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Steven Spielberg

David Roche

The Poetics of Steven Spielberg

Spielberg’s Poetics of Horror

David Roche

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1Spielberg has as much of a long-standing relationship with the horror movie as he does with sci-fi and the war movie. It is with horror that he made his breakthrough, on TV with Duel and at the movies with Jaws, and he has returned to the genre on a regular basis, both as a director (Jurassic Park, The Lost World, War of the Worlds) and as a producer (Poltergeist, Twilight Zone: The Movie, Arachnophobia, The Haunting, Jurassic Park III, Super 8, Jurassic World). Even scenes from movies that do not belong to the genre (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Amistad) resort to horror movie conventions (Sinyard 78; Morris 356–357, 856; Gordon 177, 329–330; Kendrick 58–60).

2For Noël Carroll, horror is limited to the horror genre; a “combination of terror and disgust” (23), it is correlated “with the presence of monsters” (15), “anomalous beings” that are “ontologically transgressive” and “also do morally transgressive things” (200). Robert C. Solomon contested Carroll’s restrictive definition, arguing that horror in art and in life were not that different. He also endeavored to distinguish between various forms of fear: disgust is an “automatic” response (237), whereas “horror is through and through cognitive, if only in that it recognizes something as horrible, whether or not it also involves (or requires) higher intellectual faculties” (236); terror “requires a real danger, or at least the belief that a danger is real” (242), and leads one to flee, whereas with horror, “one stands (or sits) aghast, frozen in place” (241); anxiety and dread have “an “obscure” object, but horror, by contrast, has a quite striking and specific object” (242). Solomon concludes that “horror evokes no ‘action readiness’” and that “it is a spectator emotion, even in real life” (243). Discussing these definitions elsewhere (Making and Remaking 154–160), I have proposed that the aesthetic categories of dread, terror and horror be organized along a continuum determined by the presence of the “monstrous” stimulus and the quality of the emotion (its intensity, duration and expression). With horror, the stimulus is specific; with dread, it is diffuse. As a less intense emotion, dread can last longer and does not induce paralysis. The use of the adjective “monstrous” instead of the noun “monster” emphasizes the subjectivity involved in the description of the stimulus (the stimulus is not necessarily condemned to be “monstrous” forever), de-essentializing the monster so to speak; it also allows for a broader range of stimuli (including inanimate objects, attitudes, behaviors, etc.). The continuum can be schematized thus:

3This chapter aims at circumscribing Spielberg’s poetics of horror. As in Warren Buckland’s Directed by Steven Spielberg, poetics will be understood in the formalist sense, as the study of the process of construction of a work, including “a craft component,... the more general principles according to which the work is composed, and its functions, effects, and uses” (Bordwell 12). The poetics of horror concern the orchestration of strategies that participate in the aesthetic categories of dread, terror and horror. Attention will be paid to the structures of the narratives and specific scenes, the strategies used (instability of point of view, suggestion, confrontation), how they are adapted to the material (the main protagonist’s psyche, the figure of the monster, the subtext) and how they may have evolved over the director’s body of work, and finally, what they teach us about dread, terror and horror in general. This chapter focuses both on Spielberg’s horror movies and on specific scenes that resort to horror aesthetics in films associated with other genres. It ends with a consideration of the extent to which Spielberg taps into this poetics when depicting horrific situations based on real life events in a movie like Schindler’s List.

The Arc of Fear

4Structurally, Spielberg’s horror films follow the classic horror movie progression of disclosure. The mode on which the monstrous stimulus is revealed depends largely on its nature. Indebted to Jack Arnold (Creature from the Black Lagoon), Hitchcock (Psycho, The Birds) (Morris 803; Gordon 31) and even horror movies released a year before (Bob Clark’s Black Christmas, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre), Jaws is, in this respect, the most schematic of his horror films. In the opening scene, the presence of the great white is purely metonymical, indicated through the POV shot and the jerky movements of the victim’s body [3:35–4:49]. Subsequently, its presence is evoked either through a POV shot in the second attack scene [16:49], an inner tube, a chain and a jetty in the third [26:05–27:40], its dorsal fin in the fourth [61:31], Quint’s fishing line [74:42], the barrels [94:10, 95:31, 99:37, 107:08] or the boards being busted [94:30] in the second half of the movie. In the first half, its body and fins are glimpsed in a brief (2s.) very long shot in the second attack scene [17:08], its jaws in two equally brief (4s., 2s.) high-angle long shots in the fourth attack scene, once under water [62:32], and finally out of the water [62:41]. In the second half, it displays its jaws when it emerges in a high-angle close-up of Brody throwing chum into the water [81:04] (Fig. ci-dessus), and in two brief (2s.) very long shots over Brody’s shoulder then Hooper’s back [103:46], before the final attacks on Hooper and Quint and the series of extreme close-ups of the beast devouring Quint [113:34–117:51]. The great white remains a predominantly metonymical presence until the film’s climax. The film’s progression from dread to terror to horror is entirely justified by the very nature of the stimulus: the great white inhabits—and is concealed by—the ocean, while its victims are land mammals.

5Jurassic Park largely follows the same pattern, but offers glimpses of the man-eating dinosaurs much sooner. In the opening scene, the presence of the raptor is mainly metonymical, suggested either through POV shots or its victim’s body [1:53–3:26]; its head is glimpsed as its rushes out the cage in a brief lateral medium close-up [2:42] and its golden eye is singled out in two brief (1s. each) and shaky extreme close-ups [3:10]. At feeding time, the raptors’ presence in the pen is evoked through the presence/absence of the buffalo [31:40–34:07]. The approach of the T-Rex is also announced metonymically, through the sound of its footsteps, their effect on the cups of water and on Donald Gennaro’s reflection in the rearview mirror, and finally the goat which, like the raptors’ buffalo, has disappeared [61:44–63:00]. Its front claws then appear over the fence, followed by its head through the rainy window, and its eyes and open jaws [63:04–63:19]. The revelation of the T-Rex is progressive within a scene that functions as a condensation of the film’s overall progression from dread to terror to horror. The pattern is reprised in the climax centered on the raptors: the predators’ presence is suggested metonymically (the torn fence, their tracks, the hunter’s comment that they’re “being hunted”) [97:32–99:14], until they attack Ellie in the basement [103:51], Muldoon outside [104:57] and the children in the dining and kitchen area [107:49]. The dinosaurs’ characteristics account for the mode of disclosure; the T-Rex’s sheer power as a super-predator does not require it to be stealthy and enables it to come out victorious both against man-made technology—it is shown howling in a close-up after pushing the pickup over a cliff [69:47]—and against the raptors that hunt in groups [117:09].

6The Lost World knowingly plays with and against its predecessor by structurally inverting the roles of the two star dinosaurs of the first installment: it is centered on the T-Rexes that frame the narrative and appear in three attack scenes including the climax [51:23–65:59, 80:48-86:00, 106:21–119:10], while the raptors only appear in the two much briefer attack scenes around the headquarters [86:42–87:31, 92:38–98:00]. The presentation of the creatures abides by the same logic (from metonymic to figurative) but much more quickly—the T-Rex howling in the distance, the trees moving, a jeep tossed aside [51:23–53:52], before mommy’s and daddy’s open jaws appear out the window [54:05].

7Duel also orchestrates a progression, but the latter has little to do with the revelation of the stimulus. Rather, “the events are... structured to create an increase of the conflict” (Buckland 72) identified in the title: the truck initially coaxes David Mann into passing it before passing him in turn [7:07–8:48], almost causes him to have an accident with an oncoming vehicle and practically drives him off the road [15:00–17:53], attempts to crush his car against a passing train at a railroad crossing [51:36–52:33], charges him when he’s calling the police from a phone booth [57:21–58:47], and so on. The escalation is thus predicated on the fact that the truck is not a super-predator like the T-Rex, but a machine driven by a sadist toying with his victim: it is both a weapon and a mask for an anonymous and quasi-invisible sociopath. The driver is evoked metonymically when parts of his body are glimpsed—his upper body [7:53], his left hand and arm [9:41, 17:38, 69:47], his boots [10:18]—and, more generally, by his truck which represents an extension of his body. In other words, though absolutely present like the T-Rex, the truck is actually a metonymical manifestation. That said, the film’s refusal to reveal the driver, no doubt, encourages viewers to forget about him and increasingly see the truck as a sentient being. Indeed, if the gas station scene insists on the bodily presence of the driver, the latter will only appear twice throughout the rest of the film and will literally vanish for fifty minutes of the film’s run-time. The film thus plays on the kind of hesitation that Tzvetan Todorov (1970) sees as characteristic of the Fantastic: the basic premise is anchored in the uncanny (“l’étrange”), but with moments where the events border on the supernatural (“le merveilleux”) (Gordon 44–45). In many ways, this is also true of the second half of Jaws. Quint’s description of the shark as a “smart, big fish” [77:34] draws attention to the fact that it is not behaving like a predator at all, in which case it would just swim up or down the coast and find an easier food supply, instead of obstinately pursuing and toying with the men aboard the Orca, much like the truck driver of Duel.

