Wednesday, October 27, 2010

What is Horror?

The door is being held open by a polite old lady waiting for her family to catch up. I slip into the lobby and the popcorn smell passes over me like mosquito fogger, while I lean against a fluted pillar and look down at my shoes. My shoes actually appear to be spinning. I’d put my head between my knees but it would embarrass my kid who is ecstatic and already negotiating in my ear for the Blue Ray disc when it comes out. Not for nothing is this film genre nicknamed “queasy cam”. The effect of the movie “Cloverfield” on me is not so much horror or empathy for its long suffering characters as . . . car sickness. I feel like a James Bond martini – shaken but not stirred.

Cloverfield is more or less about an alien invasion by some hulkingly gigantic, rarely viewed sort of monster knocking sky scrapers over. It’s filmed by the protagonist using a hand held video camera, such as you might pick up for a hundred bucks at Sam’s Club. He does this while running for his life, grieving for his girlfriend and being oppressed by stern jawed military types Who Are Gettin’ It Done Mister. Sort of like Godzilla on an amateur budget. The frame is constantly swinging wildly in different directions, just like your own home movies, while dodging deafening, strobe light explosions. Two hours of this and you’ll ralph your Skizzles or maybe have an epileptic seizure.

Queasy Cam is that greasy area where fiction collides with reality TV. The first Queasy Cam was a movie about ten years ago called the “Blair Witch Project” (BWP). I have a lot of respect for the BWP. It is one of an elite few scary movies that managed to genuinely disturb me. The power of the BWP back in its halcyon days was that for a while no one knew if it was a documentary or fiction. Controversies raged over it on the evening news. There were grim web sites like this one devoted to it:

The premise was that several cans of film had been recovered in an archeological dig of an old colonial era house in an isolated area of the Black Forest Hills near Burkittsville Maryland. The film turns out to be hand held camera footage made in real time by three film students who vanished without a trace in the woods one year previously. We see these doomed kids film themselves over a period of five days as they run out of food, smokes and eventually lose their map after becoming hopelessly lost in the woods (“This is America! People do not get lost in the fucking woods anymore!” wails one of them.). None of these kids are getting any sleep either, as the forest at night is becoming more and more alive with odd laughter, whispers, snapping twigs and occasional distant screams. And then – they’re gone. Just like that. And I’ll tell you what - the last two minutes of their camera footage is the most subtly frightening element I have ever seen in a horror movie, and I mean flat out.

BWP project has the power to get in your head if you watch it under the right circumstances. When my wife and I saw it in the theater she left angry. Why did I take her to see this amateurish, slapped together piece of shit? Could we get our money back? A few months later I rented the video to see it again, and left it out and went to bed. She had ironing to do, nothing to watch, so she put it on, alone late at night while the house was asleep. After the first hour she was jumping at shadows and whimpering. She was too freaked out to sleep. The magic was humming.

I’ve been thinking a lot about haunted houses these days. The BWP is in fact a haunted house movie, though it takes place in the woods. So is “Alien” and “Solaris” though they take place on space ships far from home. A house is that place where you’re supposed to be safe from the world. Its family and sanity and personal. When something unknown invades that space its disturbing right down to the part of the brain we inherited from reptiles. It’s the ultimate invasion. Especially when its someone you know who is going off the rails. The thing about BWP, when you’re not sure what you’re watching, is that it is deeply disturbing to think that the world you thought you knew and understood can really be so different from what’s really going on out there, and what’s out there can make this world disintegrate right out from under you.

I hope someday to write a really excellent horror story. As an apprentice writer I think I’ve come close once or twice, but never really gotten it. Not yet. So when I see something like BWP that succeeds in making me squirm, in making me think to myself “Son of a bitch, this isn’t fun anymore!”; a scary movie that is to other scary movies what eating small Thailand chilies raw is to Taco Bell, I ask myself – how do the magicians do their tricks? How did they get to me?

