It doesn’t take much to figure out that UAE residents have a deep love for horror films. Book a ticket to any horror movie releasing in cinemas and prepare to stand in long queues for your popcorn then squeeze into a packed — and fully engaged — cinema audience.
This enthusiastic demand has not gone unnoticed. Horror productions in the Arab world and among UAE filmmakers are growing. Emirati filmmaker Nayla Al Khaja just announced her upcoming horror film ‘The Shadow’, while UAE-based Lebanese producer-director Rami Yasin is working with Abu Dhabi production house ImageNation on ‘3 4 Eternity’, an Egyptian vampire film.
UAE-made horrors and thrillers are increasingly common — from ‘The Worthy’ (Ali Mustafa) and ‘Zinzana’ (Majid Al Ansari), to the record-breaking 2013 Emirati supernatural film ‘Djinn’, directed by the late American filmmaker Tobe Hooper (‘Texas Chain Saw Massacre’).
More recently and in the broader region, Netflix released the Jordanian teen supernatural series ‘Jinn’ and announced an upcoming Egyptian series titled ‘Paranormal’ — an adaptation of Ahmad Khalid Tawfik’s bestselling book series.
So, what has people so suddenly obsessed with horror?
And is it truly a recent phenomenon?
FORGOTTEN LEGACY OF ARAB HORROR
Horror in Arabic media may seem new, but it’s not necessarily so.
Young Arab filmmakers can look outside of the region — to America or Japan — for contemporary horror inspiration. But there does exist a rudimentary and largely forgotten legacy of experimental Egyptian horror cinema that dates as far back as the 1950s (‘Haram Aleik’, a comedy-horror, sees actor Esmail Yassin meet Frankenstein) and picks up steam in the 1980s.
The era in Hollywood was marked by advances in special effects and horror staples such as ‘The Shining’, ‘Friday the 13th’, ‘Poltergeist’ and ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’, all released between 1980 and 1984.
Egyptian cinema made mild efforts to follow, far less successfully, as movies about ghosts, demons and haunted houses banked on the star power of Arabic screen legends.
‘The Humans and the Jinns’ (1985), for example, follows a demon named Galal (Adel Imam), who becomes infatuated with Fatima (Yousra), the only woman who can see him.
And there was more to come — ‘The Cursed House’ (1987) starring Samir Sabri; ‘The Devil’s Friends’ (1988) starring Nour Al Sherif; ‘He Returned for Revenge’ (1988) starring Ezzat Al Alaili; and ‘Nightmare’ (1989) starring Yousra.
While the staying power of those films pales in comparison to offerings such as supernatural classic ‘The Evil Dead’ (1981) or the Japanese cyberpunk horror ‘Tetsuo: The Iron Man’ (1989), it’s fascinating to remember that regional cinema was not exempt from the genre.
A MIRROR TO SOCIETY
The origins of horror go back centuries, to literature and Gothic novels. ‘The Castle of Otranto’ by Horace Walpole, released in 1765, is widely credited as the first legitimate English horror story, beginning a tradition that was further popularised by authors such as Mary Shelley (‘Frankenstein’) and Edgar Allan Poe (‘The Raven’) in the 19th century.
Pakistani filmmaker Faisal Hashmi, born and raised in the UAE, says fear is universal. But the longevity of the horror genre goes much deeper than that, as good horror movies tend to hold up a mirror to society.
“From films like ‘The Thing’ to come out during the Cold War-paranoia of the 80s, to the racial commentary of ‘Get Out’ today, horror films have the unique ability to talk about bleak and challenging subjects… within the lens of an accessible genre film. Because of that, the horror genre will never be outdated and [will] always be evolving as the world evolves with it,” says Hashmi, whose latest short ‘Wicken’ will be released online this Halloween.
Audiences want to see elevated and heightened horror films that carry a social message, explains Hana Kazim, Emirati filmmaker and manager of local film and TV at Image Nation, citing Jordan Peele’s box office hits ‘Get Out’ and ‘Us’ as examples.
“You’re able to feed the audience information [within] something they enjoy. People want to see something that’s got something to say, and says it smartly,” says Kazim, whose horror short film ‘Makr’ is currently doing the rounds of international festivals.
In film school, Kazim recalls learning that American horror was historically reflective of what people were going through in the world. For instance, vampires became popular during times of financial decline as audience sought fantasy, while zombies were popular during times of war, as people grew more frustrated, she says.
“Here, the market is too young to be influenced by this kind of stuff,” posits Kazim. But through her work, she noticed that religious themes have worked best in the region.
“People respond to it a little bit more because it gives them a frame of reference … When you play on facts, like jinn, you are playing on people’s actual fears. That’s why our most successful horror in [ImageNation] is ‘Djinn’,” she says.
As for the growing appetite for genre films in the Arab world, Kazim believes it is reflective of a global trend.
“The new generation, not just in the Arab world, but throughout the entire world — I think everyone is looking for this kind of escapism or excitement through horror,” she says.
EXCITATION TRANSFER THEORY
For viewers, horror is a way to experience terror in a safe setting. It’s the adrenalin rush of coming face-to-face with danger with no real consequence. And, interestingly, that blood-pumping, heart-racing feeling can enhance your life after, too.
According to Glenn Sparks, a professor at Purdue University, watching horror films can cause something called an ‘excitation-transfer’, where the excitement and emotional arousal you experience during the movie remains with you even after it ends, so that any subsequent activities you engage in — such as hanging out with loved ones — will feel heightened, too.
Luckily for budding filmmakers, they can meet this demand relatively easily. Compared to other genres, horror can be created on a low budget and still net a sizeable profit.
Emirati filmmaker Tariq Al Kazim — who released ‘A Tale of Shadows’ in 2017, ‘Until Midnight’ in 2018 and is working on the sequel ‘A Tale of Shadows: Illusions’ this year, says horror films make a great starting point for directors, due to their low requirements and high ticket sales. ‘Paranormal Activity’ is the most famous example of this, making 17,577 per cent ($193.4 million, Dh710.2 million) of its $11,000 budget.
“You wouldn’t need celebrities or high-tech equipment, just the basics,” says Al Kazim. “Though it does put up a challenge to do it well.”