Monthly Archives: October 2015

Points of Light Halloween Edition: The Exorcist

The-Exorcist

Welcome back to the graveyard.  Since this year, we end our Halloween Edition on Halloween, it’s only fitting we conclude with a horror classic in both film and literature.  Grab your crucifixes, practice your crab walk, and get ready for a pea soup barrage, as we examine the basis for the most frightening film of all time- William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist.

 

The Story

The elderly priest Father Merrin, a veteran of past exorcisms, uncovers evidence in Iraq that a new confrontation with evil awaits him.  Simultaneously in Washington D.C., Chris McNeil is filming a movie when strange occurrences began to surround her daughter Regan.  Regan’s bed literally begins to shake, odd noises are heard in the house, and Regan herself begins to change, becoming angry and withdrawn, and using previously unheard of profanity.  Chris believes the changes are due to her divorce, but as Regan fails to respond to conventional medicine, and the changes start becoming horrifyingly physical, Chris believes that her daughter is possessed.

Father Karras, a priest/counselor is sought out by Chris. Karras is undergoing his own crisis of faith, and at first will only see Regan as a therapist.  But his sessions also convince him of possession, and he implores the local bishop for permission to perform an exorcism.  However, the bishop assigns Merrin, who is more experienced, but allows Karras to assist.  They begin a lengthy and draining exorcism, which eventually kills the older Merrin.  Karras then forces the demon into his own body and throws himself out the window, killing himself.  His last moments are as he responds to a fellow priest giving the last rites.

What Writers Can Learn: Build Up, Use of Imagery

Widely regarded as one of the staples of horror, The Exorcist is not only powerful because of its frights, but it is also prime examples of two powerful writing tools.  The first is its excellent use of build up.  The possession is set up beautifully throughout the novel.  Father’s Merrin’s early excursions are hinted at and we get our first sense that a greater evil is coming.  But the character of Regan is where the buildup truly takes place.  We are introduced to a child that is happy, loved, and by all examples, an innocent.  Then the changes start.  We see the innocence fade away, replaced sullenness and distance.  As the possession grows, we see this happy child letting out profanities that would terrify a Navy sailor.  Regan is jerked around by the horrific physical possession, from her room being tossed around, to the infamous crabwalk down the stairs.  As she grows sicker, her body and face becoming twisted and horrible, we are revolted by the transformation.  But no matter how much we see, how much we may think that we’ve seen the worst, there is always something around the corner to horrify us further.

That leads into our second point- the use of imagery.  Obviously, the film makes tremendous use of imagery.  Regan is whipped around her bed, and we see her face become yellow and scarred, her body become emaciated.  We hear her voice become dark and terrifying.  But while the film will also work beautifully as a visual medium, the descriptions in the book are equally terrifying.
The book describes in detail certain Satanic practices, including the vilification of holy items.  These are often described as sexual in nature, and it is no wonder the book caused controversy.  The idea of holy implements being misused is disturbing for anyone with religious beliefs to envision, and perhaps even to those without.  But there is a particular scene in the book that is impossible to forget.  While I cannot fully describe it here, it involves the possessed Regan and the use of a crucifix.  The scene is horrifying on several levels.  It indicates the level on control the demon has over Regan, and how much she has changed.  It shows the disregard and misuse of holy artifacts, and makes us wonder just how much power that evil really has.  And most of all, when we imagine a child be misused and changed to this extent, one thought that comes across our mind is ‘why.’  But here, there is no why, no answer.  It is a reminder of the randomness of evil and that no one, not even the innocent, are safe from its impact.  It is a scene that resonates on so many levels, and while it may be difficult to imagine, it was included in the film.  Because sometimes, the images that disturb us, are the ones that affect us the most.

Further Reading

 

Obviously, the film version is well worth a watch, but its sequels are hit and miss.  Its immediate sequel, The Heretic is considered one of the worst films ever made, but the third film, directed by author William Peter Blatty, is a much more competent supernatural crime story.  There are also two prequels focusing on Father Merrin, but they are not worth examining.  There is also The Omen and Rosemary’s Baby which also focus on demonic children.  Blatty himself has several other novels, including Legion and Elsewhere, for more supernatural chills.