Sigmund Freud doesn’t always get the credit he deserves, but he made some critical discoveries that relate to what we do here as writers. Freud observed that the subconscious does not know the difference between fantasy and reality.

Stop. Think. Conjure on it.

That’s an amazing observation.

That is the white-hot core of the art to which we aspire. One more time, O Friends of the Inner Sanctum –

The subconscious mind does not know the difference between reality and fantasy.

It’s easy to prove. The subconscious governs many non-voluntary functions. Such as boners and wetties, for instance. Someone reads something erotic, or has a sexual fantasy. If the magic is working, the man gets hard and urgent. The woman gets wet. But there’s no one there, the act of copulation is in the imagination, but the subconscious doesn’t know or care. As far as the subconscious is concerned baby – You’re Gettin’ Some.

The vicarious experience of fear is the same. Something threatening is happening and the subconscious thinks you’re in danger. So the technical problem is, how do you get in someone’s head? How do you convey to the subconscious the experience of mortal danger and horror?

When you study the masters, like Edgar Allen Poe, you find that Poe worked very hard at constructing atmosphere and description, the dream like experience of a nightmare unfolding around you. There’s not a lot of action in his stories compared to, say, “Cloverfield” with its harried camera man. His best tales, such as “Masque of the Red Death” and “The Fall of the House of Usher”, are structurally very simple stories, little more than vignettes. Instead, Poe devotes himself to the patient creation of the story’s environment, the slow drip drip drip of escalating dread. Both of these are haunted house stories, and he describes everything right down to the rugs and curtains in tremendous detail and ominous language. It’s all about making you feel like you’re there and when the Very Bad Thing happens you’d better run.

The other thing I’ve discovered about horror (and the news is not good) is that, like erotic fiction, it’s a very personal thing. What gets the machinery moving in my subconscious will not always be what works for others for reasons outside my control. The erotic stories which have excited me in the past tend to be the odd stuff, about human beings in collision with each other. Likewise horror is very personal. It requires the suspension of disbelief, and a willingness to be reminded that security and life and love are illusions that can vanish in a day or an instant.

There is this wonderful film shot on Market Street in San Francisco in 1906. You can see it here:

or by googling “Youtube Market Street San Francisco 1906”.

Take a minute now to look it over.

In 1906 one of the Miles Brothers, who owned a photography studio by that name on Market Street, stood in the cabin of a trolley car with a brand new invention that was taking the country into a new age, the movie camera. As he leaned the wooden box camera out the front window of the street car and turned the hand crank, the lens caught the daily flow of a typical ride from one end of the street to the far end of the other, about a three mile trip on a fine spring day right after a good rain. Newspaper boys mugging for the camera. Horse drawn carts crossing fearlessly in front of the trolley car. A few open top automobiles. Other Trolleys scuttling like roaches on each side. Ladies in voluminous dresses. Men standing in doorways of shops, smoking, chatting and watching the world go by.

A film historian did some investigating through old newspapers and weather reports of the day and discovered the exact date this film was made. It was filmed about April 15th of 1906. The film was then developed and sent on a train to New York City to have some copies made. That is why the film survived.

Most of the people watching the trolley car and its Blair Witch style cameraman ride by in real time, the news boys, the pretty ladies in dresses, the working men making deliveries – in three days two out of every three of the people you’re seeing, man and boy, woman and child, those people are going to be dead. Three days. Many of them will have died roasting to death while trapped in rubble. Three days after the film was made, while the only copy was in transit, the great earthquake and fire struck. That is the part about life that our subconscious understands and we don’t.

C. Sanchez-Garcia


  1. Interesting post! A couple of things I found timely reminders.

    The subconscious doesn't distinguish between fantasy and reality - I've read Freud and I know this, but I don't keep that thought in focus as much as I should do when writing. It's also, incidentally, a point worth making about a lot of politics - something that people like Marcuse and others discussed at some length in the 1950s/60s.