8Spielberg’s latest horror film to date, War of the Worlds, is notable because of the way it combines aspects of his previous films. Like the T-Rex, the tripods’ quasi-invulnerability makes for a very brief and brutal introduction, announced by an apocalyptic sky, lightning flashes and the loss of man-made energy [13:36–17:47], followed by a crack in the pavement that widens till the earth caves in [20:10–23:17]. Like the great white and the dinosaurs, the tripod is not immediately presented as a whole: its legs emerge, then the ship, until the machine looms over the crowd in a high-angle establishing shot [23:35–24:56]. Like the truck in Duel, the machines are both weapons and masks for their pilots. Like the raptor climax in Jurassic Park, the basement scene in War of the Worlds operates as a condensation of the pattern of disclosure, with the aliens appearing first as shadows on a wall, then as silhouettes behind the curtain and boards, until one of them lunges into a brief frontal close-up [85:17–88:42].

9The five films espouse the classic horror movie structure of progressive revelation of the monstrous presence to varying degrees. Whether it is developed over the entire film or just one scene depends on the nature of the presence. Variation is introduced in the way the film adapts to the characteristics of the machine or the animal, the predator or super-predator, accounting for a treatment that is primarily figurative (the dinosaurs), metonymical (the great white) or a combination of both (the truck and the tripods). The ambivalence with which these characteristics are endowed in Duel and even Jaws introduces a certain hesitation that is typical of the Fantastic, and that works to complicate the structure of revelation.

Instablity of Point of View

  • 1 The opening scene of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’éclipse (1962) comes to mind.

10Stephen Heath said that “every film is a veritable drama of vision,” citing Jaws as an example (397). This drama is certainly not the sole domain of horror cinema, but eyes and looks have always been a prime concern of the genre (Clover 167). The specific strategy I am describing—instability of point of view—involves uncertainty as to whether or not the camera gaze is aligned to that of a character, i.e., whether ocularization is zero or internal (Gaudreault and Jost 130–133). Though common in art films as well,1 this strategy has very specific functions in the horror movie: it creates uncertainty (is the camera aligned to the victim’s point of view or the monstrous presence’s?), expectations (notably false) and, on the emotional level, interest and tension (Roche, Making and Remaking 270; Roche, “(In)stability of Point of View” 17–18). Spielberg makes innovative use of this strategy in Duel and Jaws.

11Buckland has shown how the nine camera positions used to film David Mann in his car allow for “a large number of options” (82). Yet though “our perspective” is, in effect, “restricted” (Buckland 77), ocularization is not entirely aligned with the protagonist’s point of view, and is thus not purely internal. This instability is announced right after the opening credits. The first shot from inside the car resembles a POV shot until the camera tilts up and pans left to reveal David’s reflection in the rearview mirror; the next shot, a frontal three-quarter close-up of the car radio, is preceded by David’s eyes glancing down and followed by the same close-up of the rearview mirror [4:41–4:55]. The succession of shots is edited like an eyeline match, but the angle does not mimic David’s gaze.

12Such disruptions occur throughout the film, in particular during the assault scenes. When David first passes the truck [6:15], for instance, a medium close-up of the windshield and rearview mirror pans left to a close-up of his head as he glances right; the following shots—of the truck through the front passenger window, the truck through the rear windshield, the truck in the rearview mirror—all seem to be edited in eyeline match, yet the absence of a close-up of David or of a pan between the rear windshield shot and the rearview mirror shot indicates that, once again, his gaze is not the prime instance of mediation [6:39]. The subsequent over-the-shoulder shot including the rearview mirror even draws attention to the fact that David is oblivious of the truck until it actually passes him [6:51], while the use of the same over-the-shoulder shot suggests that he has returned to square one: positioned behind the truck which he can see because it is in front of him [7:21]. The second time he passes the truck is a variation of the first [7:36–8:04]. This time, however, the camera pans from David staring straight ahead out the windshield to follow the truck until it is seen through the windshield. A subsequent medium close-up of the left sideview mirror is cued to the truck horn blaring, the zoom-out that ensues revealing David looking over his shoulder in alarm. That the truck has now gotten David’s full attention is confirmed by a shot of the truck edited in eyeline match.

13Point of view momentarily stabilizes in the gas station when David tries to see the driver of the truck; the first shots are edited in eyeline match, a zoom-in mimicking David’s attention [9:36–10:05]. Yet his capacity to see is immediately compromised by the fact that he is cleaning his glasses (in a medium close-up) and that his windshield (in a reverse shot) is being cleaned by a man. Ironically, both attempts at improving vision only obstruct it. We are yet again aligned with his view through eyeline matches, which is yet again obstructed, this time by the truck, when all he can see of the driver are his cowboy boots [10:06]. Point of view becomes unstable through the inclusion of a new strategy: the camera is positioned within the truck, offering a medium full shot of David framed by the truck driver’s window (Fig. 1) [11:22]. Though not a POV shot, it violates the visual terms established by the film so far. A similar shot is used much later when the truck is waiting for David on the side of the road [64:39].

Fig. 1 — Duel: shot of David Mann from within the truck.

Fig. 1 — Duel: shot of David Mann from within the truck.

14The subsequent passing scene introduces variation based on David’s new awareness: the close-up of the rearview mirror now shows he is looking back, and the subsequent reverse shot confirms the presence of the truck [14:59]. However, a new strategy is introduced after he has yet again successfully passed the truck. An oblique three-quarter shot of the truck’s wheels, followed by a frontal establishing shot of the truck, show the behemoth charging down the road [20:14], while a subsequent establishing shot of David’s car seems to be a POV shot from the truck’s perspective. Point of view is not restricted to David’s, as the viewer is given a cognitive advantage before a frontal close-up of David shows him noticing the truck in his rearview mirror [20:31]. The subsequent chase scene alternates between both vehicles until David is driven off the road [25:16]. This strategy is reprised in the last third of the film, when the truck turns around after David has stopped to make a phone call [55:52], when it waits for him on the side of the road [63:58], and at length during the final chase scene [70:36–83:53].

Fig. 2 — Duel: focus from Mann examining the men to one of the men looking at him.

Fig. 2 — Duel: focus from Mann examining the men to one of the men looking at him.

15In the diner scene, point of view is mainly aligned with David’s, through shot/reverse shots with eyeline match and camera movements that seem to mimic his gaze; the use of the voice-over reinforces this impression. This time, the obstacle is the number of potential drivers: presumably, the driver is there in plain sight but remains unidentifiable. The scene of David studying the men is, however, framed by a three-quarter close-up that tracks over their faces; the focus on David’s face suggests we are still aligned if not with his gaze, at least with his subjectivity, until the shot ends focused on a man who was himself looking at David (Fig. 2) [30:48]. The instability of point of view is reinforced by a series of subsequent close-ups of the men and David [33:26]. Who’s looking at who? Indeed, the first lateral close-up of the men is not linked to a close-up of David looking at them until after it has been shown. Subsequent shots of the men are introduced via eyeline match, but they also show them returning David’s looks. David then covers his face so that his staring eye remains in the shadow, while a close-up of one man pans right to an extreme close-up of another man’s eye. Doubt as to who is looking at who is thus reinforced. The narration takes on an expressionistic turn, confirming that point of view has now become highly subjective: shots aren’t perfectly focused, tilt into oblique expressionistic angles, mist up on the sides, until two handheld track-ins turn out to be visualizations of David’s fantasies [34:38–36:16]. The film’s reliance on an aesthetics of unstable point of view now reveals itself to be more than just a strategy of suspense; it is intimately connected to the main protagonist’s subjectivity, conveying a sense of paranoia (Gordon 38–73; Morris 95). Thus, Buckland’s conclusion that “the camera aligns us to David Mann’s consciousness” (76) needs to be slightly qualified, as it is, rather, the narration as a whole that endeavors to express David’s unconscious.

16Jaws is, in many respects, “Duel with a shark,” to quote the title of Buckland’s chapter. Spielberg’s second feature film reprises the TV movie’s aesthetics of instability of point of view, particularly in the first half of the movie where the adventures of the gaze precede the revelation (Berthomieu 558). The first attack scene resorts to “omniscient narration” (Buckland 88), giving the viewer a cognitive advantage by proposing a view of three spaces, each connected to a specific being: Chrissie in the water, her partner on the beach, the shark lurking under water [2:57–5:00]. The only momentary uncertainty is whether the first very long low-angle shot of Chrissie from under water is a POV shot, which seems to be confirmed by a subsequent similar shot that precedes the attack.

Fig. 3 — Jaws: point view is initially aligned with Brody watching the beach, then with the dog’s master, before concluding on a nobody’s shot of the man and the dog on the beach.

Fig. 3 — Jaws: point view is initially aligned with Brody watching the beach, then with the dog’s master, before concluding on a nobody’s shot of the man and the dog on the beach.
  • 2 As such, it is incorrect to speak of “external focalization” (Buckland 97) when the protagonist is (...)

