In daylight horror films such as Netflix’s Fear Street Part Two: 1978, the real monsters are not witches, or killer clowns, or pagan cultists. Instead, they are the people who are not kind.
Warning: this article contains spoilers for Netflix’s Fear Street. Proceed with caution.
Fear Street Part Two: 1978 welcomes you to Camp Nightwing, so let’s take a tour of the American summer camp of your dreams. The heat pulses, a boy dives into a shimmering lake, a teenage camp counsellor lounges, in the lifeguard chair. Girls score bullseyes in an archery lesson; another back flips on the yellowing grass.
Elsewhere, a group of kids play volleyball, but at sluggish speed. Nobody tries too hard at Camp Nightwing, everyone is slowed and stretched in heavy, golden light. The promise of adventure in the summer ahead ripples, lazily, through the body of every single camper.
That is, every camper, but one.
Look, over there, past the lake. Beyond the sports pitch. Behind the log cabins. Keep going, deep into the woods.
There, a teenage girl (played by Stranger Things’ Sadie Sink) hurls herself through the trees, cursing, panting, her long red hair streaming out in bouncing waves. She turns her head back, craning, as she runs, checking she’s outpacing her pursuer. But she turns her head once too often, and runs straight into Will’s outstretched arm.
He clotheslines her and watches her fall to the floor, his inaction all the more dreadful due to its dispassion: his face reveals no adrenaline, no fear, nor even pleasure. Ziggy – for that is the girl’s name – means nothing to him.
The world swims. Ziggy’s nose bleeds. Her vision clears to reveal her pursuers: Sheila, a pretty teen in a floral vest top, grips parting her long, flat hair, and two more girls.
“You’re going to hang, witch,” they spit.
Ziggy is dragged to a clearing, beyond the edge of the wood, to the site of an ancient tree, where, hundreds of years earlier, villagers hanged Sarah Fier for the crime of being a witch.
The sun beats down as Sheila binds Ziggy’s wrists with rope, loops it around an overhanging branch and hoists the girl up. Now she’s hanging by her wrists, her tiptoes scrabbling to meet the scorched earth.
And, as the bright blue sky chases away fluffy clouds. Sheila flicks open her lighter, smiles, and burns Ziggy’s soft, exposed, upper arm.
When I first watched this scene, my body contorted into knots, in somatic sympathy with Ziggy’s torture. Then later, on reflection, I was struck by how my enduring memory – beyond Ziggy’s howling pain – was that of the sun. It was the sun beating down, casting shadows against the hanging tree, it was the sun shining into Sheila’s eyes as she advanced on her victim, it was the sun prickling sweat onto Will’s brow.
It was then that I realised that Netflix’s Fear Street 1978 offers, in fact, a welcome return to the daylight horror film.
The daylight horror
“Daylight horror” became a popular term in summer 2019, with the release of Midsommar. In the words of its star, Florence Pugh, Midsommar is shot in “a bright, sunny field with flowers and butterflies” and yet, remains absolutely terrifying.
In writing about the film, critics fell over themselves to write about the role of daylight in horror, from listicles on the 11 scariest horror scenes set in daylight, to essays on the “blinding terror of daylight horror” for the BBC, The New Republic and New York Post. Even the British tabloid newspapers weighed in, The Sun proclaiming that Midsommar is “making male viewers scared of sunlight” (given what happens to Christian, the dreadful, gaslighting boyfriend – and for those of you that have seen it, I’m thinking, yes, the grimly hilarious sex scene, and yes, the bear, at the end – it’s no wonder The Sun was unsettled).
Out of this body of writing, two major ideas emerged. First, that daylight horror films often take place in settings we do not associate with traditional horror; they occur in places that we expect to be safe. Think Michael Myers tracking Laurie on a pleasant afternoon in suburbia in Halloween, The Wicker Man’s climactic bonfire on a remote Scottish island, the shimmering wheat fields of The Noonday Witch, or Jen, stalking through the desert, doling out bloody and violent retribution upon her attackers in writer-director Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge.
The invasion of our safest spaces
There is something truly dreadful about the horror emerging in these spaces, spaces associated with happiness and holidays, recreation and relaxation. I will never get over my first viewing of the serial killer film Zodiac, which includes this kind of horror, in a scene that is both unexpected and shocking. A smart, funny young couple laze by a lake in a Californian park. It’s early afternoon, and, like Fear Street 1978, the world is painted in rich tones of yellow and blue.
The couple lounge, without a care in the world, as he stretches out on his back, she leans, companionably, on his chest. But as she looks over her boyfriend’s shoulder, she sees a man, dressed head to toe in black, and wearing a balaclava, striding towards them. She alerts her boyfriend, but he refuses to turn round; there’s no danger here, after all, in this luminous place, where rows of corn wave and the birds sing with joy.
However, the masked man continues towards them. He has a gun. He has come equipped, with rope. And he has many desires, desires that are far worse than the robbery that the boyfriend presumes is taking place: a victim unable to comprehend the terrible thing happening to him right now in this idyll.
