VISUAL TENSION, IRONY, DISCOMFORT, AND METAFICTION IN ‘THE VISIT’

Something I think about sometimes is how I basically never had a grandpa. My grandpa on my dad’s side, Grandpa Ted, died when I was two and I don’t remember him one bit. On my mom’s side, I had Grandpa Art, who died when I was five or six. Art was a huge and colorful personality and I’ve heard plenty of stories after him, but the only concrete memory I have of him is gathering around him with a couple of other small cousins, waiting for him to take his artificial voice box out and make a belching sound at us that drove us wild with giggles.

It’s kind of a weird distinction to have, not having a grandpa. There’s definitely something missing from your life, a sense of a relationship you never got to enjoy, but you never want to say anything about it because it would sound kind of silly, wouldn’t it? Plenty of people, after all, grew up missing whole parents. It’s not even like I lacked grandparents entirely: I had grandmas. One of them is even still living. Interesting thing about her is, she lost her husband at a relatively young age and has now been a widow for longer than she was ever married. She never expressed the slightest interest in the idea of remarrying or I could have still had a grandpa. But whatever, it’s not like that was her job to give me a grandpa.

As I get older, I find myself dwelling on how my life would’ve turned out differently if I’d had a grandpa. What are grandpas supposed to do, anyway? “Take you fishing,” is the first answer that pops to mind, but my dad took me fishing. “Let you do stuff that your parents would never approve of” is the next thing, but I was staying with my grandma one time and she fed me straight chocolate syrup just because I asked. “Give you advice about romance,” maybe? I was such a spazzy teen I’m not sure what could’ve been done there. I don’t know, exactly. But I can’t help but have this unshakeable sense that something, somewhere, could’ve been different, something lacking that I don’t know what it is because I’m so used to its absence, some skeleton key that could’ve made everything that’s been out of order in my life line up and fit together. But that’s probably just wishful thinking.

It’s not a scenario that most people can give you pat advice about. That uncertainty informs the conflict of The Visit, M. Night Shyamalan’s 2015 found-footage horror movie. In it, two teens meet their estranged grandparents for a week of traditional grandparent stuff (whatever that is) while their mother, who was the impetus for their estrangement, uses the opportunity to go on a cruise with her slowly-getting-more-serious boyfriend. No part of this situation has a handy social script to it. Meeting a brand-new blood relative? That’s uncomfortable. Meeting them for the first time without your parents acting as a buffer? Your divorced mom using her kid-free time to let her freak flag fly with her boy toy? That’s uncomfortable. There’s a lot of anxiety, a lot of situations where the characters have no idea how to act or react, which Shyamalan mines for both horror and comedic value.

To add a meta element to it, the older of the two protagonists, the 15-year-old Becca, is an aspiring filmmaker who intends to videotape the week and turn it into a documentary feature. In a twist on found-footage convention, instead of an amateur filmmaker who has no aspirations with what they’re filming beyond the home-movie level, Becca seems to be quite the film buff who is using the film to nurture ambitions of a filmmaking career. Frequently and on-camera, she didactically narrates to her 13-year-old brother Tyler what techniques she’s using, what precedent they have in film history, how she’s going to edit it, what parts she intends to shape into emotional beats, and other overeager nerdery. At least part of the reason she’s such a motormouth about this kind of stuff is, as we noted, she doesn’t know how to act or feel here. She’s using the camera as a mediating device, a separate eye or filter which is helping her keep emotional distance while she processes her feelings.

This, again, is a subversion of how found-footage movies normally work: the whole presumption behind the form is immediacy. You’re looking at something from someone’s actual point of view, a camera in the hand of an untrained civilian, who doesn’t know how to and doesn’t want to use their camera to shape what they’re filming into a narrative, to garner a predetermined reaction, but only to passively record what’s going on around them. The camera is supposed to pull you into the moment, not stand in between you and it. The lack of polish is the point because it’s part of the story that the person diegetically filming is not a filmmaker. The plot’s proceedings speak for themselves. “Realness” is key.

