Empathy Through Horror – Spielberg, Fear & E.T.
By: Paul Bullock
When we think of E.T., we tend to conjure warm, cozy, comforting images. Halloween at sunset, bike rides across the moon, fairy tales told at bedtime – all set, of course, to John Williams’ transcendent and triumphant score. But there’s another side to E.T. beyond the fuzziness, one that’s not as celebrated, but which is just as important a part of the film’s DNA. I’m referring to its horror elements.
Before you head for the comments section or start any indignant tweeting, hear me out on this one. I’m not for a moment suggesting that E.T.is a horror film: it isn’t at all. But Spielberg has a talent for blending genres, and as he had done previously with Close Encounters of the Third Kind and went on to do in the likes of Jurassic Park and War of the Worlds, he mixes sci-fi/fantasy with horror in E.T.. It’s almost like seasoning, accenting the enjoyable fantasy elements with short, sharp stabs of scariness to make a wider emotional point.
This is evident from the very first seconds. The film opens in darkness before the title slowly appears on screen in a lilac colour and font that looks handwritten. Music fills the soundtrack as the cast and crew’s names appear, but these are not the melodic notes that will propel Elliott and E.T. into the sky during their bike rides. This is something atonal, strange, and dark. It’s distinctly inhuman, the sound of something lurking somewhere in the distance. “What is this film?” the audience might ask. “And do I really want to continue watching it?”
It’s over a minute and a half before any light and colour appears, and even then it’s primarily dark blues as Spielberg pans from the night sky to a midnight forest. Williams’ music takes a lighter turn and introduces us to the main theme, but it quickly turns dark again when Spielberg cuts to a spaceship lurking among the trees. Birds squawk and foliage rustles. As aliens emerge, Spielberg’s camera circles slowly around the ship from a distance, maintaining our sense of dread: don’t get too close, it seems to say. This is the language of the horror film.
Eventually, the aliens are called back to the ship and the tone moves again. We see a sapling that one of the aliens reaches down towards. Soft grunting can be heard and a rabbit sniffs around the forest floor. The alien gently picks up the sapling and moves on. Are these creatures really so terrifying, after all? Cutting to a wide shot, Spielberg frames the alien against the forest, the tall trees dwarfing this tiny being while Williams’ score swirls melancholically. Just as we were lost in an unfamiliar world a few minutes prior, now so is this alien. We’re scared for him, not of him.
This, in a nutshell, is the message of E.T.. Above all else, the film is about empathy: putting yourself in someone else’s shoes no matter how different they are from you. It’s a warm and hopeful message, very much in line with the film’s (and Spielberg’s) image, but it needs the scary elements to work. We need to be scared at the start of the film, so we understand E.T.’s own fear and start deconstructing our initial reaction. Why were we so wary? How do we move beyond that wariness? And what does it say about our ability to empathise with others in the real world?
Spielberg further examines these questions later in the film. Having gotten a glimpse of E.T., Elliott waits outside at night to find out more. It’s any classic monster movie in miniature as Elliott stakes out this terrible and foreboding place, which seems to promise nothing but danger. Spielberg and Allen Daviau’s interplay of light and shadow heightens this sense, and at one point, Elliott’s eyes are illuminated like Bela Lugosi’s in Dracula. Play these scenes in black and white (I have; it’s a fun experiment) and you could be watching a Tod Browning or James Whale classic.
Again, Spielberg is using the language of horror to replicate the emotional journey he wants his audience to take on-screen. Elliott must travel from fear to understanding just as we had to, and that’s exactly what he does. Despite the creeping anxiety, Elliott becomes fast friends with the alien, and their bond sticks, not just because of the warmth, but because of the horror of their initial meeting. Immediate kinship is sweet, but a bond formed despite uncertainty is better. Elliott looked past the fear and found something deeper.
Not everyone in the film does though – and again Spielberg communicates it through horror imagery. With E.T. on the verge of death, the government agents who’ve been pursuing him descend on Elliott’s home. Dressed from head to toe in hazmat suits, they look more like monsters than human beings, because they fail to see E.T. as anything more than a specimen to be analysed and experimented upon. Their invasion of the house is brash and brutal, and it remains one of the most terrifying things Spielberg has ever shot. The horror film has re-emerged because empathy has faded.
By the film’s end, of course, we’re back where we began. E.T.’s people have returned to the forest and the little alien is ready to go home. Now, however, the darkness has gone and been replaced by a beautiful orange sunset. The light seems to breathe new life into the characters, as much as their experiences with E.T. have, and there’s no sense of the uncertainty that marked the film’s opening moments. Elliott, in particular, is ready to grow into a stronger, more mature human being. His journey – in all its light and dark – has changed him. Empathy has changed him.