How djinn became Arab world's Boogeyman: Dubai-based filmmaker on unique horror in region's storytelling

Dubai-based author and film producer Daniella Tully on what makes horror so appealing, why Stephen King is the king of the genre and what is uniquely terrifying in the Arab storytelling tradition

By Tamreez Inam

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Photo: Neeraj Murali
Photo: Neeraj Murali

Published: Tue 14 Nov 2023, 6:00 AM

Last updated: Tue 14 Nov 2023, 1:05 PM

Horror is a genre that has a polarising effect: people either crave it or vehemently avoid it. City Times met author and film producer Daniella Tully who specialises in horror fiction to understand the nuances of the genre.

Tully has had a long career in storytelling, starting with production and scriptwriting at a TV station in her native Germany. She arrived in the UAE in 2009 to work at Image Nation Abu Dhabi to help develop the UAE’s film industry and worked on many impressive projects, such as the critically- acclaimed Fair Game, the box-office hits Contagion, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and the Oscar-winning adaptation The Help.

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In recent years, Tully stepped away from film production to pursue storytelling in other forms. “The art of storytelling in filmmaking can be compromised by the number of cooks in the kitchen,” Tully shares. “And so, I sat down one day and started writing my own story.” The result was her debut novel Hotel on Shadow Lake, a gothic family saga, which has been published in 12 countries and translated into five languages. She went on to write two more novels and is currently writing her memoir. She also teaches writing and filmmaking at Middlesex University.

Universality of horror

When asked what it is about horror that fascinates her, Tully answers, “What I really like about horror is its universality, its ability to transcend cultures. Other genres, such as romance or comedy, can be quite culturally specific. For example, we don’t all find the same things funny. But horror has a primal quality to it that people across cultures respond to. I love what HP Lovecraft once said: 'The oldest and strongest emotion is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown'."

Tully says that her sensibility is also informed by her German background. “Our fairytales, such as the Brothers Grimm and The Sandman, are extremely dark. My mum told them to me as they were written, not the gentler sanitised versions that we now tell children. These stories tap into some of our most primal fears and have stayed with me.”

Analysing fairytales is quite fascinating. It begs the question — why were children and adults alike being told these extremely disturbing stories? Tully argues that these stories, in various cultures, were meant to serve as cautionary tales with strong moralistic underpinnings. If you wanted your children not to touch fire or go out in the dark or trust strangers, or if you wanted people to be aware of the dangers of lust, greed or deception to rot the human heart, you told them a tale where terrible things happened to those who did so.

The hair-raising charm of Stephen King

Jack Nicholson peering through axed in door in lobby card
Jack Nicholson peering through axed in door in lobby card

Over the centuries, the horror genre has changed a lot and does not contain the same overt notes of caution. However, what remains salient is the use of symbolism and layered meanings. For Tully, no writer does this better than Stephen King. “I love it when Stephen King talks about the symbolic value and worth of horror. What you see is never truly what it is: there is always a deeper meaning and symbolism attached to it. It allows for someone else to say or show the things we would never dare to say or feel.”

What is it about King’s work that has led to its enduring appeal over five decades? Tully argues that what makes a horror story great is not the tale itself, but how it is told. “The more I think about it, the more I think Stephen King is the Charles Dickens of his genre. His prose is very rich and he has a way of telling a chilling story that taps into the human emotion at the heart of it,” she explains.

A still from 1408
A still from 1408

“There is also ‘blue collar melancholia’ which is present in his work. Having grown up in poverty himself, the protagonists in many of his stories face hardships and tough circumstances which they ultimately triumph over. The message is: if you don’t give up, if you’re good and kind, then you will overcome your circumstances.

Another aspect of Stephen King’s writing, and the horror genre in a broader sense, which Tully appreciates is what she calls ‘the purging quality of horror’. “Reading horror books or films doesn’t actually create fear but allows you to let go of your fears. There is nothing sadistic about horror, because you never identify with the monster, you always identify with the pursued or the victim. In that sense, it has a cleansing quality to it.”

Bringing horror home with Djinn

A still from Djinn
A still from Djinn

While horror translates and travels well across cultures, there are also culturally specific nuances to the genre. At Image Nation, Tully co-produced the first Emirati horror film Djinn, which released in 2013, written by her husband David Tully and directed by Toby Hooper, one of the most acclaimed horror filmmakers in the world. In making the film, what did Tully learn about the tradition of horror in the Arab region and the UAE, in particular?

"I was given the mandate of developing a script that would attract an international director. During my research, I got really excited when I learnt about the concept of djinn. It was a whole new Boogeyman that you could introduce audiences to. In global cinema, we have seen the archetypes of the werewolf, the vampire, the witch, etc. But with djinn, you had something completely new. We had the genie in western pop culture but it had been completely removed from its original context and how djinns are understood in Arab culture.”

For the film, Tully researched local as well as Islamic and Quranic references. She dug into library archives, spoke to culture consultants and drove down to the Al Hamra fishing village in Dubai to understand the folklore and urban legends surrounding djinns. She discovered a treasure trove of stories, such as the cautionary tale of Umm Al Duwais: A Beautiful Woman, a type of seductress djinn that traps men in dark alleys and then transforms into a monster to kill them.

“The fascinating thing about djinn is that they are shapeshifters and can appear to you in any form. The biggest hurdle in visual storytelling is that once you’ve visualised something, then it doesn’t scare you in the same way again. However, with djinn you could show them in new forms and that was really intriguing from the prospect of audiovisual storytelling.”

Tully shares that while the final film Djinn wasn’t the masterpiece that director Toby Hooper is known for, the team’s hope was that it would pave the way for many more horror films to be made in the UAE and the wider Arab region. It is something Tully continues to support, especially through her work teaching university students, about half of them Arab, the art and craft of writing and filmmaking.

A difficult, but rewarding genre!

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