an indie horror story on Kindle, most authors start off writing about whatever disgusting image they can throw at you within the first few pages, followed by another sequence full of disgusting imagery.

But a jump scare is only a problem when it hasn’t earned its right to scare. The other problem is failing to provide the shock we actually crave!

Think about it: in an action story, we want guns firing and people dying once the story has twisted itself to its climax. In a romantic comedy, we want the couple to get together after the fun, flirting, and mishaps. Likewise, in horror, we need the horror to assault us once the macabre build up has done its duty.

The Orphanage only has a few of these shocking moments, but I still remember it like I had watched the film yesterday. The best one in the film (and I implore you: if you haven’t seen the film, skip this paragraph now and watch it. DO NOT READ WHAT HAPPENS NEXT!), is when Laura is told by the police that the social worker is Benigna may have abducted Simon. After searching for Benigna for months, she spots her in the city, and begins chase. Crossing the road, Benigna is struck hard by a bus. Carlos tries to revive her. People gather around. Carlos looks up, wipes blood from his mouth, and shakes his head. A jacket is put over Benigna’s head. Laura swims through them and lays down next to her, losing hope of finding Simon. There’s a necklace around the dead woman’s neck. Laura picks it up to take a closer look. She attempts to pull it off her before they take the woman into the ambulance. The dead woman violently grabs Laura’s hand. The jacket slides off. Her jaw is split open like a fiendish, bloody maw.

A jump scare is a type of scare we need after we’re emotionally invested into the story. And the best ones mix sadness, hope, fright and disgust in expert fashion.

4. Ambiguous horror endings suck. Full fat endings are better.

There is a tendency for horror films and literature these days to leave their endings ambiguous, as if it makes the story more exponentially haunting. Sometimes this is due to cynical cash-grabs, where the creators leave the door open for sequels. Other times, the creators want to pull one last jump scare. Then there are a few stories which should have lead to a fulfilling and (gasp!) happy ending, but the writers/filmmakers have this silly notion that better horror has to end on a sour note.

I don’t like any of those options.

I’m not saying that ambiguous endings or ‘sad’ endings are always bad, because there are classics out there such as Rosemary’s Baby that end on a haunting note. What I am saying is that whatever the story’s goals were at the beginning, has to be successfully resolved by the end.

The Orphanage again provides us a solid example of what to do right in a horror story: when Laura begins to play ‘Statues’ with the spirit children, they lead her towards the entrance to the basement that had been covered by scaffolding. Inside, Laura finds the body of Simon that she had accidentally trapped in the basement for months. She then overdoses on sleeping pills and dies, and the ghost children, along with Simon, ask her to take care of all of them in the orphanage. While it may seem like a bittersweet ending, the fact is that Laura, who set out to take care of orphans, will be doing just that, except in a way she did not expect. On top of that, the death of the old orphans, the death of Tomas, and the death of Simon are atoned before the credits roll.

The Orphanage provides us with an emotionally fulfilling ending where we don’t feel cheated, simply because it satisfies all the questions it raised at the beginning of the film.

So there you have it. Four points gleaned from The Orphanage as to what makes great psychological horror.

I’ve incorporated what I’ve learnt from The Orphanage in the stories I write including my first short story called My Mysterious Lover: A Succubus Story that you can purchase right now.  If you’d like to keep up to date with me, or join my private Facebook group for horror, download the Psychronomicon, sign up to my e-mail newsletter where you get all that, and more in the future!

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