Happy Halloween, everyone! Seems an appropriate day to address this subject.
By “horror,” I’m talking about the fiction genre. This isn’t going to be some kind of Nietzsche-ian rant about embracing the inherent horror of existence. If you want that, you’ll have to look elsewhere. (You also might want to consider lightening the hell up.)
This is strictly about how books and movies with monsters in them tend to be pretty freakin awesome.
I could talk about the roller coaster adrenaline rush of horror fiction. But for now, I’d rather talk about the artistry.
Now, I know that some serious literature types would snort into their cognac at the preposterousness of using the word “artistry” to describe horror fiction. As I’d be the first to admit, I’m a man of simple tastes. I like my genre fiction.
Let’s leave the subject of literature for a second and talk about visual art, as in paintings. Personally, I’m not a big fan of abstract art. The whole idea of a painting a light blue stripe on a dark blue background and saying it represents the existential despair of life in the post-industrial age seems too easy somehow. Representational art may be the domain of bourgeois Philistines like myself. But it at least sets a baseline for craftsmanship, for competence, that the artist has to reach before accomplishing anything else.
The representational artist can still make her painting into a statement about existential despair in the post-industrial age if she’s so inclined. But she first has to achieve enough competence in her craft to make buildings look like buildings and people look like people.
That’s why I’m a fan of vaudeville-style entertainment such as juggling and stage magic. There’s also that element of a baseline level of craftsmanship before you can achieve anything else. Want to incorporate some social commentary into your juggling routine? Go ahead. But make sure those balls stay in the air. Want to turn your magic act into avant garde theater meant to illustrate profound truths about the human condition? Fine, as long as the audience doesn’t see that card go up your sleeve.
So it is with two genres of writing in particular — humor and horror. (And for the purposes of this post, I’ll expand “writing” to include movie screenplays.)
When I was on a writers panel at the Western Md. Independent Lit Festival at Frostburg State University earlier this month, I mentioned a quote by the great writer Joe Hill to the effect that humor and horror operate by essentially the same mechanism.That made sense to me. Humor and horror must both have two components to work — transgression and surprise.
But another similarity between humor and horror is that both require that baseline level of craftsmanship I was discussing. As with literary fiction, you can use them to explore whatever topic or theme you want. That’s not enough. In the case of humor, you have to provoke amusement in your audience or readership. And in the case of horror, you have to generate fear.
Nowhere near as easy as you might think, in the case of horror. Just throw in a monster, a killer or a ghost, right? Add a few jump scares. The monster jumping out of the closet or whatever. Then call it a day.
It’s a lot more complicated than that, especially if you’re writing for horror fans. They know all the conventions. Adhere to those conventions too closely, and the story becomes predictable to a point where it’s no longer scary, or even interesting. Ditch all the conventions entirely, and the story’s probably not going to work. The reason those conventions exist in the first place is because they’re effective.
A good horror author, or director, walks a fine line. He has to rely on certain conventions and techniques to get effects, yet wield them with enough creativity and innovation that he achieves the element of surprise so crucial to his chosen genre.
It doesn’t have to be anything really elaborate, either. Simplicity often yields the best results.
Prime example? During the panel, I mentioned the 1982 movie “Poltergeist.” (Written by Steven Spielberg, and directed by the great Tobe Hooper of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” fame.) Specifically, I brought up the scene with the toy clown, and knew I’d hit a nerve. You could practically feel a shudder run around the room as people relived the first moment they saw that scene.
Bit of a spoiler coming up here, so be forewarned if you haven’t seen “Poltergeist.”
Anyway, sure it’s scary as hell when the animated toy clown reappears to attack the kid. But the REALLY scary part comes before that. The kid looks at the toy clown, sitting in the chair and staring at him with that creepy rictus grin. The kid makes a visible effort not to think about it as he pulls up the sheets and attempts to sleep. He can’t stop thinking about it, of course. He pulls down the sheets to check on that clown one more time. And the chair … is empty.
Think of the movies with hugely expensive setpieces and CGI effects that don’t achieve one tenth of one percent of the soul-chilling terror that “Poltergeist” pulled off by the mere act of removing a toy clown from a chair.
THAT, my friends, is artistry!