And with that, we close up the graveyard for another year.  But we’ll be back again… won’t we?  Happy Halloween!

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Points of Light Halloween Edition: The Twilight Zone

th

Welcome back to the graveyard.  But today, we’re venturing past the cemetery gates into someplace new.  A dimension not only of sight and sound, but of a mind.  A world between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his imagination.  Today, we examine the television classic that is Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone.

 

The Background

 

Rod Serling grew up as a fan of pulp magazines.  But as an adult, he was fascinated by stories about heavier topics- society, racism, government, and human nature itself.  Prior to the creation of Zone, Serling was already a major television name, having written several dramas, but also criticizing the limitations TV forced upon him (such as not being to discuss current events in his political drama The Arena).  Eventually, Serling was able to produce a special called The Time Element, which dealt with a man’s dreams of time travel becoming real.  The special was well received, and Serling was able to work out a deal with CBS to create an anthology series.  Serling himself hosted each episode, and wrote or adapted most of the stories, which in general were science fiction, but usually functioned on commentary on humanity and the issues of the day.  Fueled by tales from sci-fi writers like Ray Bradbury, George Mattheson, and Charles Beaumont, the original series ran for five seasons, producing 156 episodes, two reboot series, and a film.

What Writers Can Learn- Short Story Writing, Commentary

 

 One of the reasons Twilight Zone has lasted for so long is that it is an endless generator of stories.  Being an anthology, each episode brought in new characters, new plots and new devolpments.  While this obviously made the writers constantly seek out new material, it also meant they weren’t bound by any rules concerning continuity, and could do what they wanted each week.  Not only did this allow for them to bring various authors to contribute, it also let them take different scenarios and topics, all while staying under the umbrella of the Zone.  So for writers interested in short stories, this is of one of TV’s best examples of different stories that can function as a whole- the basis of all great short story collections.

However, the stories themselves are what gives Twilight Zone its staying power.  As mentioned before, Serling had an interest in stories with consequences, and his show proved that even the best sci-fi and horror could still have a point for readers.  There are countless examples of Serling’s messages, but for the sake of brevity, we will list a few classics.

  • The Monsters are on Maple Street- a neighborhood block is cut off from the town, and as the power blinks on and off, neighbors accuse and turn on each other.  But it is all a plot by aliens, to show how easily humans panic and how simple it will be to divide and conquer.
  • It’s a Good Life- a town is terrorized by a monster- a freckle faced eight year old boy, with the power to read minds and force unspeakable horrors onto anyone he chooses.
  • One For The Angels- a less then stellar salesman manages to outwit Death, but when another is chosen to take his place, he has to make the sale of a lifetime to take his spot back.
  • Death’s Head Revisited- a former SS officer returns to Dachau to recall his ‘glory days.’  But he is tormented and killed by the ghosts of the inmates.
  • Four O’Clock- a paranoid man claims to have built a device that will shrink the evil of the world to nothing.  But at the chime of the hour, only the man vanishes.
  • The Changing of the Guard- an elderly English professor is forced into retirement, and feeling his life had no meaning, decides to kill himself.  But he is visited by the spirits of former students, who assure him that his lessons made them into better men.
  • He’s Alive- the leader of a small neo-Nazi group is visited by a shadow that shows him how to enthrall a crowd.  The leader thinks himself invincible, but he is shot by the police after committing murder- and the familiar, mustached shadow leaves to find another candidate.

Further Reading

There are several more episodes of the original Twilight Zone to look through for inspiration, running the full range of moral science fiction.  Those interested in more modern tellings would do well to examine the show’s underrated 1980’s revival (though the late 2000’s revival is generally inferior for fans).  Serling’s work can also be seen on the similar minded Night Gallery which focused on horror and fantasy with Serling again acting as host and script contributor.  So enter into the Zone but remember the graveyard will still be here next week for one last tale.

