There were others, they brought me flowers, but this one was different. He brought me a perfectly dissected frog, put it in a little shoe box, wrapped a red bow around it. He wanted me to see what one should look like, dissected properly, plus it saved me from having to do it myself and then we could spend more time together. I wanted to show him where to get me some flowers but only because he hadn’t yet.~ T.S.
When it comes to horror, I might not be an aficionado, but, then again, I know a couple of things.
The first horror movies that I ever watched were monster movies, movies involving insects the size of houses having become so as they were affected by radiation or some such other lab accident, and the like. There was one about ants and I remember one about this giant tarantula, hey…it was called “Tarantula.” There were episodes of the Outer Limits that I was so young when I watched them that what I remember about them is understanding that they were conceptually bizarre, the introduction of a different perspective. Those shows are where it started. Perry Mason, old detective shows, and westerns, to the Twilight Zone, and Night Gallery. While I was still in grade school, there was “Creature Features,” hosted by Bob Wilkins. I’ve long tried to remember the name of the first horror movie that I watched on Creature Features, it was set at a high school, some kind of monster, gruesomely killed in the chemistry lab, that was about 1979 but I’ve no idea what year the movie was from, the 60’s or 70’s. I didn’t realize how many monster movies I had seen until I started to write this, but some of us watched Creature Features every Saturday night, fifties Sci-fi, the Godzilla movies that after a while sort of all fused together into the same Godzilla movie, Vincent Price movies. “The Omega Man” was fantastic, based on a Vincent Price film, “The Last Man on Earth” later remade again as, “I am Legend” and I thought they did a good job with that, all spawned by the Richard Matheson story, “I am Legend.”
There was a time when I had thought~ “I don’t like horror movies, I don’t like horror stories.” But what I realized was I don’t like such things in my real life. Most people don’t. And that while it is generally true that I don’t care for horror stories, what I do appreciate are films that are well made, well done, regardless of genre, stories that are well written, well told.
The first horror story I ever heard was The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. This is the macabre, this is the darkened lane, arched trees hanging boughs, the rustle of dried foliage, the snap of twigs, the pounding of hooves, the whistling whir of the wind that echoes in the whoosh of the night, the full moon high in the darkness, the perfect cloud passing, the air tinged with the smell of rain, the pounding …of a heart beat. Then there was Poe’s “The Raven,” the repetition of the poem building the tension, the rhythm creating, building, sensation of dread. When I read, I don’t have a favorite genre or type of book that I like to read other than one that is well written. One of the most suspenseful books I’ve ever read is “Christine,” by Stephen King, a story about a killer car that had me looking out the window every time a car drove passed the house. If I have a favorite horror novel, it is “The Stand,” also by Stephen King, though I think that “The Shining” is truly frightening, and the novel “The Amityville Horror,” by Jay Anson, is terrifying as well.
My favorite horror film is “Halloween.” (Not my favorite film ever, my favorite film within the horror genre. Notation here also that I’ve since seen “Only Lovers Left Alive” and while one might argue that it is something of a Gothic romance, I would have to say that at present, it is my favorite horror film.))
From the beginning moments of the movie “Halloween” there is something different about it. From the opening scene the initial crime is depicted, an innocent looking little boy in a clown suit, wearing a mask, wielding a deadly weapon, but what we don’t know is why. From there, a monster movie of a different kind unfolds, the asylum, a doctor talking about Thorazine, and the gates are open, “Since when do let them wander around?” asks the nurse.
Carpenter doesn’t hold back, this thing is moving, but not giving everything away and still managing to build suspense because you know the ride is just getting started. The good doctor doesn’t refer to the missing suspect as a person, he says “The EVIL is gone.” and it’s Donald Pleasence so you believe this is serious. From there, everything in Haddonfield is seemingly normal. We feel like we could know these people, the characters are all particularly ordinary, doing ordinary things, we feel like we could be them, they remind us of our friends, of people we know, but it’s happening on Halloween, and there is no more brilliant plot device than that. Carpenter owns that plot device by keeping things decidedly low-key, almost monotone, in places.
We are shown that Laurie is smart, sitting in class, day dreaming, looking out the window at a strange car parked at the curb, distracted, she still manages to come up with the right answer to the question when asked by the teacher.
Laurie: “Costaine wrote that fate was related somehow only to religion, whereas Samuels felt that fate was like a natural element, like earth, air, fire or water.”
Teacher : “That’s right, Samuels definitely personified fate. In Samuels writing fate is immovable, like a mountain, it stands where man passes away, fate never changes.”
The seeds. Laurie turns back to the window and the creepy unknown vehicle is gone. Most of us can relate to this, to daydreaming in class, to seeing what seems odd or out-of-place but really, what was it? Was someone behind us? What was that shadow moving in our peripheral vision? As Laurie daydreams and wanders distracted through her day, we become lulled, her distraction becomes ours. Additionally, she is portrayed as nicer than her friends, while their conversation strays to sarcasm, her friend Annie calling out to the strange car, challenging their unknown stalker, and Lynda ( PJ Soles ` Rock n Roll High School) talking incessantly about sex, we begin to sense Laurie’s isolation, her loneliness, her friends all have make-out plans but Laurie, she’s going to babysit, carve pumpkins, cover for her friends and hold out for the guy she really likes, hoping all the while that her friends don’t embarrass the hell out of her about it. We begin to care about Laurie, becoming emotionally invested in her well-being.