17The second shark attack scene also “set[s] up several distinct zones of action” (Buckland 95), but with a difference: this time the viewer and Chief Brody are scouting the waters expecting an attack. The instability has to do with what the protagonist sees and doesn’t see,2 but it also concerns the relevance of the cognitive advantage we the viewers are given. The camerawork is alternately transparent (when it follows a character or reproduces his point of view) or highly visible (when it takes on a life of its own). The opening tracking shot combines both, first by following an anonymous woman who enters the water and an anonymous boy who gets out, then by stopping in a lateral medium close-up of Brody on the lookout for the shark [13:35–14:08]. The scene then proceeds to develop the elements announced in the opening shot in order to play with viewer expectations to create tension. The narration evolves from having a single mediator (Brody) to another (the young man with the dog) and another (the boy’s mother) to no mediator whatsoever (the series of full shots of potential victims: the dog, the lady, the boy), before ending on a very long shot of the man with the dog on the beach (Fig. 3) [14:08–14:47]. The narration thus mimics the main character—both are on the look-out—but, unlike Brody, this ignorance is feigned: after all, the scene opens on the boy getting out of the water. Like David in the gas station, Brody is on the lookout, and as in Duel, emphasis is then put on the obstacles that impede his view. The camera pushes in twice to a frontal close-up of Brody each time a body passes in the immediate foreground [14:48], anticipating the series of shots/reverse shots with the men who come and talk to Brody occupying the frame [15:17, 16:01]. A series of “false expectations” (Buckland 96)—the swimmer appearing in front of the lady floating on her back [15:01], the girl on her boyfriend’s shoulders [15:28]—suggests that it may be all in Brody’s head—he doesn’t like swimming and is, in his wife’s words, “uptight” [16:20]. As in Duel, again, the instability of point of view might just be reproducing the main protagonist’s paranoia. However, the cognitive advantage previously announced by the very long shot of the young man with his dog is finally given back to the spectator when we are offered another long shot of this character looking for his dog [16:34]. Its validity is confirmed when the shot of the piece of wood indicating the dog’s absence is followed by the POV shot from the shark’s perspective, on cue with the “Main Theme from Jaws”; the subsequent shot of the boy on the mattress being attacked confirms that the underwater shot was, in effect, a POV shot. Although the attack is shot from the beach, the next shot shows the reactions of other people on the beach, quite ironically, before showing that of the protagonist who was expecting such an attack. Unlike David’s in the diner, Brody’s paranoia is fully justified as “his worst fears are realized” (Buckland 99).

18The third and fourth attack scenes function like replays of the first and second, respectively. The third [26:05–27:40] gives the viewer a cognitive advantage, dividing the space into witness on the pier, victim in the water and the shark metonymically represented by the pier, and thus resembles in this respect the chase scenes in Duel. The fourth attack scene starts out like the opposite of the second scene: Brody now has a huge team surveilling the ocean, and the beach-goers are all on the beach [54:54]. It is only after Mayor Vaughn has bullied a family into going in the water that the scene turns into a potential repetition of the second attack, with random shots of the bathers (from the shore, the water and the helicopter) [56:41, 58:08] and potential POV shots from under water [58:23, 58:52]. These turn out to be false alarms of the same sort as the policeman’s (Hendrix’s) remark that he thought he saw a shadow in the water [58:30]. Ironically, in spite of the surveillance team, it is a swimmer who notices the fake fin [59:21]. More ironic still, the view of the actual shark’s approach is absolutely stable, perfectly aligned with the painter who spots the creature, first in a reaction shot, then in an over-the-shoulder shot [61:29]. In the second half of the film, which, as we shall see, relies more on direct confrontation, point of view will be largely stabilized, with a few instances of spectactorial focalization when the viewer is made aware of the shark’s presence outside the boat at night metonymically through the barrels [94:08].

  • 3 In Jurassic Park, a camera movement dramatizes a similar reversal between hunter (Muldoon) and hunt (...)

19The entirety of Duel and the first half of Jaws demonstrate that, even when instability of point of view is the governing principle of the film, the strategy enables a play on variation within a scene and from one scene to another because the latter is inscribed in its very terms. As a strategy that relies on restricting knowledge, it is often combined with an aesthetics of suggestion, as in Jaws where keeping an eye out for the shark is the central thrust. But Duel proves that it can also be productively combined with an aesthetics of confrontation. The strategy is used more sparingly in Spielberg’s other films because the protagonists’ point of view is not psychologically flawed as it is in Duel and in the first part of Jaws. For instance, the first basement scene in War of the Worlds clearly differentiates between zero and internal ocularization—the track-ins on the window and on a sleeping Ray [38:47–40:20]—while the second basement scene includes a backward tracking shot that reveals Harlan Ogilvy in the foreground watching the machine eye and reaching for an ax, thus inverting the predator/prey relationship that initially opposed the eyepod in the foreground, and Rachel and Ray in the background [82:09–82:29].3


20The structure of escalation (from dread to terror to horror) indexed on the visibility of the “monstrous” stimulus often translates into a progression from an aesthetics of suggestion to one of confrontation, which, visually speaking, largely overlaps with a progression from stalk to assault, from shadow to figure, from offscreen to onscreen. The rest of this chapter focuses on the aesthetics of suggestion and confrontation (or “monstration” in French) and the way they are combined in Spielberg’s films.

21The first half of Jaws illustrates not only how varied the strategies of suggestion can be, but also how their repetition allows for reconfiguration. The first three attack scenes are almost entirely orchestrated offscreen on three different modes. First, on the profilmic level, the ocean acts as a curtain that conceals the shark, much like walls or trees in a slasher movie. The great white is not necessarily outside the frame, just hidden onscreen. The film regularly plays on the uncertainty as to whether or not it is even there, as the second and fourth attack scenes prove. Second, the POV shot relegates the shark to the camera’s “underside,” what Marc Vernet calls an “en-deçà,” perversely inverting, like Black Christmas and Halloween, the terms of the classical horror movie whereby the underside is the space allotted to the victim (44). Third, its presence is metonymically represented by the victims’ or an object’s movements. In the first and second cases, however, more is required to make the offscreen threatening. What Jaws demonstrates is that the offscreen is not threatening per se and must be charged in order to be interpreted as inhabited by a dangerous presence. This is achieved through metonymy in the third case, but other elements can contribute to instilling a sense of danger. The first is extrafilmic and has to do with the knowledge the viewer has drawn from the title, poster, teasers and/or conversations with other viewers. The second element is the soundtrack; in the first two attack scenes, the music, though nondiegetic, systematically alerts the viewer to the presence of the shark by starting on cue with an underwater shot [3:35], while the actual attacks are announced by the famous “Main Title” [3:54, 16:49].

22Added to this is the viewer’s experience of previous scenes, which frames the next one. Each attack scene seems to establish a set of rules, which subsequent scenes play with and against, thereby introducing variation and maintaining suspense—indeed, if each attack scene abided by the same rules, the viewer would always know what to expect and grow bored from habituation. For instance, by dispensing with the POV shot, the third attack scene initially seems to deviate from the previous scenes, but the outcome seems to invite the conclusion that the absence of such a shot foreshadowed the failure of the attack. This new rule contributes to the creation of tension in the scene where Hooper dives to explore the boat, since so far, all underwater shots have announced an attack [49:10–50:03]. The lack of the “Main Title” and the held notes on high strings reinforce the sense of uncertainty: are these POV shots or are they just nobody’s shots of Hooper swimming, and thus is the shark lurking in the camera’s underside? The camera tracks in to close in on Hooper as he digs out the tooth, then proposes a medium close-up of the scientist looking around, drastically increasing offscreen space and thus the possibility that the shark could be anywhere, only for the scene to end with a jump scare when a corpse’s head springs out of the hole in the ship. The false alarm ultimately confirms that this scene, like the third attack scene, was still playing by the rules. The fourth attack scene opens with yet another false alarm, this time a prank played by two boys [59:16–61:14], making the actual attack all the more unexpected even though everyone (Brody and his team, the viewers) was expecting it [61:29–62:49]. The absence of the “Main Title” and of a POV shot confirms that they have now become compulsory elements: the great white finally appears onscreen in silence, its dorsal fin cutting through the surface of the water that had heretofore concealed it, while a variation of the attack theme accompanies the very long shot of the shark heading for the man in the red boat. At this stage, the film abandons the primacy of suggestion, which it now combines with an aesthetics of confrontation.