    And the other thing that strikes me (because I do write horror, under my real name) is how the genre has built its own conventions - and the most effective horror is often the film or book that breaks those conventions enough to make people uneasy about what they're watching or reading... which in some ways parallels erotica; the stuff that intrigues me is the stuff where I get the reaction that 'this shouldn't turn me on, and yet it does', and I have to start thinking about why that might be.

    Apart from that, thank you for the link to the San Francisco film, I had no idea that existed.

  2. Hi Fulani!

    Thanks for reading my stuff!

    I think in case of politics a lot of our affiliations are determined by emotions we don;t even know are there. Emotion is what makes decisions and probably values as well, my opinion anyway.

    That's interesting what you say about horror, and I think you've got a point. The innovative stuff soon becomes the convention, such as you see with these endless franchises like "Saw". The first one was scary. After you seen that one, you've seen it. I was very taken with the Swedish vampire film - now remade for Americans - called "Let the Right One In". I even went out and read the book. Its such a unique approach in so many ways I'm surprised it was even published but it became a big hit. Excellent.

    I don;t know if this is interesting or not, but if you want to continue this, a couple of months ago I wrote here about the nature of conventions in vampire fiction which you can read here:

    Its called "Stoker Poker", and discusses the conventions of vampire fiction.

    Hang in there.


  3. Hi Garce,

    I enjoyed Cloverfield. I think it matches your point from Freud (which was new to me, so thanks for that) - we lose the boundary between fantasy and reality. My favorite thing about Cloverfield was that the action is recorded over an earlier recording - the last day that the MC spent with the lover he is deserting to take up a job abroad. The intercutting is subtle but effective. Was his love a fantasy. Is the monster really real. Was the love really real. It seems that the character answers both questions by risking his life to find his lover. The movie shows that reality only bites when death is at his heels.

    As for the Haunted House, that's one that always gets to me. My favorite was the black and white "The Haunting" - it scared the hell out of me without a single CGI monster to its name.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post and good luck with writing that horror story.

  4. Hi Mike!

    So good to have you on board here.

    Actually i liked Cloverfield more than I let on. It was exciting and entertaining in a Godzilla sort of way, but I was scared by it. I was more scared I might get sick watching it and had to look away once in awhile. But it was fun. And of course my kid got me to buy the DVD and he's probably watched it a dozen times. Also that part at the very end where the camera cuts back to vacation footage. My son said that he looked up the trivia on the movie, and if you look carefully during those last two or three seconds you'll see something fall from the sky into the ocean behind the beach where the guy is filming his girlfriend. That falling thing is supposed to be the arrival of the monster.

    I saw the Haunting a while back, if this is the right movie I'm thinking of. At the end the house sort of claims one of the visitors.

    I've also been watching old reruns of Boris Karloff's Thriller series from the early '60s and studying the episode "Pigeons From Hell" which is a powerful haunted house story.


  5. Hey, Garce,

    Fabulous post. I'm generally not a fan of horror films - adrenaline makes me feel kind of sick - but I think you've articulated a number of truths.

    It always astonishes me how supposedly insubstantial thought can affect the "meat" world. Or, to quote my own tag line, "Imagination is the ultimate aphrodisiac". Of course, our responses to real danger (or real sex) are mediated through our perceptions, so it's not ultimately that surprising that "false" perceptions trigger the same visceral reactions as "real" ones.

    I personally think that the unknown is a far more potent terror than any monster. That's what's so great about Poe. As you point out, he manages to weigh you down with dread without your really knowing what you're afraid of. I didn't think "Pigeons from Hell" was nearly as effective, to be honest - after all, you've got an animated corpse coming at you with an ax only a few pages into the tale. You KNOW you're up a creek!


  6. Hi Lisabet!

    That's true about the axe, like a political candidate here named Christine O' Donnell whose political ad begins "I am not a witch." You know you're in trouble if your campaign is based on that.

    I've been thinking I need to go back and study Poe. And as you say, imagination is the ultimate aphrodisiac."



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