Happy Halloween Eve! Lots of things are happening: Stranger Things season 2 has been released, the fair is in town, people (including me) are preparing their costumes for tomorrow night, and the ghosts are getting ready to come out and play.
I’ve mentioned this month that I’ve been watching a ton of horror films, and I think this would be a good time for me to share something: I used to HATE scary movies. Scary books, I could read those all days. In fact, I was the girl in high school who hunkered down in her desk over a copy of The Complete Works of Edgar Allen Poe. But scary movies? Nope! I would not touch. I remember hiding in my bedroom when my family watched Insidious, my ears plugged with earbuds and some funny show blaring from my laptop. Whenever my friends wanted to watch a scary movie at sleepovers growing up, I would fight tooth and nail for anything else, and when I lost I’d spend the rest of the night with eyes wide open, as every creak of the house turned into a knife slashing maniac intent on murdering me.
Reading a book is different from watching a movie, as I’m sure everyone knows. While reading, and while conjuring an image in my brain of whatever beast haunted the pages, I could tone it down, make it less scary than intended. No such luck in movies; the monsters lurk, run, and jump out at any given moment, giving no attention to the viewer’s preferences.
This fear went on for a while, through high school and some of college. But then something shifted; part of growing up, I suppose, is realizing the truly terrifying things in the world aren’t found on screens.
Once I stopped being afraid of them, I realized scary movies had a sort of beauty, a teaching moment I hadn’t been able to see through my fears. I talked last week about learning from TV shows and movies to show but don’t tell. Horror films show; there on the screen is the suspense I so want to capture on pages, there is the tension, there is the scream. This month I’ve paid attention to the movies and shows I’ve watched and the lessons they’ve taught me. Here are my top five picks that I found the most interesting and helpful for my writing:
- Halloween. Let’s start with this classic. I kicked off Halloween month with John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) because, well, you just have to. The film has all the suspense I want in my writing, but in a subtle way. Most of the killings happen in the second half of the movie, and even those are done quietly, with victims silenced before they can even scream. I think that is the most chilling part, the silence of the whole thing. Michael Myers never speaks. He walks slowly, and he murders with no apparent rhyme or reason. The film does a good job of dehumanizing Myers, with his pale mask with its black eyes that matche the doctor’s description of his actual face, and with the children calling him the Bogeyman. But then scenes shown from his perspective, and the two scenes where his face is shown – as a child and as an adult at the end – juxtapose that dehumanization and show someone whom we might see walking down the street. Don’t get me wrong; Myers is a monster. But it’s the fact that he wears the face of an average man behind the mask that makes him all the more terrifying.
- A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010). I chose this version of the movie because, one, I’ve never seen the original, and two, everyone I’ve talked to about the original says the remake is better. In the remake you have Freddy Kreuger, doing his thing, killing teenagers in their dreams, but then there’s more. The movie details a backstory for Freddy, and with it a mystery blooms. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t watched, but there may be a point in the movie where you sympathize with the killer – for a little while at least. Then there are the dream scenes, which blend in so well with the scenes when the characters are awake – especially when they are so sleep deprived that they begin to dream while they are awake. This movie definitely transcends normal horror, as we, along with the characters, piece together what happened in the past, and decide what’s real and not real as dreams become reality.
- IT (2017). Ah, IT. Did I even need to clarify that I’m talking about the movie this year? No offense to anyone who loved the TV series, but I just could not fall in love with that (though I did watch it after the movie, so perhaps that influenced my opinion). There are so many things to love about IT: the humor that breaks up the horror, the chilling appearance of Pennywise the Dancing Clown, the scares that go beyond simple jump scares. But what really got me were the kids. The dialogue between the characters was superb, and so realistic for a bunch of thirteen-year-olds. And this was new to me: kids in a scary movie and not being the scary part. It was interesting, seeing how children react to beasts and horror and comparing it to how adults and teenagers react. Then of course there was the parallel between the bullies and IT, with the fear they create acting as a sort of battery for the actual terror they exhibit. I recommend this movie to anyone and everyone, especially to writers who tell stories from the perspective of children.
- Stranger Things. This is another show where kids are just superb. The first season begins when a boy mysteriously disappears, and while looking for him his friends come across a “strange” girl. The following episodes detail the search for the boy by three groups, and this is what I really like: the three groups represent different age groups. There’s the kids’ group with the boy’s friends and the girl; the teen group that includes the boy’s brother; and the adult group with the boy’s mother and the town police chief. Just like how I liked seeing the different ways kids react to horror, I liked seeing how the different groups reacted to the strange things happening around them: the kids find it cool, the teens want to fight it, and the adults want answers. Each group finds victory in their own separate missions, but the way they come to those victories contrasts heavily with the methods of the others. Again, this isn’t something I want to spoil so you’ll have to watch the series to learn more about the strange happenings, but if you do I promise you won’t regret it.
- Scream. Another classic, though it technically isn’t a “horror” movie. I spent most of childhood being terrified of Ghostface, and it made Halloween pretty rough. I’d scream hysterically if I caught sight of that mask, even if it was worn by someone across the street from me. And when they got the fake blood pump? Ugh. Then I watched the movie one afternoon my first year of college and… I fell in love. This satirical take on slasher-type movies is pure gold. The movie breaks the fourth wall of horror films in what I can only describe as a sophisticated manner. I mean, who can forget that iconic “scary movie rules” scene? It’s a movie that makes fun of itself and others like it, and it will make you laugh, cringe, and, yes, scream. It’s a must watch for any satire writers out there.
What movies, horror or otherwise, have taught you a thing or two about writing?