23The aesthetics of suggestion are not maintained for as long a time in Spielberg’s other films and are limited to specific scenes which largely reprise the strategies developed in Jaws in order to charge the offscreen with a sense of menace. The opening scene of Jurassic Park “reprises” that of Jaws (Gordon 522)—the cage conceals the raptor, its presence is confirmed by the sounds it makes and, metonymically, by its victim’ movements—but with a difference: there is no doubt that the raptor is actually in the cage, and there are even close-ups of the reptilian eye to confirm it. The creature, as in Jaws, is onscreen albeit concealed, and the film has already made good on the promise in the title, the point of a theme park being that you pay to see the attractions. The final scene with the raptors is orchestrated like a mini-slasher movie, with jump-scares (the raptor attacking Ellie), medium and close shots (of Ellie, Muldoon, Tim and Lex) to increase offscreen space, and profilmic elements (the walls, the chainlink fence and its shadows, the foliage) and frame-within-the-frame composition to emphasize entrapment. The use of offscreen space in the scene where Muldoon gets killed reflects the cunning predators’ own command of space: one raptor draws attention to itself by making noises, disturbing the foliage and finally allowing a glimpse of itself, so that another can attack Muldoon on his left flank [104:39–105:37]. The narration is, again as in a slasher movie, complicit with the stalkers, the camera tracking right and panning left from an over-the-shoulder shot of Muldoon as the hunter to a lateral extreme close-up of Muldoon as the prey [105:22].

24The first acts of Spielberg’s early sci-fi movies, as critics have noted, tap into the horror genre. The second scene of Close Encounters of the Third Kind [11:15–13:26], Barry’s first encounter, relies entirely on an aesthetics of suggestion. The offscreen presence is evoked visually through the shadows playing over his face in close-up, and aurally through a series of diegetic sounds (a dog barking in alarm, the wind, and finally sounds coming from inside the house) that wake Barry up and draw his attention. A series of close-ups shows Barry’s toys starting, until his bedroom is now absolutely cluttered with moving objects, noises and music, suggesting that the cause of the disturbance lies offscreen. In the kitchen, the close-up of Barry’s face when he encounters the presence maintains the latter in the camera’s underside, like the POV shot in Jaws. Although the relation between the presence and offscreen space remains metonymical till the end, it has been steadily reinforced causally (the shadows in the first close-up were not produced by the aliens) and spatially (the alien is in the same room as Barry at the end of the scene). Roy Neary’s first encounter resembles an attack scene [20:18–23:26]: a frontal medium close-up of Roy reveals the blazing lights stopping behind his pickup, framed by the rear windshield; the offscreen presence is then evoked metonymically (as in the scene with Barry) through its effect on the environment (the mailboxes, the railroad crossing sign); finally, it is materialized by the light that beams down on Roy’s pick-up and the low drone that accompanies it. The narration maintains the presence offscreen, but this time, it reflects Roy’s incapacity to see the source of the blinding light.

Fig. 4 — E.T.: the light seemingly materializes the offscreen presence.

Fig. 4 — E.T.: the light seemingly materializes the offscreen presence.

25E.T. reprises some of the strategies of Close Encounters of the Third Kind in the scenes where Elliott discovers the presence of the alien. In the first [9:57–10:47], the diegetic sounds made by the extra-terrestrial draw Elliott’s attention as he looks offscreen to the right. The alien remains concealed in the subsequent very long lateral shot of Elliott facing the cabin, but like the shadows in the second scene from Close Encounters, the light pouring out of the cabin seems to materialize the unseen presence (Fig. 4), an effect that is reinforced in the subsequent full shot of the doorway facing Elliott, the three-quarter angle giving the impression that it is facing him. The strange presence is confirmed when the ball Elliott throws in is tossed back at him. Like the cage in Jurassic Park, the cabin is clearly inhabited. The next such scene starts off as a repetition of the first [12:37–14:24]—Elliott and his dog are alerted by the sounds made by E.T., and the boy goes out to the shed in the same very long lateral shot—but with variation: Elliott moves back to explore the corn field, and offscreen space increases as he steps into a medium frontal close-up while the camera tracks in. The association between the alien and the offscreen draws attention to the difference between the 1977 and 1982 films. In E.T., the offscreen is not constructed as a threatening space for the viewer (only for Elliott), as the opening scene has already introduced the alien as a gentle, almost “saintly” force, for whom human beings represent a potentially “monstrous” stimulus (Gordon 212–213).

26Noting the importance of offscreen space in the aesthetics of suggestion should not belittle its complex status. Jaws reveals the importance of profilmic space and proves that a distinction must be made between the space outside the frame on the one hand, and what lies concealed onscreen on the other. Furthermore, the offscreen is not threatening per se; it must be charged. This is achieved by providing audiences with knowledge of what to expect prior to watching the film (notably through the paratext) and by visual and aural cues. Formally, the offscreen presence is always constructed through what is shown onscreen and what can be heard. The charge can be intensified by increasing offscreen space through the use of tighter shots and by reinforcing the metonymical relationship between the objects depicted and the offscreen presence. The aesthetics of suggestion dominate in stalking scenes that can be drawn out, allowing for delay, and creating expectations and false alarms. The repetition of such scenes can be an opportunity for a play on variation within a given film (like Jaws) or from one film to another (Close Encounters and E.T.), notably depending on the nature of the presence.


27Confrontation occurs when the presence appears onscreen. Critics and scholars often devalue confrontation to the benefit of suggestion (Leutrat 25–26, 101–102), but it allows for a lot more variation than its detractors care to admit. Like the tension between onscreen and offscreen, it brings into play diegetic and filmic space; the variations also depend on time—the duration of the confrontation—and action—whether it is static or in movement. The three modes discussed below can thus be positioned along a continuum that is both sensori-motor and emotional: from the swiftest to the slowest, the briefest to the lengthiest, and from terror to horror and/or the sublime.

28The scene in Jaws where Brody, Hooper and Quint finally see the great white up close is exemplary in the way it orchestrates the three modes of confrontation and thus foregrounds the relationship between them. The scene opens with a startle effect: Brody is throwing chum out into the ocean, first in a high-angle full shot, then in a lateral close-up; as he looks back over his left shoulder while talking to Quint, the great white lurches out of the ocean in the left midground in sync with the music [80:53–81:11]. The shift from suggestion to confrontation occurs when the surface of the water is broken. The shark, though in the background, now represents a gray mass occupying half the shot, the camera angle positioning Brody’s right arm in the foreground in its jaws in the midground (Fig. 5). The sheriff’s instantly moving right out of the shot is not only a reaction of fear; visually, it confirms that the great white was threatening to devour the hero’s image, so that the latter must move into a new shot to preserve it.

Fig. 5 — Jaws: the shark lunges after Brody throws chum into the ocean.

Fig. 5 — Jaws: the shark lunges after Brody throws chum into the ocean.

29The scene then shifts from the first to the second mode of confrontation by portraying Brody’s reaction (in a low-angle frontal close-up) to what he sees (the shark sinking back into the water) [81:12–81:30]. The narration insists on the “spectator emotion” that is horror by resorting to the shot/reverse shot technique with eyeline match: Brody stands open-eyed, paralyzed (Fig. [fig20]), before slowly backing into the cabin and uttering the famous line: “You’re going to need a bigger boat.”

30The shift from the second to the third mode of confrontation is more progressive and centered on the quality of the emotion, as awe slowly mixes with fear [81:30–82:18]. The three characters are constructed as spectators thanks to the shot/reverse shot technique and are shot in low angle: Quint and Brody step out of the cabin and look at the ocean; a very long shot then shows the shark coming toward the boat, framed by both men. The change in emotion is expressed visually on the actors’ faces, but it is first announced by the music, which breaks away from the attack theme to the brighter tones of a harp at the very moment when the shark cruises past the back of the boat in a high-angle full shot, with Quint and Brody looking puny alongside it. Hooper and Quint both comment on its size: “That’s a twenty-footer,” Hooper says; Quint replies: “Twenty-five. Three tons of him.” The great white has, because of its magnitude, become an instance of sublime nature. This is confirmed in the final part of the scene [82:18–83:38]. The three men break out of the stupor and are now driven by action-oriented emotions. Again, Williams’s music expresses the change: an adventure theme punctuated with horns now accompanies the men as they act on their discovery in their own specific ways, Quint by arming a harpoon à la Captain Ahab, and Hooper by attempting to photograph the shark, using Brody as a means to “give it some scale”—thus resorting to the same composition strategy as in the shot of Brody where the great white first appeared—and concluding: “Come here, Darwin. Beautiful.”

31This scene from Jaws beautifully demonstrates how all three modes can flow one into another, and draws attention to their differences and similarities: the first is largely a matter of composition and often includes a character within the frame; the second and third usually resort to the shot/reverse shot technique in order to contrast the monstrous stimulus and the characters’ reactions; both horror and the sublime are characterized by paralysis, but the latter is a more ambivalent emotion that can be enjoyed longer, no doubt because the sense of danger has decreased. The following analyses will show that these modes can be integrated with variation, namely depending on the nature of the monstrous stimulus.

Confrontation 1: Overwhelming Onscreen Space

  • 4 In War of the Worlds, for instance, a tripod suddenly lunges into the background of a lateral long (...)
  • 5 In typical Spielberg fashion, the BFG first appears metonymically (the trash can he knocks down), t (...)
  • 6 A sense of size can also be primarily constructed through composition. In A.I., for instance, a med (...)
  • 7 From the fourth attack scene on, Jaws does propose shots of the great white breaching and invading (...)

