By Kartik Nair, author of Seeing Things: Spectral Materialities of Bombay Horror

What makes a vampire burn in the light? We don’t quite know. But in her stylish short film, Suicide by Sunlight (2018), the filmmaker Nikyatu Jusu gives us a vampire who isn’t afraid of the day. With her protagonist, Jusu inverts a century-long tradition in which the glimmers of a rising sun spell the end for these fearsome nocturnal hunters.

This tradition is cinematic in its origin: it was 1922’s Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau) which first depicted the bloodthirsty fiend dissolving into nothing as dawn broke over the horizon. A subversive spin on the vampire film, Suicide by Sunlight brings something into view about its most enduring epidermal cliche: it underlines the vampire’s whiteness and turns the genre’s color-blindness on itself. The vampire this time around is Black, the melanin in her skin making her invulnerable to the sun’s rays. With this change, Jusu joins a new generation of filmmakers working within and without the horror genre, revealing how our favorite movie monsters have long histories of racialized, geopolitical, and structural difference that are ripe for reexamination. In failing to kill the vampire, the sunlight instead illuminates a major blindspot in the cultural history of horror cinema.

Scene from 1922’s Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau)

In the Ramsay Brothers’ 1990 Indian vampire film Bandh Darwaza (Closed Door), a vampire rises from his crypt and flies out into the darkness of the night to hunt blood. But just before he takes flight into what the voiceover describes as the “darkness of death,” the film shows us the nocturnal landscape he will hunt. We see a mountain valley, brightly dappled in daylight. Like the vampire in Suicide by Sunlight, the Indian vampire of Bandh Darwaza too seems unharmed by the sun—cueing us to how forms of difference can help fail the conventions of vampire movies. But the daylight in Bandh Darwaza is also a different kind of failure. It is an error, a mismatch between what the film tells us we are looking at (the “darkness of death,” per the stentorian voiceover) and what we are shown (a sun-soaked valley). It is as though we can see a generic promise of the vampire movie sputtering in the flux of actualization. But by failing to properly perform horror, the sunlight instead shows us how the most otherworldly of film genres must be secured out of the everyday resources of this world.

From the late 1970s to the early 1990s, a cycle of low-budget, Hindi-language horror films made in Bombay flooded the Indian movie market. In my newly published book, Seeing Things, I use a series of accidents, errors, and failures visible onscreen in these Bombay horror films to expose the material histories encrypted within the spectral visions of the genre. Bandh Darwaza, for example, reminds us how a practice of “day-for-night” filming has helped horror filmmakers summon the night. By erupting into the illusion of night, the daylight inserts difference into the global diffusion of horror as a genre, illuminating the uneven infrastructural conditions of filmmaking in the Global South. I describe this further in the book’s introduction, excerpted below.

[Horror’s] fantastical stories trade in and tolerate what would be considered failures of editing, lighting, performance, or storytelling according to standards set by realism. Still, the feeling that an element of the film—such as the daylight of Bandh Darwaza—is attracting too much attention prompts judgment that not enough expertise, energy, or economic resources were invested in integrating it into the film’s “smooth perceptual cues.” Roughness at crucial moments of cinematic spectacle makes transparent not only the materiality on which the spectacle depends but also the aggressively enthusiastic drive to summon it on a budget…

How a camera can (and cannot) move; how sound and image can (and cannot) be combined; how filmstrips can (and cannot be) joined: these have driven the aesthetic form of the genre, shaping the way we know the world in the horror film. For example, it is an affordance of the medium that exposure to light will cause an image to form on film. Multiple images can thus be formed on the same film by repeatedly exposing it to light, yet each exposure will also degrade pictorial clarity. We see this (in)capacity exploited in Bandh Darwaza, which overlays the vampire’s face and a flying bat to create stutteringly eerie views of magic metamorphosis. The sensational promise of the genre is entirely reliant on the skill with which the form of film is mastered (a theme I take up in greater detail in the first chapter).

Take, for example, our fear of the dark. This fear may be culturally learned, biologically hardwired, or “biocultural”; whatever the case, horror films have consistently explored the abyssal darkness of the night, of dim recesses, and obscure depths. In Bombay’s horror films, darkness and its denizens multiply. In Jaani Dushman, a monster pounces on wedding processions at dusk. In Purana Mandir, a curse strikes childbearing women as lightning splits open the night sky. In Khooni Murda, a serial killer strikes during a love song. In Hatyarin (Murderess, Vinod Talwar, 1991), a man lifts the veil on his bride to discover an evil crone awaiting him on his suhaag raat (wedding night). These are the moments in which the horror of Bombay horror is most palpable; the films come alive in the transgression of Bombay cinema’s long-reigning fantasies of musical romance and familial bliss.

In order to film the dark, however, makers of horror have had to confront a fundamental limit of the medium. Light triggers the photochemical reaction in which whatever is before the camera is captured on celluloid film. Because many film stocks respond poorly to the absence of light, filmmakers have learned to create darkness onscreen by shooting in daylight and then darkly tinting the footage in development. This innovation, known as day-for-night shooting, indicates how one seemingly abstract convention of horror—the night—is the product of a material practice.

…The repetitive reproduction of a convention generates production expertise and audience familiarity, but each performance of the convention is also a risk. The performative instant creates an opening, as filmmaking enters a zone of possible failure in front of the lens. Indeed, it is by analyzing the resultant “fractures of signification”—in this case, what we see on film rather than what the film may want to show us—that a kind of truth about cinema comes into view.