INCANTATION: The Anatomy of a Film That Places a Curse on its Viewers
Since Ringu’s international success in the late 1990s, we’re no longer strangers to seeing characters dying after viewing cursed films. This year, the Taiwanese film Incantation adds flair to the trope by promising a cursed film that breaks the fourth wall, where not only are characters affected, but also you, the viewer, are promised to walk away cursed.
Despite this premise and a viral TikTok challenge that only adds proof to the existence of an Incantation curse, as cited by Taipei Times, the movie has become Taiwan’s highest-grossing horror film of all time, with Netflix at the helm of its global distribution rights.
So what is it that makesa believable, albeit enjoyable, Incantation curse?
The first explanation may just be its found footage format. Aside from adding an obvious layer of realism, this choice feeds into the recent found footage boom, understandable after a pandemic spent watching footage of other people’s lives through video calls or social media.
Incantation itself is set to have been shot and edited by Li Ronan—the main character who was a YouTube paranormal investigator in her college days, hence the vlog-like feel of most of the scenes.
Six years ago, she and her two “ghostbuster” channel mates are said to have unleashed a terrifying curse upon themselves, while attempting to film content at the worship site of a Mother Buddha. After some turns of events, Li has made this film that we are watching to save her young daughter from the same curse, slowly revealing what has transpired for the past years along the way.
To do this, the film intercuts Li’s vlogs with bits of footage she seemingly found in a macabre video essay style, all to convince us that despite her history of institutionalisation, she is indeed affected by a very real curse. She compiles everything from vertical phone videos to CCTV recordings and even animated
explanation videos—a stylistic choice that both fans and critics alike agree to be a nod to the found footage aesthetics of Kōji Shiraishi (known for Noroi: The Curse) who skillfully crafts found-footage mockumentaries with clips from reality TV, to news cut-outs, and much more.
In Incantation, the addition of vertical videos is particularly used to show how the curse takes effect on people through gory accidents, further adding its degree of realism and believability as we are prone to encountering gruesome videoed events on social media.
But here’s the catch, Li’s feature-length vlog begins with a walk-through of optical illusions that problematises “seeing is believing”. Chances are you’ve probably seen some of these videos, like one of a train that can move forward and backwards depending on which direction you believe it goes. These videos ask some of the key questions of the night: does seeing mean believing? Or do your beliefs shape what you see? Should you then trust everything you see as the truth?
This “seeing is believing” is also what the Incantation curse mostly banks on, borrowing from the seeing-is-believing element of mainstream faiths. In a Netflix statement release, per comicbook.com, the film’s director and co-writer Kevin Ko stated “Respect for religion, especially religious taboos and religions that are very obscure, has some degree of fear in it. I love scary stories, and even so, I didn’t quite dare to touch this topic. I wanted to magnify this feeling in Incantation“.
Hence, most of what we see of the Incantation curse borrows from psychological conditioning methods used by local faiths and religions, some of which are not unlike those practised in Christianity. There are plenty of recurring motifs, everything from sigils to rituals, and hand signs (known as mudras in Hindu-Buddhist faiths) are shown to both conjure up or protect characters from the curse over and over again. They are being bombarded by these motifs like cigarette ads (again something that will convince you if you’ve seen it enough times), pushing them to run to the nearest store for a pack, and for us to believe in the existence of an Incantation curse.
The filmmakers can effectively do this through their deep understanding of local beliefs and practices. Notably of feminine deities in Buddhist and Hindu teachings, that already carry with them an air of malicious intent.
The film’s Mother Buddha strongly resembles those depicted in a real temple and monastery paintings. These would often depict gruesome scenes of wrathful Goddesses such as the Buddhist Dakinis or the Hindu Goddess Kali. They are meant to be terrifying to frighten worshippers into diligent practice, equivalent to gruesome Christian images from the Middle Ages.
Accompanying these imageries are also accounts of self-mutilation and self-immolation as extreme forms of their worship. One example would be the Mother Goddess (Mātā Devī) worshipped at Vajreśvarī, India whose religious practice (300 years ago!) is said to require tongue cutting and even the beheading of its worshippers, which is precisely what Incantation builds its empire of fear upon, as you see characters committing suicide on screen.
The nail to your coffin, however, will be the titular incantation itself. You’ll learn it early on through worshippers who faithfully recite “Hou-ho-xiu-Yi, si-sei-wu-ma” to seemingly protect themselves from the curse. Li will even directly address you multiple times throughout the film to help her recite the chant, even if only in your head like a ghostly Dora the Explorer. But remember, should you really trust everything you are shown?
The incantation is constantly present throughout the film, often in voice-overs as if it’s being read by Buddhist throat-singing monks. It is only revealed much later in the film when it’s all said and done, that the incantation roughly translates to “I wish to share this curse and offer up my name”. Therefore, in the process of protecting the characters as you have been made to believe, you have also effectively transferred the curse onto you, obliging you to worship the depicted Mother Buddha deity, or die.
But not to fret, the Incantation curse has fashioned a safety net within the film in case you do end up believing, even if only for a few minutes, that you have been really cursed by the fictional film.
To spot it, we have to rewind the tape a bit, back to how the film started with optical illusions that ask you to question if you should believe in everything you see. The optical illusions do this by also teaching you
the power of your beliefs, that at the end of the day, you are the one in control of your beliefs that shape your reality.
This is also something we see Li Ronan grapple with throughout the film, as she speaks openly about her past psychological troubles, and even shows us clips of her sessions with a psychologist. These sessions teach her that only if she allows the curse to take over her life by focusing on nothing else, will it have the power to drive her to the ground. A bit like how religious beliefs also work. And since we do see Li get back to what somewhat resembles normal life, we can assume that this is also doable for us. Allowing you to comfortably move on, admitting that Incantation had you convinced, even if for a bit, that you might have just been cursed.