32Even though all three modes involve the treatment of diegetic and filmic space, I call the first “overwhelming onscreen space” in order to put the emphasis on action. It is the predominant mode in Duel, Jurassic Park, War of the Worlds4 and even The BFG5 because of the size of the machines and the creatures,6 but also because they are often in movement; it is less so in Jaws because the great white, as we have seen, largely inhabits offscreen space.7 Composition in Duel constructs the truck as a Goliath dwarfing David and his car throughout the film, an opposition that is reinforced by the color scheme (the dull brown truck vs the shiny red car). This threat is announced before David passes the truck for the first time, by the famous shot that tracks first past David’s car which it fully frames, then past the truck which it fails to frame, and finally ends on a low-angle of the cabin and engine, the truck visually occupying ¾ of the shot [5:51]; this is reinforced, aurally, by the roar of its engine which drowns out all other sounds (including David’s car radio) on the soundtrack. A close-up of the rearview mirror in which the truck’s headlights, grid and front bumper (in other words, its eyes, nose and jaws) are visible foreshadows that David’s passing the truck marks only the beginning of his troubles; it is confirmed by the subsequent frontal close-up of David that shows the side of the truck intruding on the left side of the frame [6:39]. The close-ups of the rearview mirror, combined with reverse shots emphasizing the protagonist’s gaze, operate as mises en abyme of this central strategy.

33The narration multiplies such compositions but with variation: the lateral close-up of David the first time the truck passes him, obliterating the sky and again drowning out the sound of his radio [7:05]; the previously mentioned shots of David looking through his windshield at the truck ahead of him [7:21] or in his sideview mirror [7:58]; the slightly high-angle medium shots outside the car of David driving with the truck in the background [8:15]; the shots of David on the phone with his wife, his red car and the truck in the background [11:31], and so on. The truck increasingly overwhelms the frame in the second chase scene, again filling the rearview mirror [21:56], the sideview mirror [22:09] or shots through the rear windshield [22:04]. This strategy, often reinforced by the use of frame-within-the-frame composition (the doors, windows, the phone booth [57:40]) and low angles that emphasize the truck’s size, largely contributes to the “paranoid style” identified by Gordon and Morris. So though the narration, as we have seen, alternates points of views, cognitively and emotionally it is aligned with the protagonist and thus resorts to internal focalization.

Fig. 6 — Duel: David and his car appear puny, framed by the truck in the foreground.

Fig. 6 — Duel: David and his car appear puny, framed by the truck in the foreground.
  • 8 The truck appears while David is listening to a radio program in which a man is complaining about h (...)

34The paranoid style culminates before the final chase scene when David walks out into the middle of the road. The subsequent very long shot of him framed at the bottom and on the right side by the truck inverts the previous rearview and sideview mirror shots: David and his car appear puny even when occupying three quarters of the shot (Fig. 6) [65:59]. The balance in the composition is, however, subsequently contradicted by the low-angle close-up of David staring angrily at the behemoth, the protagonist’s face now occupying the whole frame, and by the low-angle back shot in which David is allowed to fully occupy the foreground, while the huge truck appears comparatively smaller in the left midground [66:11]. Significantly, in the following shot, the truck only occupies a third of the composition and David is allowed to stand in the center, his car and the open road to the right [66:13]. This series of shots thus visualizes the reversal in power relations: David Mann has decided to step up to what Steven Awalt describes as the film’s Goliath (33), as the subsequent low-angle full shot of him striding forward confirms. The monstrous truck still occupies three quarters of the low-angle shot, but the narration does not show it effacing David and cuts to a lateral shot of the cabin instead [66:26]. This is not to say that David has fully risen to the challenge: the narration repeats the usual strategies (overwhelming presence, low angles, frame-within-the-frame) when David implores an elderly couple to call the police [67:30]. But the momentary reversal stresses the moment he fully accepts his fate. The paranoid style is thus intimately connected to the film’s subtext of thwarted masculinity (Morris 85, 104), with the truck as an embodiment of the strong patriarchal manhood David fails to live up to.8

35Visually, the T-Rex in Jurassic Park and The Lost World is the equivalent of the truck in Duel. Its size is systematically emphasized by low angles. As the close-up of its head swallowing the goat suggests, the predator represents a dark mass that threatens to blot out the other elements depicted in the shot [63:10]. This potential is confirmed in the first long shot of it where it steps out the left midground into the center of the shot. Most subsequent shots (whether close or long) fail to contain its body [64:04]. As in Duel, this principle of composition is mis en abyme, notably in the over-the-shoulder shots where Allan and Malcolm or the children observe it through the windshield (Fig. 7) [64:22, 64:42, 64:55]. As in the “We’re going to need a bigger boat” scene, compositions are divided into at least two zones (foreground/background, top/bottom, left/right), but the creature’s presence threatens to reduce each zone to a single plane. The final low-angle frontal close-up of the T-Rex howling victoriously confirms its success in conquering both diegetic space (it has just pushed the jeep over the edge of a cliff) and the space of the frame [69:43]. The first scene with the T-Rexes in The Lost World recycles this play on composition, but the beginning of the scene playfully inverts the terms of the previous film by making the T-Rex the diegetic spectators and containing Malcolm within a frame [53:56].

Fig. 7 — Jurassic Park: the T-Rex overwhelms the frame within the frame, as Grant and Malcolm look on.

Fig. 7 — Jurassic Park: the T-Rex overwhelms the frame within the frame, as Grant and Malcolm look on.
  • 9 The basement scene in War of the Worlds resorts to similar strategies: the play on two zones in the (...)

36In Jurassic Park, the fact that the final stage of the raptor attack scene takes place in a kitchen allows the film to adapt the same strategies to the smaller predators [108:44–112:15]. The latter are framed in low angle, highlighting the creatures’ size, notably when they pause in a doorway, while shots of Lex and Timmy are systematically invaded by the raptors’ bodies, in compositions that are often divided into two zones marked by the metal cupboards (Fig. 8).9 If the conclusion of the T-Rex attack scene celebrated a force of nature, the raptor attack scene operates a neat reversal, with the children demonstrating their own capacity to survive by mastering space, Lex, like the raptors, creating a diversion, first aural (by banging a spoon), then visual (her reflection) [111:01–111:20].

Fig. 8 — Jurassic Park: the raptors overwhelming the cramped kitchen area.

Fig. 8 — Jurassic Park: the raptors overwhelming the cramped kitchen area.

Confrontation 2: Horror as a Spectator’s Emotion

  • 10 Gordon insists that E.T. functions as “Elliott’s double” (229).
  • 11 The reference is especially relevant as Spielberg produced Poltergeist, directed by Tobe Hooper, th (...)

37The second and third modes of confrontation put emphasis on the characters’ reactions. They vary only in degree, that is to say in the quality of the emotion. The depiction of horror tends to be briefer and less nuanced. In E.T., for instance, Elliott’s first confrontation with the alien is dramatized in a series of shots/reverse shots, in which both characters prove to be equally scared of each other, immediately establishing that their relationship will be based on symmetry10 [14:24–14:30]. Spielberg then borrows from the Psycho shower scene and especially the Texas Chain Saw Massacre11 dinner table scene by showing Elliott screaming in a succession of close-ups edited in jump-cut [14:31–14:35]. The technique evokes the violence of the emotion, but by placing Elliott in the role of the horror movie female heroine-victim at the outset, it foreshadows his “budding manhood” in the first part of the film (Gordon 233).

38In Jaws, the revelation of the great white, as we have seen, is orchestrated in a fairly linear fashion, with shots that are increasingly closer, lengthier and in which the shark’s jaws are increasingly visible. Yet from the second attack scene onward, the narration insists on the idea that horror is a spectator’s emotion characterized by momentary passivity (paralysis, speechlessness, etc.). Brody, as we have seen, spends his time surveying the ocean throughout the scene. Although the shark is merely glimpsed (the shot lasts under 2s.), the zoom-in/track-out, on cue with high dissonant strings reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann’s music for Psycho (1960), singles out his reaction (Thompson and Bordwell 488): his wide-eyed, open-mouthed expression contrasts with his previously intent gaze and stands out against the distorted background [17:08–17:21]. Spielberg cites Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958) in order to relate not the birth of the protagonist’s phobia (of heights) but its confirmation (that the ocean is a dangerous environment), as in the later scenes in the 1958 film. Both films present the horror as a subjective experience, but there is a significant difference: unlike Vertigo, the narration does not evoke the experience through a POV shot but through a reaction shot. So while Vertigo proposes a psychologically realistic depiction of the phobia as experienced by the protagonist, the narration in Jaws stresses emotion instead of perception: we are shown Brody, not what he sees, and it is his image, not the object of his gaze, that is distorted. This violation of the protagonist’s image not only draws attention to his emotion, but also fulfills the function of narrative commentary: it highlights his failure as the town sheriff.

