Stephen King (maybe you’ve heard of him? He directed Maximum Overdrive) once famously broke fear down into three distinct categories: Gross-Out, Horror, and Terror. Gross-Outs are mutilations, beheadings, graphic murders and the like. Hostel? Pure gross-out. Hellraiser? It has a lot going on beyond body horror and blood but it definitely has Gross-Out in spades.
Then there’s “Horror,” which King defines as the unnatural. It’s the dead rising from their graves, “when the lights go out and something grabs you by the arm.” The final category he breaks down is “Terror.” This is, according to him, the worst of them. It’s, “when you come home and notice everything you own has been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute…when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around there’s nothing there…”
Plenty of other experts in the genre have given their own take on how to categorize horror. There’s no hard-and-fast rule, no secret recipe that makes for a great scare in a horror movie. It’s equal parts skill and luck.
With Spooky Season officially underway, it feels like the right time to take a look at a few great movie scares and why they’re so effective, why they leave us turning our bedroom lights out a little bit more cautiously at night. There’s been enough writing on classics like The Shining and Halloween so we’re going to keep this contained to films from the 21st century, newer additions to the canon that have staked their claim as the best the new class has to offer.
And what better place to start than with the Clap-Clap scene from James Wan’s 2013 horror revelation The Conjuring?
You could certainly argue that this scene played less effectively in theaters considering that it was released more or less in full as the film’s first trailer. Then again, if you have a setpiece this instantly iconic, why wait to show it to your audiences? More importantly, is it any less effective when you know it’s coming?
Let’s back up for a minute. Wan’s 2011-2013 double-whammy of Insidious and The Conjuring has defined the modern generation of mainstream horror. Whether this is a good or bad thing varies depending on who you ask. Detractors may call out what they perceive as an overreliance on tacky jump-scares and an inability for either film to resolve itself in a satisfactory fashion. Fans might point out that Wan’s blockbuster flair has helped elevate mainstream horror to the point that low-rent schlock like the upcoming Countdown is (rightfully) overlooked by audiences in favor of fare with more deliberate craft to it. Wan’s approach to horror has made the genre as profitable as ever and managed to attract actors who, a decade ago, may not have dared to touch a horror script.
But mostly it’s the jump-scares. Wan isn’t one for agonizing sequences of violence, nor is he particularly concerned with using tone to create excruciating dread in his audience the way that a film like The Witch might do. He draws heavily from the Poltergeist realm of haunted house stories and focuses largely on character and setpieces. This admittedly leads to something of a gluttony of jump-scares that seem to play to diminishing returns, but when they’re good, they’re great. And there’s perhaps no single better scare in any of Wan’s movies than the Clap-Clap scene in The Conjuring.
It’s too complex to just be a jump scare, even if one figures prominently into the setup (but not the payoff). The scene is set up earlier in the film during a game of “hide and clap,” a variation of hide-and-seek in which the people who are hiding clap intermittently to give the seeker hints at where they may be. The seeker, in this version of the game, wears a blindfold.
It takes place shortly after the Perron family has moved into their new home (spoiler alert, it’s a little bit haunted). The kids are playing a game of hide and clap with their mother Carolyn (played by Lili Taylor), who’s “it.” There’s this super chilling moment where we see a pair of hands – hands that very clearly don’t belong to any of her children – reach out from the inside of a wardrobe and clap. When she confidently opens the wardrobe doors she finds there’s nobody inside. She’s soon distracted by her kids and the game winds down.
We follow up later that night and it’s where the real terror begins. There’s something unsettling enough about what we’ve already seen – not just the creepy hands but the fact that it’s unresolved, that we know something unseen is lurking around the house. After the kids have been put to bed Carolyn hears a clap, which begins to set up the real setpiece. That clap ratchets up the tension immediately; we know that whatever was creeping behind Carolyn earlier is still somewhere in the house…and almost certainly trying to lure her away from her family at the moment.
When the clap proves ineffective in that effort, we get a good ol’ fashioned jump-scare (and one that isn’t set up at all, which makes it even more unsettling). We hear a crash – so it’s not a fakeout jump scare. Something has happened. Carolyn rushes to the staircase and we see that all of the framed photos lining the wall have fallen off. Something is going on…but what?
Wan takes his time here. We slowly follow Carolyn as she carefully surveys the hallways and rooms of the house – hallways and rooms we know because of how well they’re established in the prior hide-and-clap scene. The way the camera follows her mostly from behind through long, careful takes is so effective here – we only see what Carolyn sees. Her point of view is ours. Another clap rings out, leading her to the staircase that descends into the basement. At this point the scene feels like a well-executed setup for a jump scare – and then Wan pulls the rug out from under us.
Something pushes Carolyn and she violently tumbles down the stairs, landing on the floor below. It’s shocking and aggressive, the act of something malicious trying to physically harm her, not just scare her. As she groggily recovers, a tiny red ball appears – one also set up in a previous sequence (and an homage to the single best scare in the 1980 horror classic The Changeling). It sends Carolyn racing back up the stairs as she now knows there’s something supernatural afoot.
And that’s when the lights go out.
The lighting from here on out is probably the coup de grace of the scene. We sit in total darkness, experiencing the same sensory deprivation of Carolyn for a few seconds. She lights a match and, crucially, the scene is lit by that match and that match alone. It goes out. She lights another. And after a moment, a pair of hands appear over her shoulder and clap twice.
We never see who those hands belong to. The film cuts immediately to Carolyn screaming and pleading for escape behind the now-locked basement door. But those hands – good lord, what an effective touch. It’s so small but so effective. The scene has built to this singularly perfect moment that capitalizes on the sense of fear established from the moment they’re set up. Something is stalking Carolyn, something neither she nor we can fully see or understand. We spend so much of the scene following her, only seeing what she can see, only to realize that perhaps this whole time we’ve had the point of view of the specter stalking her throughout her home. Like its first appearance in the wardrobe, it’s always been right behind her. And when it reveals itself there’s no gaudy CGI reveal, no big musical cue to drive the point home. There are just two hands appearing over her shoulder and clapping.
It’s a chilling moment, the absolute masterpiece of Wan’s career in horror so far. It’s the measuring stick by which all mainstream horror setpieces must now be judged. Deceptively simple and terrifying from beginning to end, it’s so incredibly well-staged and executed. The lighting, the lack of music, the way Wan ratchets the tension up further and further as the scene progresses, and the framing of perspective throughout makes it clear that we’re seeing the work of a master of the genre. It’s a scare firmly rooted in classicism, in the history of horror and how it’s made at its best. It is, above all, absolutely terrifying.
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