‘Yes’… is the short answer. I wouldn’t have bothered writing about it if the answer was ‘no’.
Now I know lots of people will disagree, or will pour scorn on this suggestion. This isn’t a popular film (it has only a 19% score on Rotten Tomatoes); but as it’s Halloween, I thought I’d make the case for it. And if you’re looking for a ‘scary movie’ recommendation for this evening, this is one I’d recommend.
The Fourth Kind, if you haven’t heard of it, was a 2009 horror movie directed by Olatunde Osunsanmi and starring Milla Jovovich. The title comes from the term ‘Close Encounter of the Fourth Kind’, deriving from the famous UFO investigator J. Allen Hynek’s often-referred-to classification system for alleged encounters with extra-terrestrial beings; the ‘fourth kind’ of close encounter being bodily abduction by alien body-snatchers. Hynek researched UFOs with the American government, working with various Air-Force sponsored studies including Project Sign (1947-49), Project Grudge (1949-52) and the famous Project Bluebook (1952-69).
The film was purported to be based on real events (occurring in Nome, Alaska in 2000), and centered on the psychologist Dr. Abigail Tyler using hypnosis to uncover repressed memories from her patients of terrifying night-time experiences (eventually revealed to be alien abduction), with Tyler eventually finding evidence suggesting she herself may also have be a victim of nocturnal alien terror.
Now before I explain why this film is so scary, it would help to provide some background.
To promote the film, Universal Pictures had created a website with (false) news stories supposedly taken from real Alaska newspapers. This was part of a planned marketing trick to convince people the film was based on real-life cases prior to the release; so that when the film purported to be depicting real events, the illusion would be easier to maintain. Presumably the studio and the film-makers would’ve been intending to reveal the hoax later on, once the movie had properly benefited from the strategy and made a reasonable profit; however, this tactic backfired and Alaskan newspapers eventually sued Universal for this. Reports of the fake newspaper stories also begun to appear on-line prior to the film’s release, thus spoiling the illusion for some people (though probably not for the majority of cinema-goers, who might not have been aware of all the pre-release activity anyway). Certainly, once the film was already in cinemas, the illusion was already broadly exposed, and the filmmakers came in for heavy condemnation from film critics.
They had even gone so far as to create a fake website called AlaskaPsychiatryJournal.com, which listed a bio for a Dr. Abigail Tyler and featured some sober articles she had supposedly written for medical journals on hypno-therapy, hypnotic regression and sleep problems. No doubt part of the intention was to generate hype in the style of The Blair Witch Project; and again, it seemed to have backfired, even though this is a much scarier film than The Blair Witch Project.
There were, however, genuine unsolved disappearances, including at least nine in which no explanation was reached and no bodies were ever found. But residents of the town took exception to the film’s far-fetched or sensational ideas and considered it a disrespect to the real-life people who’ve disappeared over the years (the general view being that there are entirely mundane reasons for those disappearances); which is entirely understandable.
So first up; yes, awareness that this film isn’t based on real-life events after all does somewhat blunt the effect. However, even with that being the case, this movie is still pretty unsettling to watch. And actually, speaking for myself, when I found out the supposedly ‘real life’ case was actually a hoax, I was actually relieved more than anything else. Now I’m really not a pussy when it comes to stuff like this. In general, I tend to not even do the horror film genre very much, because I’ve never been very susceptible to the genre, nor someone who gets that weird buzz out of being scared. With only a few exceptions (particularly the original 1982 Poltergeist movie, but only when I was a child), my relationship with horror films has been a mostly unresponsive one. The Fourth Kind is one of those few exceptions.
The key to why this movie effectively terrifies is that it was set up as a dual presentation, part re-enactment of supposedly ‘real-life’ events and part original, real-world documentary footage from the ‘real’ case, utilising ‘never-before-seen archival footage’.