These scenes scare us because they are coded in opposition to what we expect a horror film to do. When we think of horror, we think of domestic space (don’t go in the attic! Don’t go in the cellar!), we think of badly lit alleyways (don’t walk home alone at night!), we think of abandoned ruins littering ancient forests (c’mon Heather, absolutely do not go in the Blair Witch’s tumbledown cottage; you will regret it).
In all these cases, what we are really thinking of, is darkness. As Brogan Morris says, writing for the BFI, in horror film, “spartan lighting” has traditionally “proved useful for directors both as a stylistic tool and a means of hiding limitations in budget”, useful because “the idea of what can’t be seen is often most frightening of all.”
Constant daylight goes against this foundational principle of the genre and, as such, totally freaks us out. I still can’t engage with the park murders in Zodiac, I still can’t accept horror erupting in a place I assume to be warm and safe.
This leads to the second idea that has emerged from recent writing on daylight horror. It is about what happens when we let the light in. So, it’s not just light versus dark, unsettling our expectations, it’s that this light allows us to see.
A loss of control
In Blind Sun, writer-director Joyce Nashawati’s debut feature film, a Greek resort is plagued by a heatwave, the whole film reflected in the sparkling light bouncing off the Mediterranean Sea. And, in an interview with Screen Daily, Nashawati explains that her inspiration for the film came during “a hot summer near Athens. A forest fire had turned the sky over the coast an eerie orange colour… It felt like the end of the world, as if the end of the world had a terrifying beauty.”
Here, the titular blinding sun shows us, with piercing clarity, all the horrors that unfold.
In traditional horror films, nighttime scenes are opportunities for suggestion: we can choose to imagine what lurks in the shadows. This gives us some semblance of control over our viewing experience.
However, daylight horror is far more aggressive; it cows us, the audience, into submission. In these stories, the light dazzles, it has all the power, and we are forced, quite literally, to see it all – whether we want to, or not. But I want to illuminate a strand of daylight horror that has rarely been discussed.
A strand that relates to a certain age, and a certain time of year.
A return to vulnerability
It’s the age when you are finally old enough to go into town on your own; to hang around with your friends without a parent nearby; even, perhaps, to attend summer camp. This separation of child and parent is a necessary rite of passage (look at Psycho to see what happens when you don’t do it, hmmm); it is part of coming of age, of finding the freedom to make your own way in the world.
But here’s the kicker; freedom is also exposing, and it leaves you vulnerable to attack. And this vulnerability strikes hardest at a time when the sun is at its fullest: when school is out for the summer. When there are no parents around, no teachers to watch over you. When you are on your own.
The horror film genre delights in taking out teens and 20-somethings who mistakenly think that summer holidays equal fun. Road trips, summer camps, a cabin in the woods, beautiful beaches that might just have giant killer sharks in the sea… if you are aged 13 to 30 , and you go on a holiday in a horror film, you are more than likely to be expendable (something that Dani’s boyfriend should have thought more about in Midsommar).
However, beyond setting and demographic, we can go deeper, into this vulnerability, into something… well, something more universal.
There’s the horror of being away from the security of your family, of being in a new setting, and then, there’s the horror of having to learn some major life lessons about how the world works. We see it in Stephen King’s novel It, when school is out and the local bully, Henry Bowers, is chasing Mike Hanlon through the town of Derry.
As Mike tries to escape, “a new voice spoke inside him for the first time, a voice that was disturbingly adult… You got to get away, Mikey, or something’s going to happen… get away fast”.
And, as Mike has this revelation, “it seemed to him that he understood a great many things for the first time… he realised above all that the world was not kind”.
This is the beating heart of the centre of this essay: in daylight horror films, the real monsters are not witches. They are not killer clowns. They are not the member of a Swedish pagan cult who make a suit out of your skin after you piss on their sacred tree.
They are the people who are not kind.
Leigh Janiak, cowriter and director of the Fear Street trilogy, understands the horror of a world without kindness. In the final chapter, we witness the origin story of Sarah Fier, the teenager hung as a witch in 1666. Her secret relationship with Hannah Miller, the pastor’s daughter, is exposed, and both girls are accused of witchcraft.
Hannah has been caught, and due to be hung at dawn. Sarah sneaks into the building where Hannah is held and suggests that they make a deal with the devil in order to escape, and go live somewhere where they can “kiss in broad daylight”.
Hannah responds, “the devil. Are you mad?”
Sarah shakes her head, in response, “I do not fear the devil, Hannah. I fear the neighbour who would accuse me.”
As Sarah reaches out to touch Hannah’s face, caressing her soft cheek, she adds: “I fear the mother, who would let her daughter hang.”
There are shouts outside and, just like that, Sarah’s pursuers are upon them. Both girls are dragged to a clearing, beyond the edge of the wood, to the site of an ancient tree.
Heavy, golden light ripples in the villagers’ burning torches as Sarah confesses to being a witch to save Hannah. She gives up her life for the girl who means everything to her.
And, as the sunrise creeps in, the rope is hoisted over an overhanging branch, and Sarah sacrifices herself to the unkindness of those people she knows only too well.
Fear Street Parts 1 & 2 (1994; 1978) are on Netflix now. Fear Street Part 3: 1666 launches on 16 July.
Images: Netflix/Csaba Aknay/A24