Bloodbath at the Ballet

Have we stumbled upon a new genre of terror: Ballerina Horror?

Probably not, but there’s no doubt that the new feature film, Black Swan, is the finest high-art horror we’ve seen in some time. Don’t be fooled by its mainstream popularity. This is, at its core, a horror film. Black Swan follows the mental breakdown of a ballet dancer (Natalie Portman) as she appeals to her darker nature for the lead part in Swan Lake. We follow her breakdown as she mentally deteriorates between audition and opening night.

What makes this movie brilliant—and also what defines it, for me, as a horror film—is that it contains the five key elements of horror: dissonance, multi-sensory manipulation, atmosphere, distress and metaphor.

Dissonance: Horror has been described as reality with a twist. The foundation of the genre is dissonance, the slightly displaced feeling one gets when confronting the abnormal in a normal situation. The brain has a particular script it follows, and when events break from the script, one is left with an unsettled feeling. This is where horror lives. In Black Swan, we have the normalcy of the theater and home life, two places often associated with civility, comfort and stability. When these worlds take on an unexpected menacing quality, the viewer becomes as unsettled as the lead character.

Multi-sensory manipulation: While Black Swan is visually stunning, it manipulates all the senses in achieving its effect. Sound, in particular. From every crack of a joint to the juxtaposition of a classical score both beautiful and terrifying, the soundtrack has the viewer on edge as much as the visuals. Unsteady and over-the-shoulder camera angles disorient the viewer, creating a palpable feeling of distress in the gut (as close as a movie can get to touch), and imagery associated with taste and smell (food, sex, blood) contribute to the overall feeling of unease.

Atmosphere: Great horror isn’t born of action, but rather of possibility. I’m referring to Hitchcock’s proverbial ticking bomb here. Black Swan creates tension by showing the protagonist’s gradual deconstruction. We begin with subtle clues—bleeding fingers, hallucinatory moments, family dysfunction—that build upon one another to create an environment in which the viewer is unable to trust all that they see. It is an integral part of the horror genre.

Distress: What is horror without distress? There’s not much more to say about that, except that Black Swan never allows the viewer a moment of comfort. Rather than burning out on this energy, it escalates to the inevitable conclusion.

Metaphor: Finally, all great horror is metaphor, be it symbolic of a period in time or the manifestation of an individual’s or a culture’s anxieties, great horror is never just about horror. It’s always a manifestation of something else. In Black Swan, it’s the duality of human nature. Portman’s character must perform as both the white swan and the black. Her technique is flawless, and her innocence befitting the white swan. It is the black swan—the darker, emotional side of her personality—she has difficulty tapping into. The director encourages her to delve into her darker half, and this journey is what causes the psychological distress represented in the film. The universal metaphor here is that we all must confront the existence of our dual natures (see Stephen King’s The Dark Half for another great example of this).

There is also a more personal metaphor here as well about the act of creation. No great artist becomes great by being the “white swan.” Great art comes from plunging into the depths of our natures, our worst possibilities, our most passionate selves. This is why so many great artists have lived in such distress—and why the creative process is the wellspring of great horror.

The result is a beautifully conceived and stunningly executed acid trip of a film worthy of all its praise. Dark, sexy and thoroughly disturbing, Black Swan is the exemplar of the highest potential of horror.