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Turkish Islamic Horror vol. 2(18 Apr 2015)
By Miss Tugce Bicakci
In my previous post, I discussed the historical and traditional background of the creatures made of fire, the jinn. Today, I would like to continue our journey with some examples from Turkish literature and cinema which fall under the sub-genre of Islamic Horror.
As we have seen last week, the jinn and their equivalents appear in many Western narratives and represent Eastern evil. However, in Turkey they are considered as local sources of fear, as what Turkish people are really afraid of. Nevertheless, these jinn narratives also make use of classic Horror tropes such as the haunted house, exorcism or necromancy in order to structure their plots and the result is more likely a mixture of universal and local traditions.
As a matter of fact, the first example of this sub-genre was a mixture as well. Directed by Metin Erksan, Şeytan (The Devil, 1974) is an adaptation of William Fredkin’s The Exorcist (1973) and also one of the earliest examples of Turkish Horror cinema. The film follows the exact same plot of Fredkin’s film. However, Erksan and his team replaced every little detail that refers to Christianity with its Islamic equivalent. Although its title and the source of possession refer to Sheitan, the film does not create a pure Islamic atmosphere due to its verbatim interpretation of the rest of the original film. Nevertheless, the film is the first attempt of Turkish Horror cinema to use Islamic tradition in order to create horror effect.
Until the 21st century, there is no other attempt as such in neither literature nor in cinema. Orhan Yildirim’s Ecinni (The Jinn, 2003) is the first Islamic Horror novel in modern Turkish literature. Ecinni tells the story of Arif who takes refuge in a north-eastern village of Turkey when his car breaks down in a stormy and rainy night. Once Arif decides to stay in the village, he witnesses supernatural events and sees beings who are not seen by other people around him. Soon, he learns that the village in general and a house in particular are haunted by a jinni. The jinni in the novel is unseen to human eye but Arif sees it in the form of a woman. Once it is in woman form, its reversed feet reveal its actual self. The jinni strikes people by causing them sickness and even death. It is known to be afraid of bread, mosques and the Koran. For example, to exorcise the jinni that possess his friend Dursun, Arif holds the Koran to Dursun’s chest. He uses prayers from the Koran to calm down possessed Zuhal, the main female character of the novel. Although Zuhal’s possession is associated with epilepsy by the villagers at first, the fact is that the jinni has fallen in love with her. At the end, Zuhal commits suicide and the imam (Islamic priest) of the village repels the jinn from the village with prayers from the Koran.
The literary journey of Islamic Horror does not end here but in the following years the sub-genre became more popular in cinema than in literature. After the 2000s, technological and technical developments in the Turkish film industry had a great impact on Horror cinema and the rise of Islamic conservatism in Turkey promoted the Islamic Horror sub-genre. Alper Mestci’s well-known and much-praised film Musallat (Haunted, 2007) is possibly the best earliest example of this period.
Musallat starts with an Islamic burial scene. The audience sees a crooked dead body is being washed on screen which hints at the fact that the body was struck by a jinni. After this striking opening, the film starts to tell the story of a young couple, Suat and Nurcan, haunted by a jinni who fell in love with Nurcan when she was very young. However, the film uses flashbacks to tell this story and starts from the time that Suat leaves Turkey to work in Germany. In Berlin, Suat starts to experience nightmares, delusions and seizures about his wife and family. These seizures lead up to his suicide attempt. After having a medical examination and perfectly normal results, Suat comes back to Turkey and sees a hodja (a Muslim master) in Istanbul to find a cure for his situation. With the help of the hodja, we understand that the jinn entered into Suat’s body on their marriage night and actually continued to live with Nurcan in Suat’s form although Suat left for Germany. When Nurcan’s pregnancy ends with a dead jinni baby, the jinn in Suat’s form lives a moment of delirium. This scene has some of the best special effects used in Turkish Horror cinema.
Musallat uses Gothic atmosphere particularly in the Berlin scenes but the film draws a dark and gloomy picture in general. The use of flashbacks keeps the audience engaged with the distinctive story but also creates a parallel fragmentation between Suat’s possessed self and the story line. Therefore, Musallat’s horror scenes are not achieved through the use of extremely loud voices and camera spins, unlike the films of another Islamic Horror director Hasan Karacadag. The director, Alper Mestci, tells an indigenous jinn story in a very Gothic way by focusing on the physical and psychological effects of being haunted by the jinn.
Mestci’s success in Musallat led to the recognition of his name in Turkish cinema and the sequel Musallat 2: Lanet (Haunted 2: The Curse) was released in 2011. Although the film had very promising special effects, the story line could not reach the standards of the first one. Nevertheless, his Musallat series made Mestci widely recognised and followed by Horror fans in Turkey. In fact, his last film Siccin (2014) is widely considered as the best Turkish film of 2014.
The film is about a dark spell gone wrong. Oznur, a widower who has been in love with her cousin Kudret for years, manages to seduce him to get pregnant. After losing her baby over Kudret’s violent objections, Oznur decides to get a dark spell cast over Kudret’s wife Nisa. After 5 night prayer calls, the jinn that the spell summoned are supposed to take the life of Nisa and everyone from her blood. For me, this film has the best scene of being struck by a jinni (check out the 17th minute of the video from the link below).
Siccin uses many horror tropes such as blood sacrifice, dark magic, possession, and the Gothic child but in a very Islamic way. Moreover, the cinematography of Mestci, his dark and gloomy style that we witnessed in Musallat, creates great Gothic effects. The Gothic effect is felt to the full extent in the scene when Nisa eats her hair while a music box plays an Islamic hymn in the background. Although Mestci uses Islamic prayer call frequently in his films, his timing and the parallel between the scene and the sound of the prayer consistently reminds the Islamic values to the audience.
The literary and cinematic narratives relating to the jinn belief became more popular in the 21st century than Turkish interpretations of Western supernatural characters such as vampires, werewolves or zombies. Although some of these narratives are highly criticised for not being scary enough due to their lack of plot structure, character analysis, and, in terms of film versions, of bad acting and special effects, the success of some writers and directors such as Mestci brought along the discussion of whether Islamic Horror represents Turkish Horror as a whole in the 21st century.
I am hoping to have found an answer to this question by the end of my research. Thus, our Islamic Horror part ends here, but don’t worry! The Turkish Gothic journey will continue for another post!
Next week, I am planning to have a counter attack to Islamic Horror and talk about what Turkish Gothic can/ might/ should be in my own humble opinion.