Laurie is walking home from school, is she going to make it?
Stephen King’s Carrie comes to mind as another story where this plot device is used, when the doors to the gymnasium begin slamming shut we are rooting for the bloodshed, we hope she gets them all.
The building of tension, the creation of doubt, the quiet moments in between the jumps, and then there are the false jumps. Laurie and Annie are walking home, Laurie sees someone standing on the sidewalk ahead of them, stepped out from behind the hedge, Annie doesn’t. The moment passes, Annie goes into her house, Laurie turns around and runs into Annie’s father, a police officer, we jump, startled with Laurie. The tension built by the previous scene. We think it fizzled. We think it’s done and then, jump! But it’s nothing, it’s only Annie’s father…so now…we don’t trust the tension, pushing us closer to the edge of our seat, we don’t know if next time it will really be the bad guy.
Spielberg uses this false jump in Jaws, when Dreyfus is examining the hull of the boat and the severed victim pops out. He, Spielberg, said he knew could only do that once, the false jump, because the audience wouldn’t fall for it twice.
Suspense, tension~ what our mind, our imagination does with what it doesn’t know.
Horror…horror is when we know. Scary is …What is that, did you see that? Let’s take a peek…
Horror is…OH my God, that’s a chainsaw. Oh my God, that’s him.
Suspense is not knowing, horror is in the realization.
Uncertainty and certainty.
For fans of the movie the documentary about the making of Halloween is worth seeing. The film was shot in twenty-two days on a minimal budget, Carpenter and his then girlfriend and co-writer Debra Hill became their own on site production company, recycling props right down to the cast having to collect the spray painted leaves after every scene they were used in, putting them in plastic bags for the next scene. There is a scene, where Laurie sees Michael step out from behind the hedge, and Annie doesn’t see him, after they walk past the hedge you can see a puff of smoke from Carpenters cigarette and the head of one of the crew in the upper right of the screen. More than one cast member donned the mask during production, made for 325k, they had to make do. It is a masterpiece.
The film Halloween changed the way I thought about horror because the scenes of “every day” life were believable. This is something that “Nightmare on Elm Street” tries to do and fails at, doesn’t mean it isn’t still a scary movie, but it’s a different kind of horror. Whereas “Nightmare” deals with a supernatural element that is, in this case, completely unbelievable fantasy so that during the scariest moments of the film, our brains still know, it is not possible, “Halloween” deals with something that seems not only plausible on some level but possible, an escapee on a spree. We’ve heard of things like that in the news. The initial screenings of “Halloween” were shown without the now famous music, the response was not encouraging. After the music was added, Carpenter’s own composition, the tone of the film changed, as did the response, a movie that might have otherwise failed or at least would not have done as well, became a success. The music created a layer of suspense that had not been there, without it, there are scenes that come off almost comical. Perhaps all horror walks this fine line between the absurd and the terrifying.
What about horror in literature?
The roots of that from my perspective, for modern horror in literature, Stephen King, no question. Because while Anne Rice takes on witches and vampires, Stephen King presents the truly scary, the monsters within seemingly average people who become so affected by something in their lives that it twists them into an unnatural reflection of the thing that twisted them.
Personally I hadn’t realized how many King novels I’d read when I was younger, but when a writer can make a monster car, Christine, so frightening and believable that you’re looking out your window every time one drives past, that’s pretty amazing. Like no other writer Stephen King presents the slow deterioration of the average person. “All work and no play…” He presents the angst of a man destroyed by the loss of his family, burying them in a cemetery for pets, hoping to bring them back to life and while the plot is, on the surface of it, laughable, unbelievable, we become enthralled because the emotion is real, palpable, we understand, we sympathize, and the results are the epitome of the idiom, “Be careful what you wish for.”
But what builds to this crescendo of horror?
The answer is in the question.
Builds to crescendo.
The idea is no different from what creates the rise to passion in a romance, or, a love story.
In a romance or a love story, we are waiting for the moment of consummation, be it a kiss or the actual sex act, making love, or the break up, the climax of that situation and then the summation, hanging ending or happy ending.
Horror is the same, but the anticipation is different, it’s the next blow, or the threat of it, the next cut, the next thing that makes us flinch, what builds the anticipation is not the longing looks, the stares, the shared secrets, but instead perhaps a threat that creates the tension and ironically, what we hope for with horror is really the same thing we hope for with a love story, a happy ending, but with horror the happy ending is sometimes simply that bad guy, or girl, is caught, or that evil is stopped, thus ending the carnage.