39The fourth attack scene (on the man in the red boat) also includes a diegetic witness, framed as it is by a frontal close-up of Michael who has also fallen into the water [62:31–62:43]. The intensification of the horror is foregrounded through the figure of the diegetic witness: the adult (Brody) on the beach makes way for the child (Michael) in the pond, a potential victim like the boy his age in the second attack scene or the man in the boat. But the high-angle long shot which allows us to see the victim and, for the first time, the shark does not correspond to Michael’s perspective or even to that of the kids on the capsized boat. A new technique is used to evoke Michael’s emotions: a track-in shot that swoops down from sky over him and away. Like the zoom-in/track-out, it is by no means justified in terms of psychological realism. On the contrary, by mimicking an attack from the sky rather than from the water, it evokes a fantasy rather than the actual, and the witness’s emotion rather than the situation; this effect is reinforced by the fact that Michael stares right at the camera. Like the zoom-in/track out, this tracking shot insists on Brody’s failings as the town sheriff and father, as he has come very near losing a child like the woman in the previous scene.

  • 12 Gordon notes the accumulation of horror clichés in Raiders of the Lost Ark (299).

40The debt to serials of the 1940s and comics (Morris 263; Wasser 96, 214; Gordon 283–284) no doubt accounts for the fact that the Indiana Jones films privilege confrontational aesthetics on a parodic mode.12 A cadaver impaled on spears produces a jump-scare in the prologue of Raiders of the Lost Ark [5:33–5:44], while a head chopped off by the “breath of god” rolls into a close-up and a villain turns into a skeleton before shattering like glass in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade [100:55–101:30; 112:44–113:19]. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the most confrontational of the four installments, is interesting because of the way it constructs a change in tone in the Gothic horror. Pankot Palace is introduced in a series of clichés: a castle on a hill; vampire bats; skeleton-like statues decorated with body parts whose blood is still fresh; the guides take to their heels; and Indie’s face registers alarm as he walks into an extreme close-up, and later warns Short Round: “Don’t come up here” [35:27–37:36]. The horrific potential is, first, defused in the subsequent dining scene, which indulges in gross-out humor, replete with close-ups of monkey heads and live eels, and medium close-ups contrasting Willie and Short Round’s disgust, Indie’s heroic/professional indifference and the other guests’ enthusiasm for the exotic food, and which, appropriately given the sexist genre conventions the film plays on (Gordon 326), ends with the blonde swooning [40:43–46:23]. The descent into the secret passage operates as a transition from the brightly-lit world of the screwball swashbuckler—Willie and Indie’s seduction games, Indie’s fight with a swordsman—to Gothic horror. The horror remains somewhat comic-booky (with cadavers and giant bugs), but the environment has become dark, cramped and clammy, and it is now essential for Willie to overcome her disgust to save Short Round and Indie [56:47–59:57].

41The descent paves the way for the staging of horror during the ceremony scene, which indulges in Gothic motifs galore: low-angle shots of the devilish priest Mola Ram, pagan worshippers, a fire-filled pit, smoke, skulls, the color red [60:09–64:46]. Quite uncharacteristically, and unlike the arrival scene where Indie moved forward to explore, the hero remains a passive witness throughout the scene and is now included in a low-angle close-up with the spectators (Willie and Short Round) who were disgusted at dinner (Fig. 9). The spectator emotion that is horror briefly plays over the face of the hero, who immediately reassures woman and child. The confrontation between the priest and the sacrificial victim is typically narrated in shot/reverse shot. The sanctity of the body is violated when the priest’s hand digs into the victim’s chest. The reversal of inside and outside is announced by the beating heart on the soundtrack and confirmed when the heart keeps pumping outside the body and the victim remains alive. This scene, which is resminicent of the scenes of Max Renn digging into his own body in Videodrome (David Cronenberg, 1983), released a year earlier, is characteristic of the aesthetics of the grotesque, in which the “inside-out” and the “upside down” play a pivotal role (Bakhtin 353). Like Max Renn, the victim is divided into shots of his face and shots of his chest (Fig. 9). The blurring of borders, as the close-ups of his face looking down framing the close-up of the wound closing reveal, also concerns the man’s status as both victim and witness of the violation being committed on his own body. The impossibility of the situation is patent in the fact that it is edited like eyeline match even though the angles do not match the victim’s point of view.

  • 13 Morris details how the Indiana Jones films were criticized for unproblematically retaining the colo (...)

42The reference to Videodrome is not just visual, but pertains to the gender and sexual politics of both films. Max Renn has been described as a hysterical body, a body where sexual instability is somatized (Creed 57). In the sacrifice scene, the male body is penetrated, and thus feminized, before being offered to Kali Ma (mother Kali). The monstrous-feminine is announced by the very long shot of the deep, dark tunnel lit in red light and lined with stalactites and stalagmites [59:57]. Mola Ram and his followers—all men—paradoxically celebrate the goddess by rejecting the female, the feminine and parenthood (they enslave children); the pagans are radically determined not just by race, but by gender and sexuality. The sacrifice scene foreshadows the scene where Indiana Jones’s authority over his body and mind will be compromised: the hero is turned into a brainless, bare-chested slave—fetishized in repeated close-ups and medium shots—before being required to sacrifice the woman he previously desired [72:09–81:27]. This time, there is no need for Mola Ram to violate Willie’s body because she is already female. The homosexual underpinning is obvious—Indiana is feminized and made to forego heterosexuality and fatherhood—as is the equation between Orientalism, paganism and homosexuality.13 While the xenophobic implications are somewhat tempered by having the Asian child heroically save the American adult, swinging from a rope just like his role model [81:26–87:32], the homophobia is not. With Indiana turned into the savior of blondes, children and oppressed indigenous populations, Mola Ram will make a last desperate attempt to penetrate him for good.

Fig. 9 — Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom: Short Round, Willie and Indie witness the violation of the sacrificial victim’s body.

Fig. 9 — Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom: Short Round, Willie and Indie witness the violation of the sacrificial victim’s body.

43However, considered within the context of 1980s Hollywood cinema, the film’s homophobia could more precisely be seen as a reaction against the Reaganite action hero. Significantly, Indiana looks like the hypermasculine action hero once he has been enslaved. While Kendrick compares the punishment inflicted on Indie in Raiders of the Lost Ark to that inflicted on Rambo (116), Morris argues that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom does not take itself seriously enough to be labeled Reaganite (360). I would go even further by suggesting that Indie’s momentary transformation is the means by which Lucas, Spielberg and their team distinguish their hero from other contemporary action heroes. Indie’s brand of masculinity, the narrative proves, is not the hypermasculine hard body, but one that is more traditionally linked to the parental figure, which explains why it is Short Round who saves Indiana. Such an interpretation leads to the provocative conclusion that, symbolically at least, the Reageanite hero is, ironically, the product of barbarism, not civilization.

Confrontation 3: The Sublime

44Edmund Burke defined the sublime as “astonishment... with some degree of horror” (53), and listed various sublime objects and situations: obscurity (54–59), power (59–64), vacuity, solitude, and silence (65), vastness, infinity and magnitude (65–70), and so forth. Spielberg scholars have foregrounded the importance of the sublime in his films (Wasser 82); Berthomieu in particular describes Spielberg’s “marvelous” as “a gaze without any obstacles” (561, my translation). The films of Spielberg suggest that terror or horror can make way for the sublime when they subside and are tempered by awe and fascination.

45In Jaws, such moments follow the “We’re going to need a bigger boat” scene analyzed above, and are thus reserved for the last part of the film. Brody, Hooper and Quint marvel at the shark’s speed when they chase it [100:20–101:45]. The narration crosscuts between Hooper driving the boat, the yellow barrel and Quint at the bow with the barrel in the left midground. Hooper in a high-angle frontal close-up comments: “Fast fish,” shaking his head, while a subsequent high-angle lateral medium close-up of Brody shows him smiling. Again, the dominant emotion (excitement) is accompanied by an adventure theme played with strings and flutes. The sense of danger has momentarily abated, until the scene returns to the aesthetics of the sublime. Against a more ominous musical backdrop, Quint and Hooper walk into a low-angle close-up and stop to study the surface of the ocean (in reverse shot), Quint concluding: “It’s incredible.” With their emphasis on the magnitude of the ocean—in the reverse shot, but even more so in the close-up of Quint and Hooper whom it separates (Fig. 10)—these shots reveal that the film was already drawing on the sublime potential of the ocean in the first half of the movie. As in the desert scenes in Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962), the very long shots using a wide-angle lens emphasize the fact that the expanse cannot be contained and continues offscreen. The metonymical relationship between the great white and the ocean is shown to be not only spatial but emotional.

Fig. 10 — Hooper and Quint, separated by the sublime ocean.

Fig. 10 — Hooper and Quint, separated by the sublime ocean.

