Greetings once again, frightful readers. We’ve been going over horror stories all this month, and seeing as how today is All Hallows Eve, it seems fitting to head back to the crypt to unearth one more story. Of course, as I said last week, this is a story that’s a little hard to find. It could be anything- your dog, a bug, even YOU, reader. And no one would ever know until it was too late; for that is the power of today’s entry, one of my all-time favorite horror films- John Carpenter’s The Thing.
A remake of the 1950’s horror film, The Thing From Another World (itself an adaption of John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There), The Thing takes place at an Artic research base, which is suddenly invaded by a stray dog and a pair of Norwegian scientists trying to kill it. The Americans kill the scientists and take in the dog, then travel to the Norwegian base. There, they find a ruined building, and a horrific, two-headed human corpse, along with a long hollowed out block of ice. They realize the Norwegian scientists unearthed something in the ice, which is made readily apparent when the new dog mutates into a horrific creature. They subdue it, but realize the alien creature can perfectly adapt into another being, and even a cell can make a perfect replica. The men slowly devolve into paranoia, as they realize that the creature may be posing as one of them, and must be prevented from infecting the rest of the world.
What Writers Can Learn: Setup, Suspense, Paranoia, Unhappy Resolution
While much of what makes The Thing a success is it’s special effects, which are gruesome and yet amazing to behold given the limitations of the time, that same success is equally due to the film’s excellent setup. Placing the film in the Artic gives us a sparse, empty environment with no connection to the world at large. As such, when the Thing begins its attack, we know that no help is coming, and even if it did, it probably wouldn’t reach our heroes in time. Therefore, it is up to our small band of men to contain and eradicate the Thing before it can return to sleep, or infect the civilized world. However, there is one thing that is preventing them from doing so- each other.
Remember, the Thing is capable of perfectly imitating any living being, including humans. Therefore, the men are highly suspicious and paranoid of each other, heightened by lack of sleep. This means that even the slightest hint of an impersonation is met with open hostility- MacReady, the main character, is left outside in the cold when a torn jacket with his name is found. When they attempt to perform a blood test to check for the Thing, the blood samples are destroyed, leading to suspicion of all those with access to the med lab. One man is even shot and killed because of the rampant paranoia without showing any signs of infection (he is later proved to be fully human). And since the audience has no idea which, if any, of the men are infected, we feel that same fear and paranoia, which heightens our fear, and our reactions when the Thing does reveal itself.
Still, the movie wisely avoids any chance for a sequel (and as proved by the 2011 prequel, no additional story is required) with its ending. Here, we have a rather nihilistic conclusion that still manages to keep our questions and paranoia going. With the destruction of the Thing, the base, and the majority of the crew, we are left with MacReady and fellow survivor Childs sitting in the ruins of the base. They cannot prove that either of them is not infected, but it is a moot point, since without shelter, the freezing temperatures will kill them before any rescue team arrives. Therefore they sit facing each other, taking their last drinks, as the film ends. It is a dark and chilling ending, and leaves many questions unanswered. But regardless of whether or not the Thing still exists, it is frightening to believe that these two men will be rewarded for saving the world by freezing to death. Of course, the viewer will also wonder if they are even still men, and whether a rescue team would unleash a greater horror by saving them.
The Thing has received many adaptions over the years, but minus the afore-mentioned prequel, it still stands as a sci-fi tale with Hitchcock level suspense. Even without the effects, the idea of men cut off from civilization and facing an evil that they cannot see is more than enough to drive the story. Writers can easily take the suspense and paranoia and its effects for various other stories, such as thrillers, adventure, and obviously straight horror. But perhaps the ending offers the greatest lesson. In too many stories, major problems are resolved with a forced happy ending. This serves as a reminder that, just like in life, characters can do everything right, save the day, and still die as a result. But the fact that MacReady and the others accept that, helps makes this ending even more memorable, and even more chilling.
Well, that’s the last coffin for this year. I hope you’ve enjoyed our trip around the graveyard, and don’t be afraid to pick up any of the stories I’ve mentioned (either the original or this version of The Thing are excellent films, though the suspense and effects drive each differently). And remember, tomorrow is the start of the Lightrider Giveaway contest, so be sure to use the Lightrider Facebook page to enter. Happy Halloween!
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.