With horror, the happy ending is sometimes simply a sense of relief at the end of the story and with horror, sometimes there isn’t that clean clear happy ending. This is a device borrowed from the old Saturday afternoon serials known as “Cliff Hangers” and what we now recognize as something that spawns sequels.
The reason that I began to consider horror in a different way is because my own writing has slowly veered toward darker subjects. As a sense of bitterness, betrayal, and sometimes a sense of seething anger started to creep into my poetry and prose, the macabre, where was that coming from? That was never there before. Sure it was, I hadn’t been looking. It’s a matter of perspective, “Wuthering Heights” is horror, disguised in a Gothic romance, but horror none the less. Cathy marries for money, Heathcliff gets all messed up about it, Cathy gets sick, that is not a happy story. If anything, it’s a tragedy. I think it comes from disillusionment, more than actual bitterness. It comes from a frustration, from trying to understand our own pain and the deterioration of the world around us. Knowing the movies that I watched, the books I read, the amount of true crime and noir, it was always there, the darker elements strange to me because I didn’t realize it but it’s like yep, I was staying up late watching suspenseful movies, reading horror novels,( true) crime novels, Alfred Hitchcock, Creature Features. I think the turn towards dark fiction, perhaps some horror, is a natural progression, perhaps a good outlet. Some people say it’s a curious nature but I think it’s more likely a suspicious mind, some of us are pretty sure we saw something moving in the tall grass, in the shadows. I like to take things apart.
Drag the monsters out from under the bed and kill them.
I could be busy with that for awhile.
( I really do understand Kolchak, I mean it’s his job to wrestle with the…never mind.)
Random Notes~ so to speak~
Donald Pleasance, the three Chris’ ~ Plummer, Lee and Sarandon, John Carpenter, Wes Craven, Stephen King, Alfred Hitchcock, Romero, The Thing, The Fog, The Shining, Midnight Offerings ~I think the movie The Craft was based on this however loosely but it’s all the seventh daughter stuff ( “you’re the seventh son of a seventh son” ` some old Sheena Easton tune…Sheena, Tanya Roberts, you guys, I know), sometimes horror is campy ~ there’s a scene in one of the Night of the Living Dead movies, the one with the cherry pie filling for brains, 1984 I think ( not googling right now) and there’s a dog cut in half that comes back to life, starts barking ~ my best friend and I laughed our asses off at that, I know, then there’s Freddy, Jason ~ Friday the 13th, the Final Chapter that really wasn’t, saw it in a theater full of other teenagers on Friday the 13th, total hi-jinx, there’s a movie called The Sentinel, Chris Sarandon, Christina Raines creepy scary stuff, watched that again in the last year and still scary, Oh and Jeff Goldblum as Mr. Frost, creeeeepy, Night of the Comet for the well-rounded campy zombie reference, vampires aren’t my thing ( Lost Boys movie is good of course but only because its anti vampire) but there’s an old vamp movie, Near Dark, Lance Henrikson, Adrian Pasdar, white trash vamps on the lamb, ha, ha, and as vampire writers go, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, just watched An American Werewolf in London again the other night, ( remember that 80’s tv show Makin It? that lasted about five minutes…”I’m solid gold, I’ve got the goods, I stand when I walk through the neighborhood I’m makin it…” …I had the 45…) anyway, well that was David Naughton ( told you I wasn’t googling, took a break and was like…oh…damn it… where did I get Michael McNaughton from? with this many references, did David Naughton and Michael Myers have a baby name it Michael McNaughton and sneak it onto my blog? ), the guy from American Werewolf in London, ( hey, didn’t he make a Dr. Pepper commercial? He sure did.) the other guy, incidentally is Griffin Dunne who went from actor to writer and director, producer, his father, Dominick, (he’s quit the game since then) is the reason I started reading a particular magazine, for the true crime stories of the rich and famous~ he covered the OJ trial, great writers, what else…The Invisible Man is a must see, pun,( I know I haven’t mentioned Scream, there I mentioned it) in recent years, I actually thought The Ring was pretty good, Paranormal Activity, though I’ve only seen the first one, Emily Rose was scary, only watched that once, got in, got out on that one… another old one…They Live (obey) Roddy Piper, “I came here to kick ass and chew gum..” is that the line? ~ But to begin with…Night of the Living Dead, Les Diaboliques….don’t want to give it all away…these are old references, the roots of horror.
You didn’t think I was screwing around did you? I study, I take notes, with a pen. ( that’s something of a roundabout ‘Ghostbusters’ reference. Bill Murray apparently didn’t ‘study’ his lines sometimes, so they ad-libbed quite a bit on set, including a scene where he didn’t know his lines and says, “See, no studying.” )
Footnote: Author Dominick Dunne passed away in 2009, he was a brilliant writer whose work I thoroughly enjoyed reading. I meant no disrespect, was rolling.
Categories: Classics, creature feature, Halloween, horror, Observations, resilience, transcendence, transformation, Vampire, vampires, werewolf, werewolves, Witch, Wolf, wolfman, Wolves, Woman, wrangle, writing, you want fries with that?, zombies