This essay may contain spoilers.
We humans are a noisy a-f bunch. In the first few days since I watched John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place in theaters, I couldn’t help but wince at every sound I made: the clackity-clack of the keyboard while I typed this, the glassware clanging when I put them away, and the cascading swoosh of the water as it flowed over my hands in the sink. It’s all… so… noisy! I have serious doubts as to whether I would survive in this post-alien invasion world.
Noise, sound — hearing it and making it — is part of being human. There’s a comforting aspect to it, like a parent cooing a baby to sleep. There’s also an unsettling aspect to it, like a screech on the road followed by a heavy, metallic crunch. In the latter, we turn to the source of the sound in urgency. How serious is it? Was someone hurt? The sounds send our brains into overdrive as we quickly draw up the worse conclusion possible. It’s precisely this aspect of humanness that makes A Quiet Place a successful psychological horror film. It controls our attention while allowing our minds to go crazy.
But it’s not just the noises that get us. It’s also the lack of noise, too.
Horror and psychological thrillers are my guilty pleasures. Being raised on a healthy diet of scary-as-shit Japanese movies and folklore in Japan, Krasinski’s A Quiet Place was a welcome work of cinema that, oddly enough, made me homesick.
Throughout my childhood, I often visited my grandparents in Fujisawa, a city west of Kamakura. If this was any ordinary house I wouldn’t mention it but my grandparents didn’t live in just any house. Their house was the type that would turn any imaginative kid into an insomniac who was afraid of the dark.
The house was unlike any other in the area. Aside from some small upgrades to the structure, like a toilet with plumbing (yup), the squat building had a wooden exterior, and glass sliding doors served as the front door. Inside, there’s a narrow foyer with steps that lead into the main room of the house, or down a dark cold hallway. To get to the house, you had to climb about 15 to 20 steep concrete steps (a big deal for a 6 year old). There were a few times though, when we parked the car in a lot behind the house, when dad led us on an amateur Lara Croft-type adventure. We’d jump from the concrete parking lot into an overgrown bramble. Then, without ropes, somehow managed to shimmy up a concrete wall and climb over the fence bordering the back of the house. Mom never ventured this route and opted, instead, for the long way around: down the hill, around a second lot and up the steep steps.
The eeriness of the house hits you as soon as you stand in front of it. There’s a strangeness to the place. It feels as though you’re being watched, and the your skin goes prickly with goosebumps. Next thing you know, you start hearing things. Except there’s no sound but your own breathing and the dull swoosh of the traffic on the nearby road.
I often whispered to myself that the house is haunted. I was seeing and hearing and feeling things my brain was making up because, like I said, this wasn’t any ordinary house. Unlike the other buildings nearby, my grandparent’s house was a small Buddhist temple with a house attached to it. There were also two, over-sized gravestones standing side-by-side across the samll lot. A bright red torii and Shinto shrine were also on the property. My grandparents were caretakers of the temple grounds on which they lived, a piece of land no bigger than Greeley Square, at 32nd and Broadway.
It’s been over a decade since I visited the house but it’s one of those things you never forget. It’s where my mind inevitably goes to when I’m watching horror and psychological thrillers or when the hair on my neck prickles up.
In the daylight, the haunting feeling of being watched is easier to deal with but at night? Well, night is a different world entirely. Sandwiched between the futon layers on the tatami floor of the central room, it’s easy to get spooked. Images of foggy woodlands and swamp lands with yuurei and oni and other frightening spirits of mischief infiltrate the 6-year-old mind.
Lying at night in the dark I listen. But listening for what? Anything. Nothing. I just want to sleep.