But by putting a conscious, if unskilled, filmmaker in the hot seat, who has a certain narrative definitively in mind, The Visit is able to show us how the found-footage genre is actually just as artificial, if not more so, than any other film subgenre. It shows you all these scenes reminiscent of those from other found-footage movies: Chronicle, Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity, and explains to you how these seemingly inexpert shots were actually meticulously composed to achieve different emotional effects. Often, this explanation literally takes place, with Becca brimming with geeky infodumpery as she explains mise-en-scene, visual tension, and ironic scoring. This calls into question the underlying assumptions of both the found-footage genre and the documentary. The popular assumption is that a documentary is just supposed to record something and lead the viewer to their own conclusions about it, but Becca is seen consciously trying to influence the goings-on of her documentary in order to achieve a certain goal. On a personal level, she wants to find out what exactly happened to estrange her mother from her parents; she also, however, has a certain audience in mind (i.e., her mother and grandparents). She is looking for footage to serve as “the elixir” as she terms it: the magic ingredient that will bridge the gap and reconcile the three people to one another. To this end, Becca is seen framing shots in ways to garner her mother’s sympathy, shooting her mother’s old stomping grounds in the most nostalgia-baiting way she can, asking leading questions to her grandparents to try to furnish the answers that she wants.

But the narrative that Becca has in mind is stymied by the fact that her grandparents, Nana and Pop Pop, are off their rockers. Never having had grandparents, presumably never having been close to any old people, Becca and Tyler are not familiar with the embarrassing and at times unsettling quirks that elderly bodies and brains are capable of. We see Nana shedding her clothes and clawing at the doors like a feral animal when night falls. Pop Pop craps his pants and saves his soiled adult diapers in a huge pile in the shed. These, after some patient explanation and a quick Google, are written off by Becca as normal old people problems. Less characteristically senescent are Pop Pop’s unaccountably hostile behavior towards a stranger in town, and Nana’s projectile vomiting and attempts to strangle herself with her own scarf to escape “the deep darkies.”

Horror is about repulsion and fascination, and as much as these quirks may disgust and horrify Tyler and Becca, there’s a pull there too. Pop Pop and Nana, assumed by both grandkids to be simple and stolid country folk, seem to have darker and stranger imaginative depth to them than the kids ever dared assume. Nana tells an astounding and apparently off-the-cuff fantasy story about aliens that live in a well on their property. Pop Pop tells Becca that he left his old coal mining job after seeing a weird white gremlin crawling around the plant that no one else could see. These two people, who were before just abstractions to Becca and Tyler, relationships on paper only, have astounding depths to their souls. Which makes it all the more inexcusable that they live out in the secluded country by themselves and struggle alone with severe mental problems. Their strange behaviors both scare the children and twist the knife of guilt in them. They’re well versed in blaming themselves for adults’ behavior after their dad left, and thus they feel complicit in the fact that their family lives apart, spatially and spiritually, and there’s no one to check on how these folks are doing.

What they’re going through is something they’re hardly alone in. We’re living in an age of a “loneliness epidemic.” People, particularly older people, are suffering from unprecedented levels of social isolation. Households all across the country are getting smaller, and older people are more likely to live by themselves with no one checking on them. Generations of the same family are increasingly likely to live apart from one another and not to have a close relationship. Social clubs and group activities have been on the decline since at least the 1950s, and members of a community are walled off from one another by suburban sprawl and the rise of individualistic recreational activities like TV. Rural communities like Nana and Pop Pop’s are suffering from economic stagnation and depopulation, further reducing the basis of community support for institutions that otherwise might bring people together, such as churches, local newspapers, and local businesses. And like so many other modern trends, you might be entirely correct in saying that these phenomena are driven by huge, impersonal economic and cultural shifts, and an individual like yourself has no say in any of it; but there’s always a niggling doubt there, a feeling of complicity, of compromise, a killing-Caesar feeling that you’ve made your choice, and it was the easier of the two, and if you wanted really wanted things to be different, you could have done something about it before, but you don’t care enough to make it happen.

That guilt, that stare into the face of personal ugliness, is the beating heart of The Visit’s horror. Becca and Tyler’s mother chose to look away, and these horrors grew and festered in her neglect. A simple visit, at least once in the past 15 years, would have sufficed to set everything straight, but she was too willful for that. And, as things turn out (after the Shyamalan twist!) the reason for their estrangement was nothing that they couldn’t have just sat down and talked over. But it would’ve been uncomfortable, and that callow refusal to face that discomfort resulted in all sorts of easily avoidable tragedies.

