Primal emotions are the most ferociously subjective. If you find something hilarious, there’s no coherent argument anyone can make to persuade you otherwise; if you don’t, you can only stare in baffled wonder at the folks who are laughing their fool heads off. (“Okay, explain to me why this is funny,” my dad said to me 15 or so minutes into Fantastic Mr. Fox.) And the most primal emotion of all, arguably, is fear, upon which we and all other creatures depend for survival. No two people are frightened by precisely the same things, which is why Orwell’s terrifying Room 101 in 1984 contains something different for each poor soul who steps inside. What’s more, there’s a certain vulnerability involved in just admitting that something scared the living shit out of you, especially if that something prompts mere shrugs from others. It’s not as intimately embarrassing as confessing a sexual fetish, but it’s in the ballpark.
“More frightened than I’ve ever been in a movie theater” —Mike D’Angelo, Time Out New York
You’ll find that breathless blurb on the DVD of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s J-horror classic Pulse, which I first saw at the 2001 Toronto Film Festival. It’s not an exaggeration. In fact, I seriously considered fleeing the theater after seeing the scene I’m about to show you, primarily because it takes place only half an hour into the movie, and I wasn’t certain I could survive another 90 minutes in that vein. (As it turned out, while the rest of the film is terrific, there’s only one more truly scary moment, and it doesn’t pack remotely the same wallop, at least for me.) I look back on the experience fondly 10 years later, but it wasn’t pleasant at the time; the intense physical response—tachycardia, hyperventilation, rampant gooseflesh—was what I imagine a panic attack must feel like. I seriously thought I might pass out. And yet many friends have more or less yawned through it, and so may you. Still, better leave a light on, just in case.
It’s hard for me to guess how this would play out of context—by which I mean both the context of the film and the context of J-horror, a genre whose tropes hadn’t yet been utterly exhausted. You probably don’t need to know that Pulse involves ghosts haunting the Internet (again, back when that was a fairly fresh idea), or that the dude we see suddenly replace that eerie black stain had committed suicide earlier in the movie in that same spot. And it’s hard to get the full flavor of the Forbidden Room at home, because Kurosawa’s deliberately murky visual scheme doesn’t translate well to DVD. (Either that, or they badly botched the transfer.) In 35mm, you can see the ghost chick clearly as soon as she appears, which is crucial; it’s also easier to see that her feet aren’t visible when the camera suddenly darts down behind the couch. The scene is supposed to be dark, but not this dark. A lot of potentially hair-raising detail gets lost.
Still, even on pristine celluloid, one could credibly argue that nothing really happens here. The first encounter with a ghost, while startling, isn’t particularly scary—in part because the hero, whose name is Yabe, seems more surprised than alarmed, even moving toward his dead friend rather than stepping back or running away. And though Kurosawa immediately introduces the keening female vocal that’ll “ooooooo” its way through the rest of the scene, its overt spookiness, while effective, is also somewhat comforting, in a strange way. Its intentions are clear, in the same way that the intentions of a crazed lunatic wielding a butcher knife are clear. And this is where the subjectivity kicks in, because a crazed lunatic wielding a butcher knife wouldn’t scare me much. I understand that threat. If the film were skillfully made, I might feel some anxiety on behalf of the character being threatened, but the outcome is more or less binary: Either our hero will get carved up, or he won’t. Let’s see if he makes it.
What terrifies me, as a viewer, is the unknown and the inexplicable. Stephen King has written in the past about how the closed door is always more frightening than whatever is ultimately revealed to be behind it, which can’t possibly equal our imagination. And here we have a door that’s not merely closed, but actually sealed with ominous red duct tape—leading, we infer from the sheet of paper seen earlier, to something called the Forbidden Room. But when Yabe turns from the couch after the lights come up, it’s not some hideous-looking monster or leering psycho he sees. It’s just a woman. And she doesn’t run toward him wielding something sharp. She just starts walking in his direction. Slowly. Really slowly. With the kind of exaggerated arm and leg motions you might employ if you were attempting to demonstrate the concept of “walking” to some alien race of Weebles who had never encountered it before.
And then comes that utterly unearthly… stumble, for lack of a better word. That’s the point where I started to lose it, and I can only conclude that what freaked me out was that I no longer had any idea what I was looking at, which meant that I didn’t know what would happen next. This woman’s intentions were not clear. This woman’s freakin’ movements were not clear. She was silent, she was implacable, she was mysteriously clumsy. Looking at the stumble again (and again), it almost seems like a glitch—not as some lame “she’s a computer program” reveal, but in the much more vaguely menacing sense of just plain Does Not Belong. Her wobbly recovery and immediate resumption of that narcotized pace is the stuff of my personal nightmares, and it’s no coincidence, I think, that the scene ends at the point where one would usually wake up. Although even then, she doesn’t reach out to grab Yabe or anything. Just gazes at him with an expression of mild curiosity (which, again, is easier to see projected properly in a theater).
One element I’d never really focused on before is the painting, or whatever it is, behind the couch. There’s no reference to it elsewhere in the film, no explanation of where it came from or what it’s doing there. But it looks like the product of a disturbed mind, and its shapelessness plays on the same fear of the inexplicable as the woman’s somnambulistic gait. Likewise, the scene’s expert sound design features a panoply of high- and low-frequency noises that are just this side of identifiable. Basically, what Kurosawa has done here is assemble numerous variations on the theme of “what you don’t know, or even understand, can hurt you.” And it’s that fear of what’s about to happen, combined with an inability to fathom what it might be, that makes my blood run cold.