I look around the dark room but I can’t see anything. A soft glow from the street lamp outside seeps through the shoji doors but it’s not enough to tell you where anything is. You only have your memory to guide you: the small black altar atop the brown dresser, and lithographs and photographs along the mantel just under the ceiling. These images in the main room are nice, except, at night I often saw the women harvesting the wheat fields as menacing witches. But it wasn’t this room that freaked me out the most. It was the next room over. My grandpa’s room. The one that was used for very important meetings but also led to the bath room on one side, and connected to the hallway that led to the shrine, the toilet and laundry unit on the other.Grandpa’s room was creepy. It sent shivers up and down my body whenever I crossed the threshold of the room to go to the toilet, which you hope you never have to use at night because at night, that room is scarier than Ralph greeting you from the food pantry at Camp Silver Lake with doomsday messages. On one side of the room was an entire shrine-like set-up with a variety of dolls lined along the top-most shelf. There were also paintings of oni, and calligraphic words that looked like strange demonic animals. The room itself gave off a vibe that urged you to get in and out of the room as quickly as possible. That room just never felt quite right.
Curled up in my futon, I looked around the dark room at night. I watched with eyes half closed at the paper white door separating the main room from grandpa’s room. Why? Because I was scared that some ghostly spirit or stranger or killer or demon would slowly open that door, crawl into our side of the house and kill us all (except for grandpa who always slept in that hollow-feeling room).
But even if I did close my eyes, I couldn’t stop my brain from concocting outrageous images based on the subtle sounds that haunted the place. Was that someone coming down the hallway? Who is that? Did someone just enter the house? Is that sniffling from the closet? The monsters and demons are everywhere but I don’t want to look.
Despite blocking out the imagery, I couldn’t block out the sounds — and that’s what made this house scary and that’s why Krasinski’s film is so good.
There are some elements of the film that I didn’t care for, such as the insect-like look of the aliens that haunt the post-invasion world of the fictional Abbott family. But this is a minor detail that doesn’t detract from the overall film. What’s more important is that these aliens are very fast, and have an insane sense of hearing that allows them to hunt and kill. They don’t have eyes (or they’re blind), which makes this feature all the more impressive and, well, scary. In a way, the big ear and acute hearing symbolizes how loud humans are on the one hand, but also how deaf the able-bodied can be to surrounding noises or lack thereof.
The aliens are bizarre and eerie. When it hears a sound, the thing opens its head, revealing a ridiculously large ear and ear canal. With this, it’s able to differentiate naturally occurring sounds (like wind blowing up a page of newspaper) to animals or non-nature noises (like raccoons foraging scraps or glass shattering on a carpeted floor). If it determines the sound to be the latter, it stalks the noise-maker, haunting it, and then strikes. Instant death. I was sitting in my chair, gripping my arms tighter and tighter as the movie progressed.
Whenever there’s a really loud noise, you can’t help but hold your breath, too. Is my shallow breathing loud? Will the aliens be able to hear me if I aggressively drop a soft load of laundry on the wooden steps? A creak in the floor? What sounds will attract these aliens? Better to err on the side of survival and try to make no sound at all.
There were a lot of jump scares and some cheap shots familiar with horror and psychological thrillers more generally. Regardless of their effectiveness, I was clenching my arms tighter and tighter as the movie progressed (have I mentioned this already?). Then, towards the end of the film, I was able to unclench one of my hands to wipe away dewy streams of heartbreak and sadness off my cheeks. In an act of ultimate sacrifice, Lee Abbott (John Krasinski) saves his two children Regan and Marcus (Millicent Simmonds and Noah Jupe) from one of the aliens attacking them, Jurassic Park-style, in an old pick-up truck. You get a quick moment to take a deep breath before you realize it’s not over. After all, the drama around Regan’s hearing aids wasn’t for nothing.
What I particularly enjoyed throughout the film is the use of sound, especially very early in the film. When the hearing members of the Abbott family were in frame, you hear the surrounding sounds they hear: trees and leaves rustling in the breeze, sand lightly crunching under their bare feet (yes, they’re barefoot the whole time!), the stream flowing and so on. When Regan (Simmonds), the oldest daughter and deaf member of the Abbotts is in frame, everything is noticeably quieter if not completely silent. There’s an ambient, low buzz. It’s as though you’re experiencing deafness with her. This is a crucial technique that makes A Quiet Place such a great movie. Many other films in the genre use similar sound techniques to indicate a particular moment in the film and build up psychological momentum. In Krasinski’s film, the technique is aligned, more or less, with the actual experiences of the characters which we come to relate to.
