Bad dreams: Media Technologies and the Supernatural in “Prince of Darkness”

There are four brief yet deeply unnerving dream sequences in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness, each a disruptive and surreal slice of imagery that presents the audience with nearly identical visions of the same event. In each dream, a mysterious cloaked figure emerges out of a creepy abandoned church. This church is where a group of researchers and a priest discover and ultimately unleash an ancient, otherworldly, and demonic force into the world. Garbled narration in each dream reveals that they are actually a series of broadcasts from 1999 (the near future in relation to the film’s 1987 release). Frighteningly, they are mediated warnings of impending demonic doom sent directly to the minds of several key players across the film, most prominently lead researcher Professor Birack (Victor Wong) and young academics Walter (Dennis Dun), Catherine Danforth (Lisa Blount), Lisa (Ann Yen), and Brian (Jameson Parker).

In addition to the dream sequences, the film features several other instances in which communication technology and screen-based media function as representatives of or gateways for phantasmagorical horrors. Coinciding with the sudden death of a prominent priest, a strange and potentially catastrophic supernova sets the events of Prince of Darkness in motion. Early in the film when Brian watches the supernova on a TV news report, the camera reveals the back of the television set to be infested with ants (a recurring motif and signal of demonic disturbance). Later, scientist and language researcher Lisa becomes possessed by the unleashed evil force – a state during which she aggressively types “I Live!” over and over on a computer (followed by the sinister statement: “You Will Not Be Saved”). In other moments sudden bursts of static and strange lines of impenetrable mathematic code fill the researcher’s devices across the abandoned church, creating backdrops of haunted screens that appear to display traces of Satanic possession, spectral presence, and extraterrestrial energy.

These notions of technological interference and haunting representation are arguably most fully realized with the dreams. Each dream appears to be from either the perspective of a video camera or an up-close recording of a television screen. Television broadcasts can be understood in terms of liveness and co-presence. Consider the nature of TV news broadcasts, which the dream videos resemble. They usually take place in real-time (albeit with minor delays). This lends TV images a sense of co-presence, the screen providing a window to the outside world that can often make us feel as if we are “there,” even if we are quite far away. To consider the dreams in this way is fairly unnerving, because their appearance as TV broadcasts seems to indicate that they are not products of the imagination, but fragments of horrifying events happening in real-time. In Prince of Darkness, the human mind becomes a medium not unlike TV, transformed into its own strange window looking in on an all-too-real future and made reachable by distant, evil forces.

The dreams almost all follow a similar pattern: the image starts off disjointed and blurred in a rush of movement before the image of the old church becomes clear. Moving from the top of the church down to a standard eye level shot of the building, the camera swiftly scans from left to right, an aging wrought iron fence filling the frame. As the camera creeps closer to the main entrance, the camera operator appears to duck down lower upon seeing the dark silhouette of the aforementioned cloaked figure, who stalks slowly out of a bluish haze while slowly raising their arms. Is the figure signaling something, or perhaps beckoning an unseen person, entity, or force? This is never quite explained, as the video footage always cuts short (save for a final, shocking moment I won’t give away here), launching us abruptly back into the world of the film as our startled dreamers suddenly awaken. As hand-held, ostensibly amateur video recordings, the dream sequences provide visions of looming evil that are unnervingly realistic in their grain and shakiness. They are imbued with nervous energy in their motions, pans, and zooms, and yet do not reveal in full the very thing being observed, investigated, and recorded. This lack of certainty and conclusiveness is key to the disconcerting nature of the dreams.

Despite these patterns, each iteration and experience of the dream takes on new shapes, textures, and durations as they simultaneously offer and obscure bits of crucial information via static, warping, and muffled sound. As the most commanding and frame-filling moments of aberrant technological behavior or screen display within Prince of Darkness, these dream sequences function as an especially intense revelation of the ways media can haunt, plague, and trouble our understandings of bounded time and space.

In Carpenter’s vision of the world, these moments emphasize the strange and ghostly feelings that characterize televisual and other forms of screen-based media. These qualities both represent and open them up to supernatural invasions and interventions. As with hauntings and possessions, there is a sense of the past persisting in (or violently rupturing and latching on to) the present, like the ghost that remains in the house long after death, or the evil entity that awakens from an ancient slumber to invade the here-and-now of the lived-in body. Though perhaps from some other era or spectral elsewhere, the unwanted evil presence(s) of Prince of Darkness are active within the present – flowing through typing fingertips, bursting out of television sets, scrambling screens, and corrupting transmissions of information. Supernatural entities can reveal time and space as more malleable and volatile, with past, present, and even future coexisting and affecting each other simultaneously.

It is this spatial and temporal fluidity that provides the film’s frights, strange wonders, and lingering philosophical and physiological questions. This is aided by the dual nature of the dreams. They are both shared dreams and futuristic neural video broadcasts. In this way, their dual status is complicated by the haunting experiences of liveness and co-presence mentioned above: mind, body, and screen all implicated as gateways for supernatural forces. Carpenter’s film could have illustrated the unstable boundaries of time, space, and bodies through supernatural representation and bodily possession alone. Yet it is arguably through the additional display, manipulation, and degradation of communicative technologies that the “darkness” at the heart of the film is revealed to restlessly exist across our daily media-saturated lives.

Alex Svensson Alex Svensson is a PhD Candidate in Film and Media Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington, and his research primarily focuses on horror media and promotional gimmicks of shock and disgust. He currently lives in Boston, where he teaches film and media courses at Emerson College and MIT. Previously, he studied film production and theory as both an undergrad and MFA student at Boston University. Some of his thoughts on horror marketing can be found in Transformative Works and Cultures and Participations: Journal of Audience & Reception Studies.
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