To clarify, the unique structure has the film split between dramatisation of the events (in which the actors, such as Milla Jovovic, portray the events) and actual real-life source material in which the supposedly real victims are shown in their real hypnosis sessions and Dr Tyler herself is shown being interviewed for a real-life television show. With me so far? At some points in the film, the ‘actual’ real-life footage is presented alongside the dramatised film portrayal in split-screen mode. Throughout the film, Dr Tyler is also shown being interviewed on television during 2002, apparently two years after the events occurred. Ok, it might sound confusing, but when you’re actually watching it, it makes perfect sense; for one thing, because the film begins with Milla Jovovic talking to camera *as Milla Jovovic* and explaining to us that what we’re about to see is a dramatisation of real-life events and using real-life case footage.
In terms of what the events are about, we’re talking about elements of classic demonic possession or molestation, though this time with an implied extra-terrestrial source.
I re-watched the movie again about a week ago (just to see if it would still be as scary a second time) and I was just as scared all over again. So why is The Fourth Kind so scary? Well, firstly, the split-screen dramatisation/’real-life’ dynamic is just very effective for horror purposes. You’re invariably watching Milla Jovovic as much as possible and trying to avoid looking at the ‘real life’ footage because you know that’s where the really unsettling stuff is happening.
The properly frightening parts of the film involve demonic/alien possession, where patients under hypnosis are abruptly seized by apparently discarnate entities that speak through them.
It has of course, been a classic feature of the largely American alien abduction phenomenon that ‘abduction experiences’ are uncovered by hypnosis, with the subject having had little or no conscious knowledge of the matter. There are of course questions about the reliability of ‘memories’ recovered via hypnosis or whether so-called ‘abduction’ or encounter memories are rooted in some kind of psychological issue or subconscious fabrication; but for the purposes of a horror movie, it’s an effectively unsettling subject area.
The scenes depicting this demonic/alien possession are properly scary, much more so than anything I’ve seen elsewhere in more orthodox horror movies, including The Exorcist and the various rehashes. There’s a real, palpable violence to the possession and a realism to the physical aspects of it, which is based in real-world stories or claims of such phenomena. It probably helps that I’ve been well-studied on such cases for a long time and have read extensively on alleged possession cases, as well as the so-called alien abduction phenomenon, since I was a teenager. So I could see how true to real-world claims/accounts of such phenomena some of these scenes are; which is not me saying that demonic possession is necessarily a real thing, but that the symptoms/experiences of those who claim to have suffered it are a real, documented thing, and can be genuinely frightening irrespective of their true source or nature. The famous case of Anneliese Michel, for example.
But the truly unsettling aspect of these scenes in the film is not the idea of possession itself, but the nature of the voices speaking through the patients.
Unlike in traditional possession scenes in horror movies, the invading voices in The Fourth Kind aren’t classic ‘demons’ in the Judaeo-Christian sense but are alien intelligences. And these voices, when we hear them (albeit through heavy distortion), aren’t classic, cliched ‘demonic’ voices (like the silly voice Linda Blair is made to put on in The Exorcist), but are something so alien, so foreign, as to be much more disturbing; you can hear how difficult it is for these voices to form words in the human sense, and it is even more difficult for the human patients’ bodies and specifically their vocal cords to render these truly non-human sounds and voices.
But what’s most frightening about it is what these voices actually say. When one of the recordings translates the entity’s words as “I am God”, I’m not sure there’s a more unsettling moment in all of the horror movie genre.
Part of what made it all the more unsettling for me personally is probably a pre-existing interest and awareness of ancient history, particularly the Sumerian civilisation. The Sumerian civlisation, which was based in what is now Iraq, was the very first civilization on Earth, with the very first city states, the very first systems of government and organisation, even the very first written language. In a key point of this movie, an expert informs Milla Jovovic’s character that the terrifying, otherworldly voice she hears on a tape recording (and that also speaks through her hypnosis patients) is in fact speaking ancient Sumerian.
Now for someone like me, who read several books about the Sumerians when I was younger, this was genuinely frightening. The Sumerians, as many will know, seemed to believe that their civilisation was imparted to them by their ‘gods’ from outer space. These ‘gods’ of creation are depicted both in their writings and in various artifacts that have been unearthed in these ancient sites and are now in various museums. It is generally believed that various other ‘creation’ stories and religious traditions of that type, including the Biblical creation stories, all derive from this older Sumerian source material, because the stories are virtually identical (including the Garden of Eden, Noah and the Flood, and more). But what I also already knew from some of the books I’d read when I was younger is that the Sumerian language had been extremely difficult to crack and that this archaic language is considered extremely odd, incomparable to any other language, and is in fact so singularly odd and phonetically awkward that some writers have suggested it might not have had a human source at its root.