There are multiple scenes throughout the film where Regan is engrossed in something and doesn’t notice what’s going on around her. This, no doubt, can be frustrating for a family whose entire survival depends on being completely quiet. Regan relies on certain context cues to keep her informed of her surroundings and this is a character trait that speaks volumes about fear and terror.
It’s not enough to just close our eyes to shut out the scary stuff, as I’ve tried to do at my grandparents’ house growing up, because it’s the sounds themselves that continue to paint our imaginations and feed our fear of a creeping monster.
Horror and psychological thrillers have a certain attraction to them. I’m not entirely sure why this is the case, but it might have something to do with “feeling alive.” The fear is real but the relative safety, the assurance we have that the portrayed harm won’t come to us makes the whole affair exciting.
Our bodies react to horror films. Most notably our muscles tense up. It happens all the time whether we realize it or not and it happened from minute one of A Quiet Place, and pretty much every genre film I’ve watched, including Ghost Stories (Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman) and Personal Shopper (Olivier Assays).
The cut and editing also play an important part of the psychological thrill, forcing your eyes to move along with the frame. In some cases though, like Krasinski’s film, there aren’t very many cuts but the use of the frame is enough to make your eyes move. The characters take up a central position in the frame, and while they’re in focus, they’re not your focus. You’re more interested in what’s happening, or could be happening, behind them. You’re looking around to see if the alien is lurking somewhere in the dark. You’re scouting and waiting for the reveal. You’re straining to hear any signs of a monster. You’re tense and BOOM jump scare.
In a podcast for the Bureau of Creative Works, director Ani Simon-Kennedy says “the audience’s imagination will always be a thousand times scarier than anything you could show.”
As reported by the website No Film School, an “It’s Okay to Be Smart” episode explains that sounds can be scary in two ways: by being sudden or by generating a “frightful” tone, and the brain experiences sound-based fears differently from visual-based fears. On top of all that, sound information travels faster than visual information, which the No Film School piece suggests is an evolutionary defense mechanism to protect against predators. It’s a similar defense mechanism that other animals use, like deer or rabbits, when they’re grazing and their ears twitch this way or that.
In some ways, this explains Regan’s character in A Quiet Place and her ability to be calm and volunteer to forage in the woods with her father. This trait is immediately apparent within the first 15 minutes of the film when the youngest Abbott son, Beau (Cade Woodward), turns on a rocket toy he picked up on a foraging trip and gets snatched up by the alien. Regan, who’s walking immediately in front of Beau, doesn’t hear the pew pew of the toy but the rest of the family does and stops. It’s this visual cue that alerts Regan to a problem and she then turns around to look at Beau. She can’t hear the toy but she knows that her youngest brother is in trouble.
This scene is intense. The motion of Lee Abbott (Krasinski) setting his sickly son Marcus (Jupe) down and running towards Beau is a breath-stopping moment of “oh shit, is he gonna make it?!”
The sound of the rocket toy continues, Lee’s breathing gets heavier as he sprints as fast as he can, and the rustling in the woods of the alien — all of it sends shivers down the spine — and you want to yell “turn it off!” but you can’t because you might attract even more aliens and wipe out your entire family. You can feel the agony when wife and mother, Evelyn Abbott (Emily Blunt), covers her mouth as an act of quiet screaming because she can’t make a sound. (Did I say it’s intense?)
This calls to mind a scene in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park where Lex (Ariana Richards) turns on a flashlight and ends up attracting the escaping T-Rex. Luckily, her brother Tim (Joseph Mazzello) knows better and yells at her to “turn it off!” And like Beau, it’s too late for Lex and Tim as the T-Rex attacks their car through the sunroof and smashes the car and throws it into the tree top (but unlike Beau, Lex and Tim survive). Both scenes are intense but the differences in how we experience those scenes are distinct.
In the case of Beau playing with the rocket toy at the head of the bridge, the constant rustling sound making a beeline for the young boy implies the fear of ultimate death. We don’t see the alien but we can only imagine what it looks like and what it’s capable of doing. And whether we want to admit it or not, we also know and fear Beau’s end.