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Shudder Secrets: Skinamarink and Slow Cinema

I’m hard-pressed to find a recent horror film as conversation-starting as Skinamarink. The Shudder original has generated countless TikTok and YouTube videos, especially after its leak at Fantasia Fest last year. Like The Blair Witch Project, Skinamarink has built its following namely by word-of-mouth and the Internet. It’s even been referred to as “this generation’s” Blair Witch Project.

I recall seeing The Blair Witch Project in 1999 in theaters with my sister. Though the film didn’t initially unsettle me, it did once I returned home. Its images and sounds replayed in my mind, especially that last shot where Heather (Heather Donahue) finds Mike (Michael Williams) facing the wall. Though Skinamarink didn’t frighten me as much as the found footage classic, its images, grainy aesthetic, and disquieting audio did stick with me after first viewing. It’s a disorienting experience, a mix of childhood fears that unfold slowly. Part of the reason the film is so effective (for some, at least) is the way it invokes Freud’s theory of the uncanny. Through its slow cinema techniques, it turns familiar childhood images into the stuff of nightmares.

Skinamarink’s Origins and the Internet as Co-Director

Like The Blair Witch Project, Skinamarink was filmed with little to no budget. Depending on which article you read, the feature cost anywhere from $15-19,000. Director Kyle Edward Ball likely saved a chunk of money because he filmed it in his childhood home. In fact, some of the toys cast in shadow or filmed from off-putting angles were from his childhood.

In an interview with, Ball states that he asked Reddit users to share their childhood nightmares. He also created a YouTube channel, Bitesized Nightmares, in which recreated some of those nightmares. Ball says that he started to notice patterns emerge regarding fears of abandonment. Skinamarink was then an extension of a short Ball uploaded to YouTube, Heck. In some ways, I think the short is more effective because it contains much of what the feature does well without as many drawn-out shots that bloat the runtime.

Ball adds that the internet was essentially his co-director, which just may be why Gen Z has latched onto this film and why it resonates for them. Not only does the film tap into childhood fears and nostalgia through its old cartoons and creepier-than-they-should-be toys, but it spread on social media well before its limited theatrical release, becoming a conversation unto itself. For folks who have seen the film, it’s either one of the scariest movies they’ve witnessed or one of the most frustrating.

Despite mixed reception, it’s been a viral sensation, made possible because of social media. This echoes how The Blair Witch Project harnessed the early days of the Internet to generate a viral marketing campaign. This included a website with missing persons’ photos. This feature feels like a cursed video that’s slithered into the realm of TikTok and other online mediums.

Skinamarink, Childhood Fears, and the Uncanny

Skinamarink has no clear plot. Two kids, Kevin  (Lucas Paul) and Kaylee (Dali Rose Tetreault), wake up to discover that their father is missing. Not only that but all the doors and windows in their home have been sealed. In one of the strangest moments, a toilet even disappears.

If I can advise people when viewing this, it’s simply to surrender to the experience and the film’s dream logic. Ball never shows the children’s faces. Instead, viewers mostly see the backs of their heads or their feet shuffling across carpeted rooms. We do see the side of Kevin’s face during one truly unnerving moment, but that’s it. The camera never moves beyond a child’s height, so even a doorknob seems difficult to reach. This orients us to that world and a kid’s perspective.

Childhood visuals populate the feature, including the flickering glow of a TV, a bowl of cereal, and public-domain cartoons that are the film’s only real soundtrack. Voices initially seem like they’re distant, stemming from another room until they’re suddenly not. There’s also a constant staticky noise that crackles. All of this creates a feeling of dread and unease.

Fear of losing a parent is the main anxiety here. Frequently, Kevin and Kaylee call out, “Mommy? Daddy?” They get no response. But there are some other fears at play here, too. At one point, one of the kids says, “I don’t want to talk about Mommy anymore.” While there’s not enough narrative thread to say whether or not abuse occurred, a viewer can easily have that reading.

The house itself transforms from something familiar to something monstrous. Legos suddenly litter a wall. Furniture appears on the ceiling. A demonic voice beckons the children upstairs. And somehow, one of those old toy phones and its yellow eyes becomes hair-raising haunting in the dark. Freud’s theory of the uncanny applies here. These childhood cues and visuals evoke memory and familiarity within us, but Ball makes them startling and strange through his odd camera angles and sound. Light switches turn off. We must wait for them to turn back on. Legos appear in one place and then suddenly in another. These familiar images feel menacing because of how Ball films them and how long the camera lingers upon them.

Dreams, a Coma, or Hell?

There are a few theories on what the kids experience and why it’s occurring. Early in the runtime, Kevin’s dad mentions that his son fell and bumped his head. It’s possible that Kevin concussed and is imagining all of this, stuck in a strange loop and unable wake-up and return to reality. Another theory is that these kids are in hell. Heck is a bit less ambiguous. Even the amount of time the kid in Heck has been there is noted by the number count.

There is a single number count in Skinamarink that echoes Heck. This lends itself to the theory that these kids are indeed in hell or Kevin is in a coma and unable to talk to his parents or sister.

However, I’m going with the idea that there’s no clear definition of what’s exactly happening with the kids. Instead, I suspect Ball wanted to make this feel like a child’s nightmare as much as he could, specifically the terror of waking up in a darkened house and discovering that you are parents are gone. What’s scarier than that to a child? Familiar images, like a pile of Legos, become terrifying in a typical setting with no parental protection.

Skinamarink and Slow Cinema

Credit goes to Jason Adams over at Mashable for framing some of what I think about his film. He uses a term called “slow cinema” and applies it to Skinamarink. Adams describes slow cinema as “a cinematic languor that moves like molasses, enveloping the viewer in an atmosphere and mood and a state of mind outside of our frantic daily rhythms.” He adds that shots are long, takes unbroken, and characters are usually static or doing very little inside the frames. He points to David Lynch’s Inland Empire and “Twin Peaks: The Return” as examples, as well as the 1975 film Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxlles.

The point is that with this kind of cinema, you must give in to the experience without expecting a traditional narrative structure. Ball specifically takes time establishing the atmosphere until our sense of safety dissolves. Therefore, the camera lingers on the cartoons for so long, or a doorframe, or the carpeted floor. By the second half, these familiar visuals are turned upside down, so it’s unclear what we’re seeing and hearing. It feels like the kids are in danger, especially Kevin.

Overall, I get why this film won’t be for everyone. It’s an artsy and highly experimental presentation of childhood anxieties. That said, I kept thinking about it. Skinamarink can have that effect. Its images and the hiss and hum of its audio feel disorienting. This movie subverts childhood memories and visuals and makes them terrifying. Through its tricks and abstraction, Skinamarink captures that childhood fear of being alone in the dark, with a potential monster under the bed. Is there actually something in the shadows? Watch it and decide for yourself.

If you want to be part of the conversation, check out Skinamarink when it lands on Shudder on February 2. For the latest on the streaming service’s newest content, be sure to follow my Shudder Secrets column.