Monsters Are Us

Image Copyright: 1962 United Artists Corporation

Monsters Are Us

As the gloomy voice of an unseen character, he speaks; he manipulates Simon Cordier’s thoughts; he makes firm decisions on Simon’s behalf. He slaughters. He is “The Horla.”

It is the element of the unknown—the bodiless voice that raises one’s sense of curiosity, leading towards suspicion and possible horror of the visage behind the unknown voice. In the absence of a body, the viewers’ creative imaginations give birth to an illusory face—one can represent the unknown voice. The logic that delivers the mirage of a body also introduces the viewers to a monster. Price (1981) exclaimed that “monsters are us. They have been counterpart and companion to the human race from its very beginning” (p. 153) In his book, Monsters, Price (1981) added that monsters have provided us with the excitement of the unknown and the unexpected. Fear, therefore, results from this inner excitement; fear, alone, surrounds one’s mind and begins to control it. (Price, 1981, p. 154)

In the 1963 horror film, Diary of a Madman, the atrocious villain cannot be seen; he’s merely a voice. Yet, he manipulates the feeble mind of Simon Cordier (depicted by Vincent Price), encouraging him to slaughter his own kind.

The voice, the Horla, manages to portray the French magistrate, Cordier, as the ultimate villain, who intentionally murders others. In the original novella, La Horla, Maupassant (1923) led his readers to think beyond their own existence, focusing on the possibility of bodiless beings with the capacity to manipulate and possess others’ conscious and unconscious thoughts.

Maupassant (1923) referred to humans’ limited comprehension. He argued that the recognition of the unknown and unseen forces is simply impossible; the human mind is pathetically unfortunate, and it can never reach the elevated level of comprehending the existence of invisible forces that levitate around humans. The mystery of the invisible is profound. We “cannot fathom it with our miserable senses: our eyes are unable to perceive what is either too small or too great, too near to or too far from us; we can see neither the inhabitants of a star nor of a drop of water; our ears deceive us, for they transmit to us the vibrations of the air in sonorous notes” (Maupassant, 1923, p. 4).

Maupassant’s (1923) novella held within itself a quality that was used as an essential cinematic technique in the 1963 filmic adaptation of the text. La Horla was written in a diary form, indicating a chain-like occurrence of narrative events. The 1963 motion picture adaptation of the novella uses explicit causality to portray the events and their outcomes in a chronological order. What brings the content of the diary to life is the use of the off-screen voice-over narration that belongs to the classic master of horror, Vincent Price. “I speak to you from the grave. In the sanctuary of my coffin, I can state certain facts, which I could not do while I was alive.” These words written by Cordier (and uttered by Price) begin the short letter that introduces the viewers to the diary, instilling mystery and suspense.

Price’s narration immediately stops when the Horla takes over Cordier’s mind; his face is illustrated with a pale shade of white and grey; his eyes are alarmingly wide-open; sweat appears upon his forehead; and his voice bears no sense of empathy or consciousness. Price’s narration transforms into the voice of the Horla, and it is heard in numerous scenes when it possesses Cordier. If these scenes are viewed without sound, the audiences would still be aware of the existence of an invisible character because of Cordier’s behavior and rapid camera movements that focus on the drapes, the hanging paintings on the wall, or the chair, revealing the places that the Horla explores in the room. All this results in an intense, uneasy feeling of anticipating the unknown. Reversely, if the same scenes were viewed with sound, the link between diegetic and non-diegetic sound would be apparent. The off-screen sound, the Horla, as a non-diegetic sound, comes from a place that is not connected to the objects in the scene. The non-diegetic sound is mixed with Cordier’s voice (diegetic sound) to create a conversation that occurs between two characters in the same scene. This technique of beta movement brings the Horla to life and it enables its character to develop. The purpose of the plot is to lead the viewers to accept that the Horla exists, so the viewers are to believe that the voice is generated from the scene itself, and it is not designed to be placed in the category of non-diegetic sound such the music score has been heard in the background. This intentional approach can redefine the Horla as diegetic sound.

“Are you running from me, Majestrate?” asks the Horla. Cordier stares into a specific point in the room, making the viewers believe that he is staring at the Horla; his eyes are fixed on the bodiless Horla through an eye-line match. The camera passes a few pieces of furniture and, finally, focuses on a larger table on which a beautiful vase filled with a dozen fresh roses is placed. The Horla’s voice-over narration travels the same distance as the camera does as though the Horla walks towards the fresh roses. A single red rose suddenly levitates in the air as though an off-screen persona is taking it out of the vase. The rose remains still in the air: “the human body is fragile; it withers and dies as this flower does,” the Horla exclaims. At this moment, Majestrate Cordier tries to face the Horla with his only weapons: logic and the power of his will. He takes a step towards the levitating flower, facing the bodiless voice: “you say, the Horla exist as people do; very well then your powers must be limited as ours are.” The flower is dropped on the surface of the table in a matter of a second. Cordier’s eyes follow the flower as it falls on the table. A quick cut brings the focus on the fallen rose; the camera illustrates a close-up shot of the rose that is fallen on the table surface. “You think I’ll let you get away? You’ll share nothing with anyone; as this rose is destroyed, so can I destroy your resistance. Every thought, every will you have—they belong to me,” the Horla cries out. When the voice begins this dialogue, the close-up shot illustrates a crushed, withered rose: Cordier’s surrender and destruction.

Cordier’s face appears to be completely lifeless. Through associational montage, the cinematographer, Ellis Carter, brilliantly creates an explicit comparison between two images: Cordier’s conscious face and his possessed face after a gradual change. Tutor (1973), a renowned film theorist, reminded the viewers to “look for montage within the actor’s performance,” for an exceptional performance can be only illustrated in an actor’s facial expressions. (p. 82) Here, Cordier resembles a solid, lifeless painting. As he is standing, the area behind his body becomes darker and darker, using low-key lighting. His eyes are the only bright elements portrayed in the camera frame. Unexpectedly, a rectangular light green halo of color appears through the use of the subtractive color mixing technique, which requires yellow, magenta, and cyan filters to cover a film strip to create other hues; this light green hue covers Cordier’s eyes as a sign of the Horla having power over his mind. Slowly, the camera zooms-in on his face while more saturation is added to the green hue, and it becomes brighter than before: “a dead thing—possesses nothing—that’s what—she must be. Dead,” the Horla repeats in a broken dialogue. The Horla ends this scene as he repeats, “dead thing, Majestrate; dead.” The non-diegetic leitmotif performs four sudden forte notes on two French horns: G-sharp, F, F-sharp, and F. Cordier’s face dissolves into the next scene; the bright green halo over his eyes can still be observed in the beginning of the next scene as it dissolves rather slowly.

Richardson (1969) commented on the relationship between literature and film by stating that “Image replaces image, there is no prose logic, no assertion. The sense of process motivates the sequence and in turn the slowly flowing sequence of images stirs in the reader a sense of organic process, and so one arrives by logic of images and the rhythm of organic life at the only conceivable end, death” (p. 53). The viewers have no choice but to experience what Cordier, in the midst of madness, observes and goes through. The gloomy image of death is the purpose of the Horla. Reflecting on Price’s (1981) claim that “monsters are us,” it is not very far from reality to adopt his assumption as a fraction of the truth.

Do you dare to witness how Cordier’s diary comes to its final page?

Diary of a Madman (1963)