The Horror of Culture Shock

The Horror of Culture Shock

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While most horror films portray a plot centered around ghosts and ghouls, masked murderers, or otherworldly creatures straight out of nightmares, Watcher, starring Maika Monroeopts for a very real terror. Directed by Chloe Okunothe film follows a young couple as they move to Bucharest for her husband’s (Karl Glusman) new job. It is quickly established that the female lead, Julia (Monroe), does not speak Romanian nor does she know much about the culture. The audience, along with Julia, is thrown into a state of culture shock.


Within real life, culture shock can be extremely anxiety-inducing for those traveling to foreign countries. The disorientation resulting from the inability to communicate, lack of geographical knowledge, and ignorance to cultural norms can be detrimental to any individual. Watcher deftly explores this within almost every scene, constantly putting Julia in situations where she cannot understand the world around her. The palpable presence of Julia’s culture shock enhances the suspense in relation to the killer stalking her. While this killer is ultimately the antagonist, the techniques used to convey such a stressful, suffocating environment pave the way for the film to reach levels of terror that other films cannot achieve.

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The Terror of Isolation

One of the most notable choices in developing a state of culture shock within the film are the lack of subtitles for Romanian dialogue. With no subtitles, viewers are forced to experience Bucharest as Julia does, as a constant stream of unintelligible language. Though Julia attempts to learn the language, it is to no avail, and she has trouble even ordering coffee at a café. Due to this disconnect, Julia continually leans on her husband for translation throughout the film, whether this is simply to understand her landlord, or to remain informed about the serial killer on the news. Other times, her husband denies her the right to even comprehend what others are saying; he conveniently does not translate at dinner parties, and even makes fun of her with his colleagues in Romanian. This absence of subtitles, in addition to such unreliable native speaking characters, creates a foundation of extreme unease for Julia as well as the audience.

RELATED: How ‘Watcher’s Predictability Shows Real Fear Comes From Others’ Ambivalence

Julia’s isolation is another excellent way to show the damage of culture shock. Since Julia’s husband works until late hours of the night, she is left alone in her apartment with no one around to help her acclimate to a new country. When she does go out , she often makes mistakes that result in her angering native Romanians. Whether this is taking photos in prohibited locations or entering areas in a grocery store she does not know are off limits, this serves only to dissuade her from going out in public to learn about Bucharest. Due to Julia being so cut off from society, her fear and paranoia escalate, causing her behavior to become 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 a secluded situation only contributes to the building dread in Watcher.

Continuously making mistakes due to culture shock can cause anyone to doubt themselves. As Julia makes mistakes within a new country, it causes her to question whether she is truly right about the individual she believes is stalking her. Every native person she confides in about the potential stalker doesn’t believe her, and instead of comforting her, they are condescending. Julia begins to spiral into almost madness, as she doesn’t know whether to believe her instincts or let it go. Julia’s culture shock is ultimately what leads her into the hands of the killer.

But Was Her Paranoia Justified?

By the end of the film, she is convinced she has built up this threat in her head. She accepts that she is wrong about the man she thought was stalking her, that she was just paranoid living in a new country, as everyone kept telling her. However, the culture shock itself is what made her a vulnerable, easy target for the killer. Julia was already questioning herself, on the edge of losing her mind, and being gaslit, making her the perfect prey. It isn’t until the end that she realizes she was right all along, and thus the final showdown between her and the killer ensues. However, this can be metaphorical for Julia overcoming her fear of living in a new country, of her gaining the confidence to be independent despite the cultural barriers. In killing the “watcher,” she vanquishes culture shock.

Watcher showcases just how dangerous and terrifying culture shock can be. The film makes use of several techniques to display this gradually, so that by the end of the movie, viewers will feel disoriented and uncomfortable. While other films have placed characters in foreign countries, such as The Green Inferno and Hostel by Eli Roththe horror within these stories lean more toward overt brutality and violence than slow building dread. After all, culture shock is far more likely to afflict a person rather than being cannibalized in a foreign country. While this can still be effective in evoking visceral reactions , opting to utilize culture shock will resonate more deeply with viewers.

Culture shock is a powerful mechanism in creating horror, yet is underused. Watcher is a fine example of how effective this can be, while also being relevant and thoughtful. In a world of increasing globalization, exploring culture shock in film offers a layer of horror that is both timely yet relatable, while still delivering substantial terror.

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Jorge Oliveira

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