“There’s something inherently dark about an activity associated with the fun and innocence of girlhood being transformed into such a disturbing event.”
“You know, the world of a teenage girl can be full of wonder and delight— but not always. Sometimes it can become a place of confusion and terror.”
From the first few minutes of The World is Full of Secrets (2018, dir. Graham Swon), it’s clear that this film is likely going to be very different from what we’re expecting, especially when it comes to our preconceptions of horror as a genre. It opens with the recorded voice of a Twilight Zone-esque narrator, who forewarns us that while what we’re about to watch may be unnerving, it’s based on actual happenings. He tells of “something… unexplainable, from beyond the veil”, giving cause for our imaginations to run wild long before the female voices and soft crossfades that come to characterize the film make themselves known. Then, the omniscient narration of an elderly woman (Peggy Steffans) sets up the events she experienced as they play out in flashback before our eyes, recalling a night in 1996 when a group of girls (Elena Burger, Dennise Gregory, Ayla Guttman, Alexa Shae Niziak, Violet Piper) get together for a sleepover and end up telling each other “the worst, most awful stories” they’ve ever heard.
There’s something inherently dark about an activity associated with the fun and innocence of girlhood being transformed into such a disturbing event, especially since the film’s narrator alludes to the fact that the night resulted in terrible consequence. While we’re told of the events in detail, the film itself is noticeably selective in terms of what the viewer actually sees.
When the girls tell their stories in turn, it feels very much like they’re speaking directly to the audience, delivering a macabre monologue of sorts with little interruption. As young and innocent as they may appear, they take great delight in describing such horrors — tales that range from religious persecution to jealousy and the occult, each promising to be more gruesome than the last. What’s perhaps most chilling about these stories though is the fact that they all involve young girls who lose their innocence, ultimately meeting a brutal end at the hands of others. Although the events themselves are never actually depicted on screen, the graphic manner in which they’re told is more than enough to instill a visceral feeling of unease and dread within us.
Though the camera remains focused on each girl while she tells her story, framing her in close-up as if she were sitting right across from us, what we’re really drawn in by are her words. It’s worth noting though that despite the precedence of words over visuals, there are a few moments when the film places deliberate emphasis on what is seen rather than what is said. At one point, it even has one of the girls chant “let me see” as she ascends a staircase, mirror and candle in hand. Yet, these moments of seeing instead of telling don’t seem to have the same gravitas to them as the rest of the film. They feel oddly distant and less consequential, a stark contrast to the uneasy intimacy of storytelling we’ve become accustomed to.
One of the most intriguing things by far about The World is Full of Secrets is its intentionally ambiguous nature, choosing to leave us with far more questions than answers. The narrator makes foreboding claims throughout that something sinister occurred and what happened is well-known, but as we’ve come to realize, what’s known to her isn’t always revealed to us. “I hope you got what you came for,” she says, addressing the audience in the film’s final moments, “even if it wasn’t quite what you expected.” Her statement gives us pause. What exactly did we come here for? Do we really want to see and know everything that happens? Or are some things meant to linger on in our minds, silent terrors left to be interpreted within the realm of imagination?
The World is Full of Secrets demonstrates that a well-executed horror film doesn’t always need to be reliant on jump scares or fearsome monsters to be effective. Instead it demonstrates how the things that go unseen and unknown — only spoken of in hushed whispers and tales told in darkened rooms in the dead of night — can sometimes be the most terrifying things of all.
Dir: Graham Swon
Prod: Ravenser Odd
Cast: Elena Burger, Dennise Gregory, Ayla Guttman, Alexa Shae Niziak, Violet Piper, Peggy Steffans
Release: 31 October 2019
Where available to watch: Anthology Film Archives (New York); more release details/viewing information to come