Regardless of the ultimate reality of all that, working this Sumerian language enigma into this movie was very clever and it really adds to the unsettling nature of those scenes; particularly the “I am God” translation, as this plays into the idea that many people have – initially popularised by writers like Erik Von Daniken in the 70s and later dealt with in more academic fashion by writers like Alan Alford and Robert Temple – that the Sumerian ‘gods’ might’ve in fact been the source of human civilisation. But The Fourth Kind makes that suggestion subtly, never openly suggested in the script; rather, it leaves us as viewers to make that unspoken connection ourselves. In fact, this is genuinely subtle, because most cinema-goers probably wouldn’t pick up on those kinds of references at all; instead, only those with some knowledge of the Sumerian enigma would pick up on that, and because the film doesn’t overtly connect those dots, we almost feel like we’re picking up on an additional level of reality to the footage that even the filmmakers (or investigators) haven’t picked on – which somehow makes it all seem even more ‘real’ and even more unsettling.
Part of what troubled me when I was younger and reading about the Sumerian ‘gods’ was that, although the Sumerians clearly worshiped them in some sense and regarded them as the source of creation, these were never characterised as loving or compassionate ‘gods’ in the way I was accustomed to from much later and more familiar Christian or Islamic ideas. And the idea of a god or gods that may have been our ‘creators’ but who essentially have no particular feelings about us or interest in our emotional or physical well-being was something I clearly remember scaring me when I was young. And The Fourth Kind plays into that psychological sense of vulnerability; and in fact amplifies it substantially.
Because the ‘gods’ speaking to Abigail Tyler in such violent bursts of possession are not merely neutral but utterly hostile and frightening and are more like a horror-version of the angry, vengeful God of the Old Testament.
It’s also likely that, all of that Sumerian element aside, this is a film that will frighten certain types of people more than others. So, for example, the film’s owl symbolism (with owls shown as a menacing presence always preceding the terrifying nocturnal events) will trouble those who have a very real anxiety about owls (which is a real thing and is called ‘ochlophobia’; and here’s a fun pop fact – the rapper Eminem suffers from it). Also, as an aside, the owl symbolism has some relevance to modern ‘Illuminati/Bohemian Grove’ preoccupations, so I tend to wonder if this was a deliberate tapping into those ideas. The owl also rather famously features in the classic Twin Peaks TV series (which I maintain is the scariest TV series there has ever been) as a creature whose presence denotes evil or supernatural occurrences (the ominous “the owls are not what they seem” was a recurring line in the show). Also the owl was highly significant in ancient Sumerian and Babylonian mythology, for example with the Sumerian deity Moloch, the goddess Inanna and others depicted with owl symbolism.
There is also a primal fear of what are classically called ‘night terrors’; frightening experiences or events that occur during sleep. In older times, these used to be regarded as demonic attacks or ‘incubi’ and ‘succubi’ (classically depicted in the Henry Fuseli painting The Nightmare – pictured above); in modern times, people in the West are more likely to associate them with alleged ‘alien abduction’, as this film does. It’s the idea of being attacked or abused in our sleep that is particularly unsettling, as this is when we are at our most vulnerable, our most defenseless; and The Fourth Kind really plays into that deep-seated fear. It’s worth noting, however, that nowhere in the film do we actually see the attackers, nowhere do we see the source of all the terror and suffering; we hear their odd, inhuman voices on tape and we have them ravaging the bodies of hypnotised subjects, but we never actually see them – which makes them all the more unsettling, as what we can’t see is what most causes us anxiety, which is why humans are instinctively afraid of the dark.