Points of Light Halloween Edition: Wes Craven’s New Nightmare

New_nightmare

Welcome to the graveyard once again.  This year was a sad one for horror fans, as we lost one of the genre’s great creative minds- Wes Craven.  While he created many diverse films like The Last House on the Left, The Serpent and the Rainbow, The People Under the Stairs, and Shocker, Craven will be remembered most for his horror satire Scream, and his crowning achievement, A Nightmare on Elm Street, the birth film of slasher icon and dream killer, Freddy Krueger.  Therefore, today’s entry will pay tribute to one of Craven’s more unique films, which took some chances with his most iconic creation- Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.

 

The Plot

Heather Langenkamp, the actress famous as the heroine of the Elm Street series, is dealing with a stalker calling and pretending to be Freddy.  But then more and more strange and terrible incidents plague the actress- her husband is killed on the set of a film revealed as a new Elm Street entry, her son begins to act strangely, and say that Freddy is coming after him in is dreams (despite never seeing the films), and earthquakes rock Los Angeles.  Eventually, Heather begins to dream of a larger, more terrifying Freddy, and goes to Wes Craven himself.  Craven explains that he believes Freddy is a type of demon, which can be captured by storytellers.  But ‘Freddy’ has escaped, due to the story being watered down, and is coming after Heather because she portrayed the one person that could stop Freddy.  Craven even reveals that his new script, drawn from his dreams, has paralleled the events of the film word for word, and that the only chance to destroy the demon, and save her son, is for Heather to resume her role and defeat ‘Freddy’ one last time.

What Writers Can Learn: Reality vs. Fantasy, ‘Meta’

 

New Nightmare is regarded by many as a prelude to the Scream series, as both deal with horror films ‘invading’ the real world.  However, New Nightmare has many other elements that make it more revenant to fans of Freddy Kreuger.  For example, the demon Freddy is supposedly released when the story of Elm St. is watered down or told too many times.  Craven himself has often said he dislikes how the series turned Freddy into a more jokey killer and less of a cold blooded killer, so it is easy to view the film as Craven’s small stab at studio interference.  Even Freddy’s scarier design is more in line with Craven’s original vision.  But on a more serious note, Heather Langenkamp experienced a stalker in real life (ironically, from her sitcom Just the Ten of Us) and actually left the country to escape said stalker.  There are also moments that combine elements of both themes- Heather on a talk show being overshadowed (and somewhat exasperated) by the appearance of the jokey Freddy.  It gives the film a true ‘meta’ appeal- that it appeals to more then one level of viewer, which makes more enjoyable by those in the know.

However, another great strength of the film is its blending of reality and fantasy.  While the films had previously concerned dreams overlapping reality, this one concerns film overlapping reality.  As it progresses, we see more elements come into play from the films- there are ‘kills’ that ape deaths from the films, Heather’s hair develops a white streak from the fear in her dreams as her character did, and even lines from the movie begin creeping into Heather’s speech.  However, the climatic moment occurs when ‘Freddy’ begins clawing his way up from under the bed.   Outside, Heather is arguing over the events with John Saxon, who played her father in the films.  As they argue, Heather realizes that Saxon has become his character, and that their surroundings have morphed into the film set.  As Saxon quotes his lines to her, ‘Freddy’ pauses in his escape and looks on, as if he is waiting for something.  Heather takes a deep breath, and says her lines from the film, which allows ‘Freddy’ to emerge.  It is symbolic of both Heather accepting her role, and her gateway into the fantasy realm.  It is a trick that writers interested in multiple worlds and in writing good heroes, should take note of.  It not only serves to establish a hero, it also firmly establishes the different worlds and makes it clear when we have moved from one to the other.  It also serves as the gateway to the final fight, where the hero, having suffered and learned along the way, is finally ready to face down her adversary.

