Sanpaku Eyes – A Cinematic Device

Sanpaku Eyes

Recently, I went to see the horror movie, The Witch: A New-England Folktale (2015) and noticed the whites under the iris of the young daughter, Thomasin (Anja Taylor-Joy) were used by director, Robert Eggers to show an impending danger.

A subtle device, yet very effective.

Seeing the whites under her eyes left me feeling anxious, and I could feel that bad things were to come for this young girl.

Sanpaku Eyes
Courtesy : of the eye: sanpakugan also known as sanpaku eyes.

The white sclera showing under or over the iris is known as the three whites of the eye: sanpakugan also known as sanpaku eyes.

As noted in Timothy Spearman’s article, ‘The Psychopath: Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Wolf’1, there are two types of sanpaku eyes: the yin sanpaku, where the white shows below the iris and the yang sanpaku, where the white shows above.

Basically, the theory is if a person is showing the sclera below their eyes, as in the case of Thomasin, the danger is yin, and therefore coming from outside.

A person with yin sanpaku eyes is, ‘likely to place himself or herself in dangerous or threatening situations unwittingly and may be in mortal peril.’

If the sclera is showing above the iris, this is yang sanpaku.  ‘In this case, the iris sinks downward toward the bottom eyelid.  This reveals a dangerous or violent character.’

Spearman proposes, ‘a damaged amygdala may influence the position and aspect of the eye, possibly directing the iris to sink down in the lower quadrant of the eye when the amygdala either shrinks or swells in size due to trauma, depression and other emotional stimuli.’

As Fudge, et al (Considering the Role of the Amygdala in Psychotic Illness: A Clinicopathological Correlation, 1998)2 states, ‘It is generally accepted that the amygdala plays a role in attaching emotional significance to environmental stimuli’.

This means that a dysfunction of the amygdala may affect the emotional significance given to external cues and therefore the person may lack empathy.

Adolphs, et al3 reported a case of an adult patient with bilateral amygdala lesions, ‘… was unable to recognize fear among facial expression.’

Why is the use of sanpaku eyes in cinema such a successful device?

If a character is unable to recognise fear and lacks empathy, we’re talking about a psychopath – check out the character Dr Hannibal Lecter below.

Sanpaku Eyes

What can cause amygdala dysfunction?

Cohen et al (Early-life stress has persistent effects on amygdala function and development in mice and humans)4, states ‘their study provides evidence of early and persistent alterations in anxious behaviour and amygdala function following the early-life stress of disorganized parental care.’

So a character with sanpaku eyes can be shown to have had a traumatic upbringing without actually including the characters childhood as part of the narrative.

Sanpaku Eyes

A damaged amygdala can certainly affect a person’s personality and emotions or lack of emotional response, and there’s no denying the effect sanpaku eyes have on an audience watching a film: The feeling of impending doom for a character or the warning of hidden evil in another.

But whether there’s scientific merit for sanpaku eyes is certainly up for debate.

The shift in the iris due to a change in the amygdala could be a stretch (a downward shift known as sunset eyes in an infant can be caused by hydrocephalus which is a build-up of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain).  However, the use of sanpaku eyes in cinema is a clever devise as the reaction feels innate.  The feeling that something is wrong.

Hard to miss the evil emanating from the eyes of the witch from Disney’s, Cinderella.  And going by the theory mentioned above, the witch wouldn’t see our fear, all she’d see is prey.

  1. Spearman, T (2011) The Psychopath: Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?
  2. Fudge et al. (1998) Considering the Role of the Amygdala in Psychotic Illness: A Clinicopathological Correlation. J Neuropsychiatry 10(4):383-394
  3. Adolphs R, Tranel D, Damasio H, et al (1994) Impaired recognition of emotion in facial expressions following bilateral damage to the human amygdala.  Nature 372:669-672
  4. Malter Cohen et al. (2013) Early-life stress has persistent effects on amygdala function and development in mice and humans. PNAS 110(45): 18274-18278.

The Witch: A New-England Folktale

GoMovieReviews Rating:

Director and Writer: Robert EggersThe Witch: A New-England Folktale

Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson; Bathsheba Garrett.

A serious film that picks at the heart of our psyche – being part of the social group versus apart and left in isolation, waiting for the devil in the woods.

In the 17th century, being cast out meant the threat of starvation, lack of others outside the family for partners and left at the mercy of the elements.  A time for belief in God.  But not in the winter time.  The creaking of the pine trees speak of winter.  The witches are the only ones who can survive in the forest.

The Witch is an authentic film pulling the audience back to times where evil is present because life is just as cruel.

I can understand the worship of nature where the power is unknown.  God is the only amulet against the power of the forest.  But when God was most exalted and prayed upon, He was most absent.

To control the nature of man equals control of the elements.  It’s a cruel concept.  And depicted so well in this film.

A failed crop would equate the man failing to provide through lack of work or lack of faith.  The enslavement of women to the care of children, to clean and cook.  If the woman rebelled it was because she was faithless.  And you can imagine the temptation to run off naked into the forest to become a witch.  But this film depicted the true horror of witchcraft.  The taking and killing of babies to make lotions, to make them young; to be able to fly.

It was subtle, how Director and Writer Robert Eggers showed the disintegration of this family.  The Sanpaku eyes, where the white part of the eye is visible under the iris representing approaching danger; the attraction of accidents and violence – The ignorance of the skill of dogs sensing danger.  And the soundtrack was used well to keep the film moving forward.

However, I admit, I was bored at times.

I can understand why Robert Eggers won the Sundance directing award for this movie.  And I want to give full credit, but I can’t because it was just such a dry film.  Deep but dry.

Worth a watch with the concept handled well until the frightening conclusion.

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