46The sublime moments occur much earlier in Jurassic Park and The Lost World than in Jaws because they are not associated with the dangerous dinosaurs. The protagonists’ first encounter with the dinosaurs insists on their emotions and delays the reverse shot for a little over thirty seconds [19:49–21:37]. The camera tracks in to single out Grant’s reaction in a low-angle medium shot, before he stands up into a frontal close-up and takes off his sunglasses, revealing his wide-eyed open-mouthed expression that mixes terror and awe. When Ellie notices the creatures, her face is illuminated by a similar reaction as she stands up into a frontal two-shot with him. A long shot of the jeep then tilts up to follow a brachiosaurus which it fails to fully contain in a low-angle shot. A subsequent full shot tracks right as Allan and Ellie approach the creature, providing a sense of scale. A final establishing shot manages to fully frame the dinosaur feeding on the leaves at the top of a tree, as the strings swell and shift to a higher key. Like Brody in Jaws, Malcolm is then shown laughing in spite of himself. In subsequent scenes, the sublime potential is downplayed in favor of the danger the dinosaurs represent. The Lost World reprises a similar scene when Malcolm, Nick and Eddie watch the stegosauruses cross the river, the narration registering once again their wide-eyed open-mouthed expressions before proposing an establishing shot of the men in the left foreground dwarfed by the creatures [22:34–24:00]. Like Hooper, Nick takes pictures to capture the magnificence of nature, and Malcolm comments: “Oh yeah, hoo, ahh. That’s how it always starts. But then later there’s running and then screaming.” The Lost World mockingly and reflexively foregrounds the strategy adopted in the first film, thereby undercutting its own capacity, as a sequel, to achieve similar effect, for instance by revealing the dinosaurs three times faster (after twelve seconds).

47The sublime potential of the aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. is, like that of the great white, reinforced by their relationship with their environment: this time, infinite space. (This is less the case for the aliens and tripods in War of the Worlds.) In the 1977 film, as in the “We’re going to need a bigger boat” scene, the moments of sublime start as assaults that make way for awestruck contemplation. The shift in emotions is played out over the characters’ faces: Barry’s face registers curiosity then dazzlement in a low-angle frontal medium close-up [13:03], Roy’s a shift from fear to discomfort to fascination in a succession of close shots from various angles [20:59–23:00]; the soundtrack further dramatizes the change in Roy’s emotions by contrasting a deafening low drone and absolute silence. While the reverse shot is denied in the first scene, it reveals the space ship against the starry sky in a low-angle very long shot, that fails to fully encompass it; the shadow falling over Roy’s face images the overwhelming vastness of the ship (Fig. 11). This reveals that the continuity between the first and third modes of confrontation concerns the relationship between filmic space, diegetic space and the magnitude of the sublime element. Roy’s experience leads him to pursue the object of his fascination and renew the experience, this time with a group of people, including Barry [25:35–26:16]. The collective experience is also captured in a series of low-angle medium to close shots as the humans watch the UFOs go by. An establishing shot of the road depicting the UFOs and the spectators provides, like Hooper’s picture in Jaws, a sense of scale. Like the close-up of Quint and Hooper looking at the ocean, the sublime environment has now become a backdrop for the diegetic spectators, but it represents not so much a horizontal threat as a potential elevation.

Fig. 11 — Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Roy, overwhelmed by his first glimpse of a UFO.

Fig. 11 — Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Roy, overwhelmed by his first glimpse of a UFO.

48The film’s finale reproduces the group experience on a much larger scale, with a bigger audience, bigger ships and a bigger stage. Eyes and radars are directed at the sky, Lacombe stating that he doesn’t know what’s happening but it’s beautiful [108:45]. Two establishing shots show the approaching clouds advancing on and eventually surrounding the Devil’s Tower [108:57]. The Gothic imagery is reinforced by the soundtrack (wind, low notes). When the spaceships arrive, a series of medium and long shots of the human beings allows glimpses of the ships above, providing a sense of scale and constructing them as overwhelming forces, which the light they project visually materializes; as in Jaws, the film reflexively draws attention to this strategy by having a human being stand up to take a picture [110:55–111:38]. If the shot scale has increased in comparison to Neary’s first encounter, the very long shots fail to fully circumscribe the UFOs. The appearance of the mothership turns out to be the repetition of the previous encounter scenes on an even larger scale: the ship’s shadow passes over Jillian; a very long shot shows it rising above her, the human being again giving a sense of scale, until an establishing shot offers a view of the ship dwarfing both the research center and even the Devil’s Tower, so that it even escapes the upper frame (Fig. 12) [113:43–154:24]. The rest of the scene repeats the previous strategy of alternating between shot sizes, with very long shots that fail to contain the UFO, and long shots to extreme close-ups revealing the shadow creeping over the humans and registering the fascination on their faces. Like the earlier scenes, the finale combines the first and third modes of confrontation, with shots of the ships, reaction shots of the human spectators and shots of the ships dwarfing them. The progression is nothing more than an escalation. With its emphasis on size and accumulation, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is undoubtedly the most Burkean of Spielberg’s films.

Fig. 12 — Close Encounters of the Third Kind: the giant ship dwarfing the Devil’s Tower.

Fig. 12 — Close Encounters of the Third Kind: the giant ship dwarfing the Devil’s Tower.
  • 14 In A.I., the mechas in the woods undergo a similar experience: they look up in fascination at the l (...)
  • 15 The opening scene of The Lost World perversely conflates a sublime moment à la E.T. and an attack s (...)

49E.T. momentarily reprises the 1977 film’s aesthetics of the sublime in order to establish a contrast. The UFO is immediately presented in an establishing shot, encircled by the woods [1:56]; though subsequent very long shots fail to contain it, they also reveal the intrusion of the forest in the shots [2:04–3:45]. This paves the way for the reversal in the film’s premise: it is the extra-terrestrial being who seems to be experiencing the sublime potential of the woods and nighttime cityscape, as the very long-shot of E.T. walking among the trees and the low-angle long shots of the trees presumably from his point of view suggest [4:08–4:49]; the string melody and the slow tracking shots endow the moment with solemnity.14 Subsequently, it is the children who experience the sublime when they meet E.T. Here, Spielberg recycles the shot/reverse shot technique, with low-angle close-ups to register the fascination on the children’s faces (mouths and eyes wide open) lit from below; the verticality associated with E.T.’s sublime potential is incarnated in his neck, which makes his head rise out of the shadows and into the light [36:00–36:24].15 The end of the film proposes a shorter, more intimate version of the Close Encounters of the Third Kind finale, alternating between very long shots of the ship landing and low-angle medium to extreme close-ups of the spectators’ awestruck faces [103:33–104:51]. What is, yet again, underlined is the difference between the two films: this time, it is an intimate moment between E.T. and the children, and it is a tearful farewell (for Elliott and E.T.) and not a wishfulfilled goodbye (as it is for Roy who couldn’t care less about his family!).

  • 16 One such moment occurs after Ray, Rachel and Robbie have crossed the Hudson and climb onto a rocky (...)

50Spielberg’s films thus demonstrate how varied aesthetics of confrontation actually are. Like the aesthetics of suggestion, they depend on the figure of the monstrous; the sublime moments in War of the Worlds, for instance, are short-lived due to the tripods’ sheer destructive potential.16 They are also grounded in a complex interaction between space, time, action and emotion. Though I have distinguished between three modes, they often flow into one another and can be combined: terror can give way to horror and the sublime, while horror and the sublime are both spectator’s emotions, and the sublime and the overwhelming presence both involve magnitude; though they rely on the use of the shot/reverse shot technique with eyeline match, the sublime, unlike horror, is connected to elevation, notably through the use of low angles.

Conclusion: The Poetics of Horror & Real Horror

51Seeing that Spielberg often makes his films with specific directors in mind (Clarke 138), it should come as no surprise that his poetics of horror is largely indebted to the filmmakers that influenced him, starting with Hitchcock and probably the Val Lewton/Jacques Tourneur productions. Spielberg has, in turn, largely influenced the horror genre as much as he has influenced sci-fi—and far beyond the shark movie and the revenge of nature subgenres; movies like Halloween (1978) and Alien ( Scott, 1979) have clearly learned from Jaws (Cumbow 47; Hays 2003). Overall, Spielberg’s poetics of horror is in place by Close Encounters of the Third Kind and varies very little after. Subsequent films offer sometimes very knowing variations of the strategies developed in his early work, a knowingness the films may reflexively foreground, and the main novelty of a film like War of the Worlds lies, above all, in its cinematographic treatment of texture (the dust, fog, wind and rain) (Souladié 237–241), which reinforces the obscurity conducive to terror and the sublime. Variation is also produced because the poetics need to be adapted to the monstrous stimulus; in a way, it is the nature of the great white that makes Jaws the quintessential horror movie in terms of its overall organization and deployment of strategies. What Duel and Jaws also demonstrate is that much of the pleasure derived from such horror movies has to do with the formal play on repetition with variation that creates interest and thwarts expectations. Finally, the analysis of Spielberg’s poetics of horror prove that the relationship between dread, terror, horror and the sublime is more fluid than my scheme seems to suggest—the sublime is particularly ambivalent as it may flow from either terror or horror.

Fig. 13 — Schindler’s List: Schindler watches a girl in red wandering through the Krakow ghetto and, perhaps, imagines the rest.

Fig. 13 — Schindler’s List: Schindler watches a girl in red wandering through the Krakow ghetto and, perhaps, imagines the rest.

Fig. 14 — Schindler’s List: the horror of the showers is momentarily distanced, before becoming confrontational.

Fig. 14 — Schindler’s List: the horror of the showers is momentarily distanced, before becoming confrontational.