Further Reading

The films mentioned above would serve those interested in Craven’s work, as well as the Scream series.  For fans interested in Freddy, Nightmare on Elm St encompasses six films of varying quality (1 and 3 are favorites, while the others are regarded as hit and miss), and a remake which tries to expand on Freddy’s origins, but just rehashes the murder scenes again and again.  But try to get some sleep before next week- we still have more graves to dig up.

Points of Light Halloween Edition: The Haunting of Hill House

haunting-of-hill-house

Welcome back to the graveyard, as today, we continue Halloween Month by entering one of the most famous haunted houses in literature.  From the mind of Shirley Jackson, come a landmark in horror literature and film- The Haunting of Hill House.

 

The Plot

 

Dr. John Montague rents out Hill House, a crumbling mansion with a dark history, in the hopes of uncovering scientific evidence of the supernatural.  He brings with him three guests- Theodora, a young artist, Luke Sanderson, the heir to the mansion, and Eleanor, a recluse just emerging from years of caring for her mother.  Both Theodora and Eleanor have had supernatural incidents in their past, and it is hoped their presence will spark something within the house.  And indeed strange events do soon follow- noises are heard throughout the night, writing appears on the wall, and Eleanor begins to act stranger and stranger, saying she finds a kinship with the house (though it is implied she is becoming mentally unstable).  After she endangers herself, Dr. Montague feels that Eleanor must leave for her own safety.  While unwilling at first, Eleanor eventually starts to drive away from Hill House, but then her car slams into a tree, killing her.  The reader is left to wonder if her actions were suicidal, or if Hill House truly did leave it’s dark touch upon her.

What Writers Can Learn- Perception, Subtlety,

 

Hill House stands as one of horror literature’s greatest works, and for good reason.  In many ways, it flips the greatest rule of the writing trade- ‘show, don’t tell.’  The reader is told many things- the deaths and suicides associated with Hill House, Eleanor’s history of reclusion and paranormal experience, and even hints at lesbianism in the character of Theodora.  However, what all of this means is left up to the reader, and because of that, the story can read many different ways.  For example, Eleanor is clearly shown as a timid, sheltered woman, first controlled by her mother and then her sister.  Coming to Hill House is her first real independent act, a fact she muses on constantly.  Therefore, it is easy to see why she would form a bond with the house and its inhabitants- she sees them as signs of her own freedom.  It also could explain why she is so reluctant to leave and return to her old life.

However, there is also a more unnatural possibility to Eleanor’s attitude.  Dr. Montague’s profile of her states that there was an incident in her childhood where stones fell from the sky onto a disliked neighbor’s home.  Readers of novels like Carrie would recognize this as a classic example of telekinetic abilities.  Therefore, it is possible that Eleanor may be causing the disturbances herself, using unknown telekinetic powers.  Therefore, her death is a kind of supernatural suicide.  As for the incidents themselves, they themselves could be Eleanor’s attempt to prove both to herself and Dr. Montague (whom she admires), that Hill House is haunted and their adventure has not been for nothing.

But that could be a final possibility- that Hill House simply lives up to its reputation.  The house has a long history of death- the founder’s wife died on the way to it, his second wife died from a fall, his daughter lived in the house until death, and the final inhabitant hung herself.  This is a house with a long history of death to it’s name, and the gothic nature of the story never rules that possibility out, despite everything else that can be held accountable.  Therefore, Hill House stands as a novel that is different for everyone who reads it- but chilling for everyone.  For aspiring horror writers, this is the best kind of fear- one that is individual for every reader, and therefore more terrifying.

Further Reading

 

Hill House has been adapted for the screen in two instances, both titled The Haunting.  The 1960’s version is highly recommended, but the remake adds several changes and lessens the insanity angle for CGI scares.  House on Haunted Hill and Richard Matheson’s Hell House novel also explore similar ground.  But no matter what house you choose to look through, the graveyard will be right outside for next week.

Points of Light Halloween Edition: H.P. Lovecraft

H._P._Lovecraft,_June_1934

Happy October, loyal readers!  Welcome to Lightrider’s annual Halloween Month, where we spend our time looking at the contributions of horror to the writing toolbox.  And to begin this year, we’ll be looking an author whose work has already been profiled on this site, the creator of the Old Ones, H.P. Lovecraft.

