What is more horrifying than seeing the object of horror in broad daylight? The psychosis such clarity triggers is like the dread induced by a 24-hour news cycle. Horror films are traditionally set after dark, when evil lurks in the shadows. But when it’s right in front of you, and even the day cannot save you, the disquiet takes an interesting form, as will be seen in Avi Aster’s July 3 release Midsommar.
The horrors in Aster’s previous film Hereditary, about a haunted house, mostly play out at night. In Midsommar, breakup looms over a couple, and they decide to reinvigorate their relationship by attending a mid-summer festival in Sweden. Wrong move. The festival turns out to be a fishy enterprise organised by a pagan cult. Weird rituals, and screaming and running follows, all during a relentlessly sunny, Scandinavian summer.
The idea of a clueless protagonist caught up in sinister cult business in an isolated place was most memorably explored in Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man. The 1973 film follows a policeman investigating the disappearance of a girl on an island whose residents have sex in the open, put frogs in the mouths of their children to cure sores, and sacrifice humans when the harvest isn’t right. The insanity of The Wicker Man unfolds in broad daylight. The hero turns out to be the lone voice of reason in a land cursed by traditions beyond modern understanding.
Such everyday evil that doesn’t wait for the dark to unfold has also been tapped by such films as Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Dave Eggers’s The Witch (2015), and the 2016 Marathi film Lapachhapi, by Vishal Furia.
Daylight horror is possible only when the appetite for evil is seemingly bottomless. Like the industrious pagan cults, the misanthropic crows and seagulls of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), the killer truck of Steven Spielberg’s Duel (1973), and the sexually transmitted supernatural entity of David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows (2014) are always hard at work.
One sub-genre that accommodates daylight horror in its very design is the zombie film. The flesh-and-blood undead can have a brain buffet any time of the day. The grandfather of all zombie films, George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), begins with the undead wrecking havoc during the day.
Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) opens with with a spectacular sequence featuring a deserted London. What makes this zombie film the fiercest? It had running zombies for the first time.
Another relatively new horror sub-genre that allows for daytime spookiness is the found-footage film. The blockbuster success of The Blair Witch Project (1999) caused an uptick in such films, though in most of them, the terror gets unleashed during the night just as in any traditional horror production.
Films such as Patrick Brice’s Creep series (2014 onwards) added fresh blood to the found-footage horror film by connecting the poor cameraman with the psychopathic killer right after breakfast.
A most interesting film is Koji Shiraishi’s Noroi: The Curse (2005), which fuses the found-footage format with the round-the-clock supernaturalness of Japanese horror. Noroi: The Curse flows like a faux-investigative documentary revolving around multiple characters in Japan who are all affected by the same supernatural power. A paranormal expert investigates, joins the dots, and reaches a harrowing conclusion. Shiraishi revisited the stylistic approach in his 2009 film Occult for another grisly tale.