The horror of culture shock

While most horror films depict a plot centered around ghosts and ghouls, masked murderers or otherworldly creatures straight out of nightmares, Observer, featuring Maika Monroe, opts for a very real terror. Realized by Chloe Okunothe film follows a young couple as they move to Bucharest for their husband (Karl Glusman) new job. It’s quickly established that the female lead, Julia (Monroe), doesn’t speak Romanian and doesn’t know much about the culture. The public, accompanied by Julia, is plunged into a state of culture shock.

In real life, culture shock can be extremely stressful for those traveling abroad. Disorientation resulting from inability to communicate, lack of geographical knowledge and ignorance of cultural norms can be detrimental to any individual. Observer deftly explores this in almost every scene, constantly putting Julia in situations where she cannot make sense of the world around her. The palpable presence of Julia’s culture shock heightens the suspense of the killer stalking her. Although this killer is ultimately the antagonist, the techniques used to convey such a stressful and suffocating environment set the stage for the film to reach levels of terror that other films cannot.


The terror of isolation

One of the most notable choices in the development of culture shock in the film is the lack of subtitles for the Romanian dialogue. Without subtitles, viewers are forced to experience Bucharest as Julia does, as a constant stream of unintelligible language. Although Julia tries to learn the language, it is in vain and she even has trouble ordering coffee in a cafe. Because of this disconnect, Julia continually relies on her husband for translation throughout the film, whether it’s just to understand her owner, or to stay informed about the serial killer on the news. At other times, her husband even denies her the right to understand what others are saying; he does not conveniently translate at dinner parties and even mocks her with his colleagues in Romanian. This absence of subtitles, in addition to these unreliable native-speaking characters, creates a base of extreme unease for Julia as well as the audience.

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Julia’s isolation is another great way to show the damage of culture shock. Since Julia’s husband works until late at night, she is left alone in her apartment with no one around to help her acclimatize to a new country. When she goes out, she often makes mistakes that anger her Romanians. Whether it’s taking photos in forbidden places or entering areas of a grocery store that she doesn’t know are forbidden, it only serves to deter her from going out in public to learn about Bucharest. Due to Julia being so cut off from society, her fear and paranoia escalate, making her behavior erratic and her relationship strained. As her husband increasingly begins to dismiss her and believes she is losing her mind, Julia is deprived of the one person who can help her navigate this alien world. Placing a character in such an isolated situation only contributes to the fear of building in Observer.

Continually making mistakes due to culture shock can cause anyone to doubt themselves. As Julia makes mistakes in a new land, it leads her to wonder if she’s really right about the individual she thinks is stalking her. Not all the natives she confides in about the potential stalker believe her, and instead of comforting her, they are condescending. Julia begins to descend into near-madness, as she doesn’t know whether to trust her instincts or give up. Julia’s culture shock is ultimately what leads her into the hands of the killer.

But was his paranoia justified?

At the end of the film, she is convinced that she has built this threat in her head. She accepts that she’s wrong about the man she thought was stalking her, that she was just paranoid living in a new country, like everyone kept telling her. However, the culture shock itself is what made her a vulnerable and easy target for the killer. Julia was already questioning herself, about to lose her mind and be gassed, making her the perfect prey. It’s only at the end that she realizes she was right all along, and so the final showdown between her and the killer ensues. However, it can be metaphorical for Julia overcoming her fear of living in a new country, gaining the confidence to be independent despite cultural barriers. By killing “the observer”, she overcomes culture shock.

Observer shows how dangerous and terrifying culture shock can be. The film uses several techniques to display this gradually, so that by the end of the film, viewers feel disoriented and uneasy. While other films have placed characters in foreign lands, such as green hell and Hotel by Eli Roth, the horror contained in these stories leans more towards overt brutality and violence than the slowness of fear. After all, culture shock is much more likely to afflict a person than to be cannibalized in a foreign land. While this can still be effective at eliciting visceral reactions, choosing to use culture shock will resonate more deeply with viewers.

Culture shock is a powerful horror-creation mechanic, but it’s underutilized. Observer is a fine example of the efficiency that this can have, while being relevant and thoughtful. In a world of increasing globalization, the exploration of culture shock in cinema offers a layer of horror that is both timely and relatable, while delivering substantial terror.

Helen D. Jessen