The Author

 

Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1890.  He was described as a child prodigy, writing poems as early as six.  He also took an interest in chemistry and astronomy (though he struggled with the math needed to be an astronomer).  His early life also provided much of the influence for his later work- Lovecraft suffered from night terrors and vivid nightmares, and his father reportedly went into a mental asylum when his son was three.  Lovecraft also learned Gothic horror stories from his grandfather, whose death forced the family into financial difficulties (another constant theme of Lovecraft’s life).

Lovecraft largely supported himself through his work, which was generally sold to pulp magazines.  While at the time given little major fanfare (much like Edgar Allan Poe), much of this pulp is regarded as classic horror, with stories like ‘The Outsider,’ ‘The Thing on the Doorstop,’ and his most famous work, ‘The Call of Cthulu,’ which began Lovecraft’s most enduring creations, the god like aliens known as the Old Ones.  Still, these works gained Lovecraft little financial support, and he largely subsided on the support of his wife, Sonia Green.  Unfortunately, Green also suffered financial problems, and Lovecraft was forced to reside in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, which proved a hardship due to its immigrant population (Lovecraft held those of English descent in high regard and this sadly shows in much of his work).  Eventually, Lovecraft did return to Providence, where he continued to write with increasingly small returns, until his death from cancer of the small intestine in 1937.

What Writers Can Learn: Theme, Suspense, Mystery, World-Building

 

There are many constants in the works of Lovecraft.  He is largely considered a father of the modern horror story due to his consistent theme of man’s great insignificance in the universe.  Perhaps owing to his family history and his love of astronomy, Lovecraft’s tales often involve men stumbling onto great secrets that literally drive them mad (many of his stories are recorded as the last testaments of men in the throws of madness).  Tales such as ‘Arthur Jerym,’ deal with the secrets of inherited guilt, while stories like ‘Dagon’ and ‘The Colour out of Space’ show the great horrors of the universe, both from above the heavens, and the remnants left on Earth.  Each of these stories show the creeping effects of madness, horrible transformations of mind and body, and that despite man’s knowledge, he is but a grain of sand in the vast and terrible beach that is the universe.  For a writer looking to tell a mounting tale of suspense, or simply to keep their reader enthralled, they need look no further then Lovecraft.

And for those that look to creating worlds, Lovecraft is also a guide.  His most enduring creations, The Old Ones, arguably stand as embodiments of all his themes- otherworldly beings that dwarf man, cause fear that creates madness, and will one day return and undo all of humanity’s work.  But they are also an influential mythology onto themselves.  ‘The Call of Cthulu’ describes an archeological expedition that uncovers the writings and remnants of Cthulu, including the cult that still worships him, the location his ancient, underwater city, and sets the basis for the creation of the other Old Ones.  With this, and other Old Ones tales, like ‘Dagon’ and ‘The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,’ Lovecraft created not only a pantheon, but a sense of an ancient world and it’s people, and a horror that will continue to dog man forever.  He creates a past and present, and then links the two together forever, some of the finest world building and one authors should strive to look to.

Further Reading

 

The list of Lovecraft’s stories and the works inspired by them is numerous.  However, those looking for the complete history should purchase The Necronomicon, a thorough collection of all Lovecraft’s works (smaller collections are also available).  From those stories, ‘Herbert West; Reanimator,’ ‘At the Mountains of Madness,’ ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth,’ ‘Cthulu,’ and ‘The Colour Out of Space,’ are all recommended.  Many film adaptations also exist, such as Reanimator, From Beyond, The Haunted Palace (though this is mistakenly thought to be based on Edgar Allan Poe’s poem) and the anthology Necronomicon.  Many films have also been inspired by Lovecraft- the Evil Dead series contains its own Necronomicon, and John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness is heavily inspired by Lovecraft’s work.  So go find your own way in, but don’t stay too long.  We have more to dig up next week.