52This fluidity in the quality of the emotion is confirmed in a movie like Schindler’s List that engages with the horrors of 20th century history. The film taps into Spielberg’s poetics of horror. Its structure espouses the arc of horror provided by the escalation of violence (from the discriminatory edicts to the Krakow ghetto to the concentration camps). The horror is largely maintained at a distance, with mistreatment and executions relegated to the background in very long shots [69:19, 88:00] or narrated in flashback (when Amon Goeth goes beserk and shoots down twenty-five men [96:44–97:07]). Spielberg avoids reaction shots (Morris 236), until Schindler, whose presence frames the scene, witnesses the liquidation of the ghetto from atop a hill and recognizes the horror he has denied [57:44] (Ebertz 115). The vision of the young girl in red materializes this awareness: she appears, first, as a dark stain at the center of a high-angle establishing shot; the color then emerges; shot sizes decrease; and the angles shift (from high angle to eye level) (Fig. 13) [68:06–70:16]. The little girl, who increasingly occupies the frame but is not necessarily in focus, is metonymically linked to the “monstrous,” both spatially (she walks among the horror) and causally (she is a victim). The reference to the fairy tale character of Little Red Riding Hood serves as a benchmark to assess the gap between the fantasy horror and the real horror the little girl reveals. The progression, in which point of view is unstable, suggests a shift from Schindler’s visual perception to a subjective experience that is both moral and emotional; the shot of the little girl climbing a staircase suggests that the subsequent scene where she hides under a bed could very well be what Schindler imagines on his way back home (Fig. 13) [69:59–70:34].

Fig. 15 — Schindler’s List: Schindler’s List: the gas chambers evoked metonymically.

Fig. 15 — Schindler’s List: Schindler’s List: the gas chambers evoked metonymically.

53The film thus combines a toned-down aesthetics of confrontation with an aesthetics of suggestion. It seems to reserve a more brutal approach for the Auschwitz shower scene [155:11–157:09]. The narration proposes a series of close shots of the women, emphasizing their naked bodies and terrified faces, and thus proving that the aesthetics of confrontation can be associated with terror (the stimulus is diffuse and lies more in what the characters and audience expect than in what they actually perceive). A long shot of doors being closed leads us to believe we shall be spared the horror [155:39], but the narration soon returns inside the showers with the women (Fig. 14) [155:51]. Their fear is then revealed to be unfounded in their case [156:27]—and yet very much founded when they notice a line of women and children entering a building topped by a smoking chimney (Fig. 15) [157:10–158:00]. The horror is, once again, evoked metonymically. Schindler’s List thus obliges the spectator “to infer what cannot be shown” (Elsaesser 162) based on our knowledge which, like the paratext, serves as an interpretive framework, and relates the women’s experience of horror without depicting it. Its aesthetics of confrontation turn out to be an aesthetics of suggestion, as if real horror could only be experienced indirectly—as terror.


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Bordwell, David. Poetics of Cinema. New York and London: Routledge, 2007.

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Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Oxford and New York: Oxford UP, 1990 [1757].

Carroll, Noël. The Philosophy of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart. New York and London: Routledge, 1990.

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1 The opening scene of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’éclipse (1962) comes to mind.

2 As such, it is incorrect to speak of “external focalization” (Buckland 97) when the protagonist is shown at such a disadvantage.

3 In Jurassic Park, a camera movement dramatizes a similar reversal between hunter (Muldoon) and hunted (the raptors) [105:22–105:29].

4 In War of the Worlds, for instance, a tripod suddenly lunges into the background of a lateral long shot of Rachel, Ray and Robbie running [65:39].

5 In typical Spielberg fashion, the BFG first appears metonymically (the trash can he knocks down), then fragmented (his enormous left hand, his shoulder and head), before his eyes and nose fill up the screen in a backlit extreme close-up; his body then threatens to violate the window that is too small to fully frame him [7:11–8:13].

6 A sense of size can also be primarily constructed through composition. In A.I., for instance, a medium shot of Monica lying in bed shows David stepping into the right foreground with a pair of scissors, which visually obliterates Monica’s face. The shot turns the child robot into a potential slasher killer [38:29].

7 From the fourth attack scene on, Jaws does propose shots of the great white breaching and invading the frame—the long shot of the man in the boat being devoured, the close-up of Brody throwing chum—that rely on similar principles of composition opposing foreground and midground, or right and left, but they merely punctuate the scenes. Like the T-Rex in Jurassic Park, the great white threatens to annihilate these planes at the end of the film when it attacks Hooper in the cage and Quint in the boat.

8 The truck appears while David is listening to a radio program in which a man is complaining about his position in his household [3:42], and succeeds where David failed to push the school bus and get it started again [43:54].

9 The basement scene in War of the Worlds resorts to similar strategies: the play on two zones in the composition, the invasion of the onscreen and the profilmic frame framing the aliens [80:44–88:42].

10 Gordon insists that E.T. functions as “Elliott’s double” (229).

11 The reference is especially relevant as Spielberg produced Poltergeist, directed by Tobe Hooper, the same year.

12 Gordon notes the accumulation of horror clichés in Raiders of the Lost Ark (299).

13 Morris details how the Indiana Jones films were criticized for unproblematically retaining the colonizing and xenophobic perspectives of the serials they are based on (250, 339, 367).

14 In A.I., the mechas in the woods undergo a similar experience: they look up in fascination at the lunar shape dwarfing Gigolo Joe, only to realize it is a vessel attacking them [57:58]. The sublime moment—the wishfulfillment or bittersweet goodbyes of the previous films—is denied them and makes way for violence and horror.

15 The opening scene of The Lost World perversely conflates a sublime moment à la E.T. and an attack scene, when a young girl, upon seeing a small dinosaur (a compsognathus) emerge (like E.T.) from the foliage, initially marvels at how cute it is and, like Elliott, attempts to befriend it with food before being attacked by a host of compsognathi [3:00–4:13].

16 One such moment occurs after Ray, Rachel and Robbie have crossed the Hudson and climb onto a rocky hill with barren trees in the rainy night—clearly, a stereotypically Gothic setting [65:06–65:48]. The camera tracks over them, tilts right and stops, offering an establishing shot of the river below and city beyond being destroyed by five tripods, Ray and his family in the foreground again providing a sense of scale. A subsequent close-up of Rachel tracks over their faces, revealing the terror, Robbie gasping: “Oh my god,” like the diegetic spectators in Close Encounters. A subsequent establishing shot reveals three more tripods advancing toward them and killing off crowds of people, leading the characters to run away and hide as a tripod passes right by them. Clearly, in War of the Worlds, there is very little time to marvel at alien technology.

Table des illustrations

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Titre Fig. 1 — Duel: shot of David Mann from within the truck.
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Titre Fig. 2 — Duel: focus from Mann examining the men to one of the men looking at him.
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Titre Fig. 3 — Jaws: point view is initially aligned with Brody watching the beach, then with the dog’s master, before concluding on a nobody’s shot of the man and the dog on the beach.
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Titre Fig. 4 — E.T.: the light seemingly materializes the offscreen presence.
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Titre Fig. 5 — Jaws: the shark lunges after Brody throws chum into the ocean.
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Titre Fig. 6 — Duel: David and his car appear puny, framed by the truck in the foreground.
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Titre Fig. 7 — Jurassic Park: the T-Rex overwhelms the frame within the frame, as Grant and Malcolm look on.
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Titre Fig. 8 — Jurassic Park: the raptors overwhelming the cramped kitchen area.
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Titre Fig. 9 — Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom: Short Round, Willie and Indie witness the violation of the sacrificial victim’s body.
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Titre Fig. 10 — Hooper and Quint, separated by the sublime ocean.
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Titre Fig. 11 — Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Roy, overwhelmed by his first glimpse of a UFO.
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Titre Fig. 12 — Close Encounters of the Third Kind: the giant ship dwarfing the Devil’s Tower.
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Titre Fig. 13 — Schindler’s List: Schindler watches a girl in red wandering through the Krakow ghetto and, perhaps, imagines the rest.
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Titre Fig. 14 — Schindler’s List: the horror of the showers is momentarily distanced, before becoming confrontational.
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Titre Fig. 15 — Schindler’s List: Schindler’s List: the gas chambers evoked metonymically.
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Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès.

David Roche is Professor of Film Studies at the Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès and Vice-president of SERCIA ( He is the author of Making and Remaking Horror in the 1970s and 2000s (2014) and L’Imagination malsaine (2008), and has edited a themed issue of Transatlantica entitled “Exploiting Exploitation Cinema” (2016), as well as the collected volumes Comics and Adaptation (with Benoît Mitaine and Isabelle Schmitt-Pitiot, 2018), Intimacy in Cinema (with Schmitt-Pitiot 2014) and Approaches to Film and Reception Theories (with Christophe Gelly, 2012). He has published articles on North American and European auteur and horror cinema in Adaptation, E-rea, CinémAction, Horror Studies, Miranda, Post-script and Textes & Contextes. His book Quentin Tarantino: Poetics and Politics of Cinematic Metafiction is forthcoming.

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