In the world of cinema, it’s called a dolly zoom or the vertigo effect. Manipulating the camera to create a purposeful distortion of perception: a warping of the background and foreground while maintaining a tight focus on the subject. According to Film School rejects, the dolly zoom creates “unease and distortion” and “can signal uncanny emotional states” . Distorting the external environment around the subject is meant to reflect an inner distortion, because the only we can know a subject in cinema, to feel like we can live inside the character’s skin, is through external signs like dialogue, camera angle, music, an actor’s facial expression. We cue in to effect the synergy among these create and intuit the inner mind of the character.
But what do we call the dolly zoom or vertigo effect when we experience it in real life? When we’re no longer behind the camera, watching the subject, but the subject herself, feeling the distortion of perspective invading from the outside in? To be at once aware of the warping of space and time around us, our frightened faces and rigid bodies holding still as everything around us seems to at once rush at us and drop away? To not rely on visual cues around us to understand the sudden dropping away of reality and the fine focus on the horror of the moment, but to be in the subject’s skin, feeling that uncanny suddenly become real, to then intuit the distortion of our perspective that camera shot is meant to emulate?
It feels like looking at yourself from the outside in, yet horribly pinned to the moment. An existential vertigo. It feels like suddenly realizing you are in a horror movie and what you took for granted every day is now tinged with danger. What you thought was happening was actually something else. That nice neighbor is a perverse interloper, the smile on the face of your loved one is sly and bloodthirsty, the hole in the basement a portal to hell. You missed the signs, and now, somehow, it all comes rushing at you in gritty and grainy reality. You can’t ignore it now. You can’t unsee what you have seen. You can’t unknow what you now know, and your past, and everything you've ever relied on, subconsciously, to make sense of yourself, is now something else entirely. What you always feared crawled out of your mind and confronted you. And you can’t put it back.
And though in cinema the moment passes, the camera pans away, the action continues, you are stuck in that moment, at once outside yourself, observing this warping of reality, and stuck inside, feeling the unreality of it all.
I remember the moment of my own existential vertigo, my eyes, perhaps ironically, fixed on the blue light of a computer screen. My hand on the mouse, the cursor paused.
This vertigo effect, of at once observing myself as everything around me warped, and feeling trapped in that uncanny gaze, feeling the dizzying and utterly frightening and revolting realizations it produces, or signals, never broke or resolved. The hallways didn’t return to normal proportion. I never reached the door.
Horror entices and revolts. It’s all at once a fear, longing, and disgust. The mundane made dangerous, the loved made revolting. The unflinching gaze as we commit to understanding, finally, what is happening, even as it seems to know is to destroy everything, the monster is coming, our moments have been cut short. Horror is taking this all in, every second, as it is unfolding, even as we are powerless to stop it. It is a terrible knowledge.
I experienced my own existential vertigo as a kind clash of inner and outer perspectives, a sickening dizziness as I felt myself at once aware of the background falling away, ever-expanding toward total dissolution, and at the same time as a long, tight focus narrowing in toward me, crushing me. A confusing feeling of pixelating into nothingness while at the same time being crushed into into infinite density. It narrowed my life to a pin prick of light, or perhaps the mouth of an always moving tunnel that I could never quite get through. A long, dark night where help never arrives.
And after months of seeing myself through the lens of this uncanny distortion, of feeling the realizations rushing toward me but never crashing into me, I woke one morning and believed that I had died.