David F. Sandberg knows what you’re afraid of. Based on his short film of the same name, Lights Out is a perfect example of how to terrify horror audiences, and it all revolves around a horribly simple premise. A monster that can only attack you in the dark. Think about it. There you are, all safe at home, switching off the light to go to bed and, instead of an empty hallway, you’re faced with the silhouette of a twisted woman standing just a few feet away. Click the light back on and she disappears, turn it off again and she reappears just where you left her. Could your eyes be deceiving you? You wish. Here’s exactly why Lights Out is so terrifying.
Fears of the dark
Nyctophobia, the official name of a severe fear of the dark, plagues us all in some capacity. No one really likes the dark when they have a chance to think about what might be hiding there. When Lights Out’s Rachel returns to the her family home to save her step brother Martin from whatever is haunting their mother, she faces an evil that lurks only in shadow. When night falls in the sprawling house, a creature known as Diana stalks and terrorises Martin, taking out those precious light bulbs and hissing in the darkness where she can now scuttle. How can you protect yourself if you can’t see her coming?
Diana makes a nightmarish boogeyman. Physically she embodies everything that makes audiences squirm. While she’s a recognisable shape as vaguely human, her long nails and warped stance make her the last thing you’d ever want to see at the end of a corridor. Even without knowing that she is trying to take your light bulbs out and murder you, the idea of her lurking crouched at the foot of your bed is true nightmare fuel. A monster based on our childlike fears, Diana makes us all crave a night light.
Nowhere is safe
Haunted house movies are sometimes frustrating when the victims continue to stay within four walls that clearly don’t want them there. “Just move,” you howl as for the third night, someone wakes up with something looming over them. Putting yourself in that position, you know exactly what you’d do and it would involved speaking to a letting agent the next day. Lights Out however ensures that there’s no escaping Diana. Martin’s father is murdered in his warehouse as she cuts off the electricity and she arrives in Rachel’s apartment with an ominous knock on the door the evening before and an empty hallway. It’s only as Rachel sleeps that suddenly Diana appears as the neon light outside the window flickers off. There is no escape. Where there are lights to go out, Diana can find you, which, quite frankly, is enough to make anyone want to go and fall asleep in the lighting section of IKEA. That is, until something cuts the wires...
And finally, Lights Out doesn’t just deliver its scares in things that go bump in the night. Rachel’s relationship with her mother and her young step brother, Martin, is strained. She left home at a young age and hasn’t been back since and she’s not the only one with problems. After Martin’s father’s death, her mother is a single parent on antidepressants dealing with the loss of her husband. While we might not have the monster lurking in the shadows, we can all identify with themes of loss, grief and family angst. This isn’t a world of happily ever afters. The ties that bind Rachel, Martin and her mother are frayed with very real issues. Some of these might be caused by a fictional monster, but the lurking allegory of unseen mental illness is a truly terrifying prospect.