Friday, July 1, 2011

Writing primal fears


Have you seen the trailer from the upcoming movie Are You Afraid of the Dark yet?

I wasn't aware of it until the other night, when I had the TV on while typing up a scene I wrote at work. I was really just using the TV for background music, and I wasn't paying very close attention. At that point, a truncated version of this trailer came on. (Or maybe the rest of the trailer played and I just didn't notice it? It wouldn't be terribly surprising.)

Anyway, I saw the last 30 seconds or so of this trailer here, where the young protagonist is crawling under her bed, you see her pushing her way through the sheets, and... well, after that, I was definitely paying attention. My mom and I actually texted each other at the same time to say, "Uh, did you see that?"

It all made sense when I saw that Guillermo del Toro had a hand in it. The horror auteur is best known for nightmare-inducing movies like The Orphanage, The Devil's Backbone, and of course, Pan's Labyrinth. But it got me thinking about writing horror.

Of all fiction, I think horror is the most subjective, because fear is one of the most subjective emotions there is. As a lover of all things creepy, I can't tell you how many times I've watched/read a scary story and thought, "I wish there was more of [this] and less of [that]." I complain about it so often that when I got that reaction to my own manuscript recently, it made me laugh. It's karma!

But there's a vein of horror that runs through almost everyone: primal fears. Stories that tap into the nightmares of our childhoods and bring them back in full force. A primal fear turns the familiar into the unfamiliar, and turns our safe places into the most dangerous. Here are some of my favorite uses in books and movies. (Beware of spoilers!)

Coraline: The entire premise, full stop. The most terrifying thing about the world behind the door is that it's so similar to Coraline's own, even better - but the sinister undercurrent runs through the story from the beginning. The movie is great for the chilling visuals, but I love the tension in Gaiman's rich prose.

Ju-on/The Grudge: This movie scared me so badly in high school, I watched it over and over to inoculate myself to it. Nowadays I generally just torture people by imitating the onryo-style death rattle, but there's one sequence that I still admire for how thoroughly it terrifies people. One of the characters is chased home by the vengeful ghost, and to calm herself down, she climbs into bed and turns on the TV. The news reporter's face slowly distorts into a twisted, horrific image, and when the character hides under the covers, she finds the ghost in her bed with her. I feel like every other J-horror movie is just trying to recreate this scene.

The Monkey's Paw: In this classic short story, the main characters come by a talisman that grants their wishes in all the wrong ways. When one wish takes the life of their son, the mother wishes him back to life, but the father, knowing that their son has come back wrong, uses their last wish to send him back. There are two things about this that still make me shiver: the idea that someone you know and love can be changed that way, and the fact that the protagonists never see their 'resurrected' son. It's really no wonder that the climactic scene has inspired so many homages, including a Buffy episode.

The Orphanage: On the whole, I find this movie more sad than scary, but it has a few classic scares (read: Tomas in general, my God.) But I think my favorite part is when the protagonist plays Red Light Green Light with the spirits of the orphans. Childhood games in general are a goldmine for traumatic scares - especially since so many of them have darker undertones.

Lake Mungo: This littler-known Australian horror film is much more low-key than the others on this list. The focus of the faux-documentary is mostly on the grief of a middle-class family after their daughter drowns. But the movie's implication that death is something that follows you stayed with me much more effectively than any scene in Final Destination ever did. And the personification of death... I won't spoil it, but it's a perfect example of the familiar turned unfamiliar.

The Shining: If you're about to tell me that you can turn a corner in a quiet hotel without hesitating a little, you are such a liar. "Come play with us, Danny. Forever... and ever... and ever..."

Oops - that got long. As you can see, I'm a little passionate about horror! If any of you are still with me, what are some of your favorite primal fear-related scares in fiction?

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