Cinematic Truths: Psychic Powers

There are certain truths created by the films that cannot be ignored. In this new series of posts, we'll examine some of the strange ways that filmmakers have developed shorthand for certain kinds of actions or images. Have you ever noticed how all it takes to have manipulative psychic powers in a film is to stare intensely at your target and shake your head? It's a way of showing intense concentration even if the psychic in question is supposed to be a natural talent. If you see someone pushing their mind so hard that their whole head shakes, you can expect something to fall, catch fire, or explode with great force.

Take, for instance, the cult classic The Initiation of Sarah. Sarah is a new college freshman with a strange gift. Whenever she gets mad, she can move an object. It could be something small or large, living or inanimate. All it takes is a steady look of shaking determination like this:

To create any of the following fun effects:

Breaking Mirrors:

Snapping Ropes Holding Heavy Objects:

Or Even Pushing People Backwards:

Don't think that low-budget made for TV movies are the only films to use this conceit. Many acclaimed films and features from auteurs use the same technique. The original version of Carrie, for example, even uses the same anger yields psychic strength concept.

Here's Carrie pushed to her breaking point in the principal's office. Notice the intense stare, visible anger, and clearly shaking head from concentration.

And here's what all that effort was used for.

Breaking a loaded ashtray. Oddly enough, no one particularly reacts one way or the other to the ashtray. They're more concerned with Casey's well-being.


These young women are nothing compared to what David Cronenberg used the shaking head means master psychic conceit for. Scanners takes it to a whole new level. When this man gets angry at some rich women gossiping, his head starts to shake. This is a bad sign.

What does he use that energy on? Is it to flip over a coffee cup? Turn over a chair or table, maybe? Nope. This energy is used to cause severe emotional and physical distress to an older woman.

The scary part? That guy is merely an insignificant little ant in the scale of evil psychic powers in the film. When an evil person yields the power, they are not joking around. Take, for instance, this all to willing test subject in a controlled scientific demonstration.

The following linked is disturbing. You ever hear of head exploding powers? That's what that guy can do with his head shaking concentration.

As a rule, Stephen King films are especially susceptible to the psychics shake their heads conceit. Firestarter featured father and daughter both using identical techniques for very different powers. I think Drew Barrymore actually managed the head shaking in a rather believable way for a girl so young.

There's actually depth to that stare. I like that. And what is the little girl going to do with her heavy concentration?

Set people on fire. Of course. Aren't there any happy psychics in films? None that need to shake their heads like this to concentrate their anger. You can see the same conceit used in The Green Mile, Rose Red, and a few assorted other spots in the land of Stephen King cinematic adaptations.

The big question about any Hollywood shorthand: does it still work? In the case of psychic powers demonstrated by shaking heads, I think so. It's a bit of a cliche, but it's one of the quickest and clearest ways to show the audience that a certain character is concentrating hard enough to tap into the unknown potential of the human brain. If it's good enough for South Park to mock, it's good enough for me.

American Horror Story (FX)

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