Not Quite Horror: “Festen aka The Celebration” (1998)

Not Quite Horror contains reviews of films not traditionally considered horror films. By analyzing them as horror films (identifying the monster, discussing the shared worry for the audience and the main characters, and understanding the depth of horror available to the viewer), who knows? There’s more than one way to watch a movie.

“Festen aka The Celebration” (1998)

The Monster: A family secret. This secret is far from supernatural, yet it torments them just as a ghost in a haunted house would.

At the family patriarch’s 60th birthday party, his son Christian (Ulrich Thomsen) reveals the real reason behind the suicide of his sister in front of a house full of guests. The sympathetic staff hides everyone’s keys, forcing the family to weather the vengeance of this painful secret until the bitter end.

The Horror: The revelation of a family secret turns formerly safe memories into confusing anxieties. Christian’s family attempt to hold onto the way things used to be, even if it means they become petty and aggressive with each other. When the truth cannot be avoided, they must find ways of putting the anger and frustration to rest before the spirit of the secret destroys their entire family.

The Shared Fate: Thinking of upsetting family secrets as hauntings may be as good a way of conceptualizing those secrets as anything else. After all, they become unearthed, upset the order of things, and must be properly buried before life can move on.

Festen demonstrates the mechanisms of haunted house films can scare without spectral visions in white or bleeding walls. By this standard, some of the houses in your neighborhood are already haunted.

— I am indebted to Noel Carroll’s The Philosophy of Horror for his ideas on defining horror, as well as John Skipp and Craig Spector’s article “Death’s Rich Pageantry, or Skipp & Spector’s Handy-Dandy Splatterpunk Guide to the Horrors of Non-horror Film” in Cut! Horror Writers on Horror Film for a similar idea.–

–Axel Kohagen

1 thought on “Not Quite Horror: “Festen aka The Celebration” (1998)

  1. It doesn't matter which way you watch it: "Festen" is such a fucking masterpiece, it sure will blow you away completely. IMO it's the third-greatest movie ever made and I adore it in an pretty insane way.

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