I myself used to suffer chronic and frequent ‘night terrors’ for some time when I was younger, including severe sleep paralysis and sometimes accompanying sensations of presences, voices or physical contact. As a grown-up now, I of course don’t attribute any of that to aliens, ‘demons’ or anything like that, and generally imagine they were caused by some kind of body chemistry issues or psychological things; but that’s my intellect speaking. At the primal, non-intellectual level of consciousness, a primal part of my consciousness still sometimes reverts to wondering if those were genuine ‘paranormal’ experiences caused by external sources. That’s how our primal fears work anyway – without intellect; and it’s why people who intellectually don’t believe in, say, ghosts, can nevertheless be genuinely frightened by a video purporting to show a ghostly apparition.
A film like this one plays into all of those things rather expertly. Sleep paralysis and/or ‘hypnogogic’ hallucinations are fairly common. Hypnogogic hallucinations are defined as visual, tactile, auditory, or other sensory events, that occur at the transition from wakefulness to sleep or from sleep to wakefulness. I experienced both quite frequently for a long time and they can be terrifying experiences. In different cultures and at different times in history, such experiences have been associated with ‘demons’, witches, the classic ‘Old Hag’, and more recently aliens.
Sleep experts have a more scientific explanation for such experiences. During standard sleep patterns, the brain and body go through four stages of sleep during which brain activity, heart rate and breathing rate gradually slow down. This process then reverses and the sleeper enters a period of REM-stage sleep. The cycle is repeated across the night, each cycle becoming progressively more dominated by REM sleep. During these REM-sleep periods, the body’s muscles are paralysed (possibly to prevent us from physically ‘acting out’ our dream activities). Sometimes ‘something’ (I haven’t seen it explained what) goes awry with the normal process and the individual becomes aware of the fact that they’re paralysed. In some cases, this unfortunate mix or halfway-point of normal, waking consciousness and dream/sleep consciousness can result in bizarre or terrifying hallucinations. On the other hand, those who believe in the reality of the paranormal attacks will argue that it’s precisely this halfway state of altered perception that is where and when we are ‘attuned’ to some other frequency of reality in which our contact with otherworldly life is able to occur (without our blessing).
I’m not even going to pretend to try to resolve all of that; but it suffices to say that it’s a very scary area to focus a horror movie on. Again, because it is that state in which we are most vulnerable and defenseless, as well as only partially conscious, and the idea of being assaulted or interfered with while in that state is naturally terrifying.
Again, on the personal level, this film goes even further by its recurring presence of the number ‘333’ on Dr Tyler’s digital clock. Again because I too had a period of about two years in which I felt I was encountering the number 333 constantly and lots of different places or scenarios; to the extent that I couldn’t help but start to notice it. But until I saw The Fourth Kind in 2009 I had no idea it was a ‘thing’; it was only I saw the film that I did a Google Search to see what the deal was and I realised that apparently it is a thing that lots of people were claiming to have the same issue. I don’t necessarily subscribe to any of the accompanying beliefs in regard to all these things; but the way this movie plays to all those little elements, but without overly explaining why, is part of the unsettling nature of the film. For example, with the recurring ‘333’ in the movie, it is never overtly mentioned in the script, never explained or discussed; it’s just shown, and we’re left to wonder why.
In more general terms, the film is also very measured. There are maybe three or four overtly scary moments in the film, but the rest is all low-level tension and anxiety that slowly builds, with what I consider – although some film-reviewers don’t agree – fairly realistic behavior and reactions. It helps thatMilla Jovovic is generally such a good actress anyway (among other things, she did a brilliant unhinged Joan of Arc once), but Charlotte Milchard (who portrays the supposedly ‘real-life’ Abigail Tyler, but is in fact also an actress) is also able to put across such a haunted, tortured look and demeanour in her ‘interview’ scenes that watching her face for extended periods is almost as unsettling as anything else.
All in all, though this is a largely overlooked film and one that divides opinion among those who do remember it, it is by far the most unsettling horror movie I’ve watched as an adult. And I’m not someone who scares easily – seriously, I sat through the whole of Casper the Friendly Ghost without jolting.
So if you’re staying in this evening and you want to psychologically harm yourself, give The Fourth Kind a go. If you choose not to, however, that might be for the best.