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The rise of sensory deprivation in films

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We avoid the fears we see, take precautions against the ones we hear and call for help for the ones we come face-to-face with. But take away one or more of our senses and this fear multiplies. If we can’t see, hear or sense it, how do we avoid it?

Sensory deprivation, otherwise known as perceptual isolation is defined as a deliberate reduction or removal of stimuli from one or more of the senses. Moving away from those sci-fi technical terms, it merely means you can’t see, hear, talk and in more complex experiments, taste or feel.

This phenomenon is one that’s mainly been used as part of psychological experiments (using isolation tanks), but something’s gone mostly unnoticed about it is how much of it has been included in films and television shows over the years. After all, there’s nothing scarier or more unnerving than losing your senses.

The first film to introduce this concept was 1980’s sci-fi horror film Altered States, based on physician John C. Lilly’s sensory deprivation research. It follows respected scientist, Edward Jessup (William Hurt) as he combines powerful hallucinogenic drugs with isolation tanks to discover altered states of consciousness. The film sees him succeed at first, but eventually, the sensory deprivation begins to take a toll on him and he loses grip on reality.

Nearly three decades later, TV show Fringe (2008-2013) continued this theme of perceptual isolation as it showed agent Olivia Dunham and her crew dedicate their lives to ‘fringe science’ at the FBI – exploring alternate dimensions and timelines. Olivia has telekinetic powers controlled by a sensory-deprivation tank and travels through time and space.

While this may have raised a lot of confused eyebrows in the past during Fringe’s five-season run, it became quite a popular trope in the years that followed. Cult show Stranger Things delved into similar storylines with protagonist Eleven possessing powerful abilities and use of deprivation tanks playing an important role.

Moving into the recent foray that films have taken into the terror of being deprived, we find that idea has moved from a purely sci-fi plot point to something much more real.

In Mike Flanagan’s 2016 film Hush, Maddie is deaf – a real fear many people live with. Maddie is also being stalked by a killer, therefore she’s at a disadvantage and must fight to stay alive. This situation, although heightened by being set in a deserted cabin in the woods, is a likely occurrence, which makes it even more real and scary.

Another realistic example (although from the opposite point of view) is Don’t Breathe in which three burglars are trapped inside a blind man’s house. His loss of sight only improves his other senses, leaving the three individuals to work hard to make it out in one piece.

While more recent films such as A Quiet Place and Bird Box (released in 2018) still use supernatural creatures to increase the emphasis on the horror genre, there’s still something genuine about facing a fear that can’t you can’t completely sense. As A Quiet Place takes away your ability to make a sound and Bird Box removes your ability to see, it’s no longer the monsters that scare us.

At its roots, sensory deprivation is a scientific experiment. But over the years, the film world has made it something more disconcerting and terrifying. Therefore, it’s no wonder that it’s quickly becoming a popular trope for entertaining horror movie lovers.

There’s terror in not knowing what’s around the corner and sensory deprivation closes in on that fear.

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