Points of Light Halloween Edition: The Fog
First, I wish to apologize for my lack of a post last week. I was the victim of a heavy work schedule, and simply couldn’t find the time to write anything for you. However, I will hopefully be making up for it this week with the start of a special series. With October, and therefore, Halloween just over the horizon, I could see no better time to discuss writing in the horror genre. So for the next four weeks, I will be using Points of Light to cite examples of horror stories that stand as strong examples of the written craft, through not only books, but also movies and any other source that provides a strong example. And to begin, let’s dive into an oft overlooked, but surprisingly strong example of well-told horror- John Carpenter’s The Fog.
The Fog is the story of Antonio Bay, a California town celebrating it’s centennial. However, the town priest has recently uncovered a dark secret concerning the town’s founders. Apparently, the money to build the town came from the stolen funds of a wealthy man looking to build a leper colony near the town; the founders used a false beacon to crash the wealthy man’s ship onto the cliffs, and plundered the gold to build the town. That very night, a fog starts rolling over the bay, bringing with it the remains of the ship, and it’s undead crew, looking for revenge against the town that was built on their deaths.
What Writers Can Learn: Suspense, Dual Natures, Using the Reader’s Imagination
One of the great devices of this film is how well it takes a simple object (fog) and makes it frightening and mysterious. Carpenter first has a stranger series of events occur across the town (electrical devices turning on and off in the middle of the night, the priest’s discovery, and a mysterious plank of wood from the doomed ship), which tell the viewer that strange things are coming. By doing so, he builds the fog up before it even appears on screen. This is especially effective, since many horror stories use the idea of being lost in the fog with a monster, but here, it is used as the monster (since it holds the undead inside it). The idea is now revitalized, along with the basic human fear of being lost in the fog in a desperate situation. The very sight of that white blanket of mist drifting into town is enough to send the people into a panic, and sends tingles up the viewer’s spine because we all know the horrors contained inside, but not what they will do next. When the main characters run in fear, we can feel their terror, and become addicted to knowing what has to happen next.
The monsters inside the fog are also examples of horror done well. While in today’s horror field, much is done with CGI and prosthetics, the ghosts inside the fog are given little to no definition. They are deptetcied as dark, red-eyed beings, always keeping to the shadows. The viewer is never given a clear vision of their faces, though hints are given when one is briefly shown as green and rotting. As such, the viewer has to make their own concept of what the creatures look like after years underwater, and therefore, everyone’s fear is much more personal and terrifying to them. This is a vital part of good horror storytelling- finding a way to make the fear universal, which is done here by making it personal.
Finally, the film also gives the ghosts a surprising dual nature. Remember, these are ghosts of innocent, sick people, who wanted to live apart from others and were unjustly murdered. Their desire for revenge is sympathic, and while we are frightened of them, it is hard to not understand their motivations. It raises the question of whether or not the townspeople should suffer for the actions of their ancestors. Indeed, the ghosts only ‘leave’ when the last living descendant of their murderers is sacrificed. Did the townspeople deserve to be punished for honoring murderers all these years? Or should they be exempt? It’s a question that nags at the viewer after the film, and for a good while after that.
While John Carpenter has made more famous films, The Fog is one of the best constructed ghost stories in his, and any catalogue (though the modern remake should be avoided at all costs). The suspense is built up slowly, but surely, with much of the visuals left to the personal imagination of the viewer. This is a film that could easily be translated into a book for those same reasons. Good horror and suspense comes from properly building the mood and atmosphere, and then giving readers something that is personally frightening for them, because it comes from their own minds. And asking some questions about guilt and punishment along the way never hurts. In fact, next week’s entry will delve into punishment even more, with a glance at one of the most frightening proms ever… ‘till next time, boils and ghouls.