Creep (2014): The Nature of Creepiness, Exploited Loneliness, and Fabricated Victimhood
If ever there were an accolade for the most aptly-title horror film, it should undoubtedly go to 2014’s Creep, which embodies its titular essence in every frame. Creep is a found footage film created by Patrick Brice and Mark Duplass, with Brice making his directorial debut and starring as the protagonist and Duplass taking on the role of the above pictured ‘creep.’ Creep was filmed in the found footage style and debuted at South By Southwest to critical acclaim before making an international streaming debut on Netflix.
Creep follows Aaron (Brice), a professional videographer, who accepts a vague, day-long Craigslist gig at a secluded mountain cabin in California from the cabin’s owner, Josef (Duplass), the title character who needs assistance in recording a short documentary. Josef greets Aaron enthusiastically with a hug when he arrives, pays him $1,000 for the gig upfront in cash, and promises him a uniquely intimate filming experience.
Josef begins their professional relationship by hard-selling his backstory as well as his motivation for creating this documentary– that he’s dying of cancer and wishes to record a video about himself to one day play for his unborn child. Josef explains that he had battled cancer for quite some time. Shortly after it had seemed that he had beaten it, the cancer returned and took a turn for the worse– leaving him with a few months to live.
Right out of the gate, Josef requests that Aaron film him taking a bath, explaining that it was a special tradition that he had shared with his father and one that he would have liked to have continued with his own son. With the camera is pointed directly at Josef, we experience the scene from Aaron’s perspective, whose discomfort we can feel without ever seeing or hearing his reaction. That’s because we get to know Aaron well enough during the film’s brief introductory scene, which depicts the moments leading up to his arrival at Josef’s cabin. Aaron wonders aloud what kind of person might have hired him and what the gig might entail– showcasing Aaron’s precious naivety.
From that point onward, Josef’s behavior and requests become increasingly bizarre. Yet, Aaron reluctantly cooperates– until finally he reaches a breaking point. This ominous back-and-forth between Josef and Aaron is what makes Creep such a distinct horror viewing experience. It forces viewers to ponder: How do we decipher the creepy from the harmlessly weird? How do creeps exploit this blurred line? When does it go too far?
The subjectivity to these questions is also what makes Creep one of the best horror movies to watch with a group.
On Halloween 2017, I invited some friends over for a double screening of Creep and the newly released Creep 2. After watching the first entry to break for more pizza and beer, a discussion blossomed about our own personal experiences with creeps– people we grew up with, people in our family, people who we’ve had to get restraining orders against. It was an oddly therapeutic experience and a testament to the authenticity of Duplass’ performance.
For many, myself included, horror movies provide a uniquely cathartic experience. What should be stress-inducing, like watching someone succumb to a sadistic stalker, becomes almost meditative. We watch the dangerous scenarios unfold in front of us from the comforts of our homes or movie theaters. Horror films become a safe space for us to face our fears and sense of mortality without the implied dangers.
And what more relatable fear is there than a creep? It’s clear that Brice and Duplass did their homework to properly flesh out the film’s antagonist.
In 2013, psychologists Francis McAndrew and Sara Koehnke conducted a study called “On The Nature of Creepiness,” wherein they asked 1,341 people, mostly female, to identify what they perceived to be the basic elements of creepiness. Perhaps unsurprisingly, people most commonly found it creepy when they couldn’t predict how someone would behave. And they were less creeped out if they thought they understood a person’s intentions.
Another common and perhaps problematic characteristic (given its mental health implications) of creeps is their inability to follow or understand social conventions. Respondents sited several examples including: people who hadn’t washed their hair in a while, people who stood closer to other people than considered normal, people who dressed oddly or in dirty clothes, and people laughed at unpredictable times.
If you’re like me (and many of my friends from my movie screening/ group therapy session), this description may provoke flashbacks to middle school or high school– that weird classmate who, after one conversation at lunch, became inexplicably obsessed with you. But for Brice and Duplass, this seems to have served as a deep-dive into the mind of their central character. Josef’s behavior is violently unpredictable. His intentions are vague at best. He hugs Aaron at inappropriate moments. And he seems to take pleasure in Aaron’s discomfort and fear.
It might not come to much surprise if you’ve seen Creep or are familiar with Duplass and his brother’s mumblecore background that Creep (and its sequel) are mostly improvised. The duo writes outlines for scenes and then comes up with the dialog and figures things out as the shoot progresses. So for Duplass to play the character, he had to immerse himself in Josef’s headspace.
“I go to a lot of therapy and I know myself, I would say really well,” Duplass recently told Inverse about making the upcoming Creep 3. “I know that I’m a very loving and understanding and open person and that goes well 95% of the time. But I also know that I make people feel uncomfortable with it sometimes. I’ll give them a hug a little too early on in the relationship or I’ll open up something about myself, and I can just see in their eyes like, ‘That was too soon for me.’ So I was like, I can use that and hyperbolize that and I think this will be really good.”
But Josef is much more than a hyperbolized version of a nice guy who doesn’t understand social boundaries. There is an unmistakably sinister temperament to him; he is not oblivious to the effect his behavior has on Aaron. When Aaron grows suspicious or upset by Josef’s behavior, he abuses Aaron’s apparent credulity by telling a personal story to emotionally disarm Aaron and position himself as a victim– a victim of loneliness, a victim of how his social quirks are perceived by others, a victim of cancer. He uses empathy as a weapon and Aaron’s kindness against him.
Creep is one of the greatest underrated horror gems and a dumbfounding departure from what viewers have come to expect from a performance from indie darling Mark Duplass. The first entry in the Creep trilogy is an astounding character study and the perfect example of a horror film that provides catharsis from one of life’s most prevalent every-day anxieties: creeps.