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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literally begins to shake, odd noises are heard in the house, and Regan herself begins to change, becoming angry and withdrawn, and using previously unheard of profanity.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!

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: The Thing

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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.

The Story

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.

Final Thoughts

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!

Points of Light Halloween Edition: Carrie

carrie-poster-fullbloodybody-full

Welcome back to the graveyard, as Points of Light continues our Halloween journey. As promised, this week focuses on the tale of a prom gone to hell, in both written and cinematic form. So, in honor of it being a classic horror tale and experiencing a movie remake, let ‘s open up this week’s entry, Stephen King’s Carrie (because we all knew I’d put a King story in here SOMEWHERE).

The Plot

Carrie is the story of Carrie White, a teenage girl that suffers humiliation on a daily basis. Her mother is a dangerously devout Christian, which has caused Carrie to grow up as a social outcast. Carrie is mocked by the other girls for her appearance and lack of social cues and know-how. This eventually comes to a head one day in the girl’s locker room, where Carrie has her first period. Unaware of what is happening, Carrie panics, thinking she is bleeding to death. The other girls respond in a brutal hazing incident that is simply too disturbing to repeat here. However, this traumatic event reveals a long dormant talent in Carrie- she is telekinetic, able to move things with her mind, albeit with physical exhaustion. As a result of the incident, the girls involved are punished, with one feeling guilty enough to have her boyfriend take Carrie to the prom. However, the one girl that refuses the punishment (and is subsequently banned from the prom) plans a final humiliation for Carrie, that shatters the girl’s already frail psyche and sets her off on a slaughter-filled spree against everyone that ever wronged her.

What Writers Can Learn: Real-Life Influence, Suspense, Emotion

What truly makes Carrie memorable isn’t just its climatic prom scene, but rather the stark reality behind it. High school is a dog-eat-dog world for everyone, with the weak always getting eaten alive. There is not a soul that never felt isolated or mocked during that time, usually for something they couldn’t control. Carrie White is the embodiment of that; even King describes her as a girl “you just wanted to yell at.” Because of that, we immediately feel sympathy for her, because we remember how it felt to be ridiculed ourselves, and how we fantasized, however briefly, that we could get back at our attackers. And the story ups the ante by not just making the high school girls the tormentors, but Carrie’s own mother. This is a woman so wrapped in her religious mania that she neglected to tell her own daughter about menstruation and locked in a closet for committing ‘the sin of blood’ afterwards. She treats Carrie as a living bomb, waiting for the day her daughter will give into her sin (use her power). Carrie as a character grabs us because while we may not live in her world, we have all been there in some way, and we remember how much it hurts.

Because of that connection, the novel is able to build a unique type of suspense. When Carrie is asked to the prom, it is a catalyst that begins to build Carrie’s confidence. Coupled with her increasing powers, Carrie starts to break away from her mother and become more independent. Because of the established connection, we want her to succeed. But at the same time, Chris, the antagonist, is plotting something horrible for Carrie at prom. In the book, King uses flash forwards to testimony that establishes Carrie’s rampage started at the prom, while the movie simply shows Chris planning. Either way, the reader is praying it fails, as we watch Carrie start to emerge from her shell and actually have fun. Even at her moment of glory, which is when Chris’s revenge happens, we’re still trying to ignore the signs, ignore the horrible fate that we know is coming because we’ve almost become Carrie at that point, seemingly over everything that tormented us. And when the horror finally does happen, and that fantasy is ripped away from Carrie and from us, it makes her into something unique- an angry, revenge filled monster that we are actually cheering for. I can recall even yelling, “YES CARRIE, BURN THEM ALL!” when I watched it. And to make a murderous rampage seem sympathetic and for an audience to cheer for it, shows a level of character and emotion that only a truly skilled writer can pull off.

Final Thoughts

Carrie is certainly a revenge fantasy, but one that is easily relatable to anyone. It is horror that works because it strikes us at home. Carrie’s experiences are horrible, but there is an element that we have all experienced. It is why readers cheer for her, and yet at the end , we question why we did. The truth is, this is a novel that frightens not only because of its reality, but also because we wonder, if one of us had that kind of frightening power, how would we use it? Would we go as far as Carrie, and would we be right to do so? And finally, just because someone commits an act such as this, is it entirely their fault? In today’s world of school shootings, and strident anti-bullying campaigns, it is a question worth asking.

Next week, we’ll be heading in more supernatural territory, as we unlock the door to a house in Lovecraft, MA. Until then, sleep with the lights on…

Points of Light Halloween Edition: The Fog

the-fog-original

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 Plot

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.

Final Thoughts

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.