When I was a child, I recall having a very peculiar reaction; whenever I would hear someone speaking through hoarseness, laryngitis or chest congestion, I would instinctively, involuntarily clear my own throat. Somehow I felt that if I was able to open up my vocal passage, it would naturally help them as well, and thereby make them easier to listen to. (Go ahead, call me weird. You're far from the first, and you certainly won't be the last.) Although eventually I grew out of this tic, the sound of someone talking with obvious vocal strain still produces a degree of empathetic pain within me.
I was undergoing one of the deepest forms of what psychologists call einfühlung, or literally "a feeling," a kinesthetic reaction to an intense emotional bond with another person or character. The word is also used to describe simple empathy, but what we're talking about today is something more reflexive, and requires a physical response, almost always involuntary. For the purpose of our consideration of Horror, this goes beyond an audience shouting at the protagonist to not go into the haunted house, or jumping out of their seats at a sudden jolt; we're talking tactile reaction.
One of the most famous examples of einfühlung in all of drama occurs during Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking scene. She imagines her hands covered in red from the murder of Duncan ("Who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?"), and tries in vain to wash them clean ("...all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand"). When the production and performance are engaging, you can look around and see members of the audience rubbing, scratching, extending their own hands and fingers, suddenly acutely aware of any sense of stickiness. They are not merely displaying empathy for Lady Macbeth; for a few seconds, they have become her. Actors know that it's possible to play hunger, thirst, cold, warmth, and produce an empathic vibe in observers.
Horror movies are filled with opportunities for such reactions, and here are a few noteworthy ones I've observed over the years...
THE BIRDS (1963) - There are numerous moments that produce genuine einfühlung - viewers swatting away imaginary wings and claws - but the strongest reaction I ever witnessed occurred as Tippi Hedren attempted to leave that bird-filled attic, the creatures biting at her hands as she tried to turn the doorknob. Folks would twitch, slap, beat at the air to shoo them away. I suspect the power in this scene lies in its abject believability. In lieu of the promised mechanical or dummy birds that Hedren was expecting for the shoot, she had to endure take after take of real birds thrown at her face and hands. When the scene was in the can, she went to her dressing room and collapsed, weeping. Hitchcock never said a word.
BUG (1975) - You would think that oversized roaches that could start fires out of their butts would have their work cut out for them in creating suspension of disbelief, but these little varmints know how to get under your skin - and hairline. A few years ago I had the fun of sitting in a midst of teens who were seeing this for the first time, and during the celebrated kitchen scene (and yes, that is the Brady's kitchen, given a mild facelift), everyone's hands went up to the back of the scalp - even the men who had military issue haircuts! A number of them asked why this wasn't a bigger hit back in 1975. It's something I've always wondered myself.
DEADLY BLESSING (1981) - Lest you think that all such reactions involve gestures...The scene in which Sharon Stone takes an arachnid right down the old gullet produced a number of involuntary spit-takes the second the spider entered her mouth. Sure, creepy crawlies are good for the occasional finch and brushaway, but into the mouth? Motorcyclists, you know what I'm talking about. Come to think of it, I see a spider on my ceiling right now...
THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW (1987) - Wes Craven again, but this time with an evil little assist from Yours Truly. I saw this on the Friday night that it opened, and during the sequence in which Bill Pullman is buried alive, there were a number of claustrophobic reactions as the screen goes black for what feels like a very long time, and all we hear are Pullman's panicked reactions. Knowing the cinema's manager well, I told him about the scene and, referring to Wait Until Dark two decades earlier and the climax that requested theaters to darken all house lights to the legal limit, suggested it might be fun to do the same. So for the late show, he did...and then some. He also killed the exit and aisle lights. I stuck around to watch, and phriends, there were people there who just freaked. I'll never forget the guy who just started calling out "I can't take this!" over and over, and others who claimed they couldn't breathe. Fortunately the scene ended and the manager restored the lights before things got messy. He didn't do that again. But I'm glad he did it once.
MONKEY SHINES (1988) - A capuchin monkey with a straight razor landing on Jason Beghe's neck was all it took for the woman in front of me to reach behind her and fling an imaginary simian off her back. Her male companion teased her mercilessly. When I saw them leave, she was still furious with him, and let me tell you; there was no way in hell that guy was gettin' any that night.
Those are merely a handful of examples of einfühlung, and there are countless more. Post some of your favorites in the comments - I'd love to hear about them!