We’re not all estranged from our aging parents, but as the population ages, a lot of us are facing similar choices when it comes to our older relatives. We’re well versed in this kind of discomfort because the truth is: old people scare us. It’s not considered polite to talk about it, but they do. They always have. Their bodies are misshapen and painful to operate. Their faces look desiccated, already half in the grave. Their minds short-circuit and they say things that don’t make sense. They activate primal triggers in us. World folklore is replete with examples of misbegotten creatures with the features of our old selves, creatures consciously evoked in The Visit: Nana, with her gaunt body, long flyway hair, and exaggerated nose and chin, bears a striking resemblance to common depictions of witches; Pop Pop, with his smushed ears and nose, barrel chest and bandy-legged gait, evokes your gnome or troll. But we feel bad for feeling this way, and not in the least because we know that this is our future, they’re the danger lying in wait for each one of us, which can’t be outrun or avoided, the worst possible fate except for all the others.

One of the functions of horror is to act as a vent for these kinds of shameful fears, to give the id free play, if only for 90 minutes. And for this reason, horror’s critics have long accused the genre of indulging base impulses and stoking reactionary sentiment in its viewers. Just because we fear something doesn’t mean we are right to, and just because something activates our disgust reflex doesn’t mean it will actually hurt us. The emotions of fear and disgust may be innate, but the contexts in which they are activated are environmentally and culturally driven. At various times, horror fiction has made villains and monsters out of foreigners, nonwhite races, women, the disabled, and all manner of other disadvantaged groups. Hence the modern horror trend of socially conscious or “woke” horror, which aims to excite fears, but with an added twist that acts as a springboard: it wants the audience members to examine why they fear what they fear, who made them that way, and who it benefits for them to fear it. Often, the script is flipped by making the villain or monster turn out to be someone with innate social advantage: a well-off white guy, for example. Some horror fans hail this as the natural evolution of the genre; others feel that the genre loses something when it is turned from an examination of the human psyche into a guidebook for improving it.

After spending most of the movie mining old people peccadilloes for scares, The Visit seems to be headed toward one of these kinds of politically correct twist endings, and not in the least because M. Night Shyamalan’s such a noted twist-writer. Something that will make us modern, moral horror-watchers feel better about having our id tickled by the creepy antics of old people for ninety minutes. But Shyamalan pulls another fast one on us by revealing that Nana and Pop Pop are actually a couple of escaped mental patients who killed the real Nana and Pop Pop and assumed their identities. That’s…uh, something. I mean, sure, we’re not punching down on old people anymore, but the mentally ill aren’t exactly an advantaged class of society either. And there’s a long and checkered tradition in horror to use “crazy” as a shorthand for villainy, playing no small part in the stigma against mental illness.

It’s a genius move, really. Shyamalan doesn’t give us the satisfaction of either a reactionary lizard-brain climax nor a morally upright woke one. There is social-issue subtext to be found here, but nothing that can be tied down ideologically: you can code it “progressive” (the state of elder care in this country is an abomination!) or “conservative” (the fraying of family ties is a modern epidemic!) at your leisure. He leads us into unfamiliar emotional territory and refuses to lead us back out, making us just sit there and stew in our discomfort.

The Visit resists past resolutions, revels in uncertainty and incompleteness and regret, and finds a strange sort of peace by meditating on all the things we’ll never get to have. I won’t ever find out what it’s like to have a grandpa, Loretta won’t ever make up with her parents, Becca will never get to make the documentary she wanted, she and Tyler won’t ever get to meet their real grandparents, and that irresolution, that dissatisfaction, that regret, is a universal human experience, just as much as the fear and disgust that horror fiction promises. Maybe this is what we’re really meant to learn by having the elderly in our lives – being so close to death themselves, they are in a perfect position to tell you that no one, anywhere, ever gets everything they need and want, no one is ever complete, no one ever approaches their death totally satisfied by how things went. And maybe that’s the scariest thing of all.