So the best part of October is all the scary stories.
It’s awesome. Scary movie marathons run non-stop on every channel. Neil Gaiman does that whole All Hallow’s Read thing (swap scary stories). We dress up as characters from books, TV shows, movies, folklore. October is a month for narrative and imagination and campy tropes, and I love it. There’s a reason October and November are my favorite months of the year.
If you’re like me and you love a good scary story, here’s some random observations about scary stories. I’ll be honest, today’s post is just an excuse to write about Godzilla.
1. Observations on Monster Movies
Monsters are pretty terrifying: just ask anyone who’s survived an encounter with a bear. But giving something a face means the audience can get a little distance from it. Partially because you can look around your darkened living room and realize yeah, it’s not full of bears, but partially because the monster isn’t really what people are afraid of.
Our biggest fear (and biggest desire, depending on how you swing it) will always be the unknown.
A puma chasing after you gets your adrenaline pumping. A puma hunting you, invisible, while the sun slowly sets on your hiking trail? That’s the one that makes you leave the lights on all night long. This is the big problem with most monster/horror movies: the second the monster becomes a character rather than the thing that goes bump in the night, things get less terrifying.
Of course, in order to keep the monster in the shadows, you first have to identify what the monster is.
Example. If your monster is literally Godzilla, you’re probably okay letting him trash a few towns in broad daylight. The audience isn’t actually scared of Godzilla: they’re afraid of helplessness against something huge and unstoppable. If your monster is a werewolf, though, maybe it’s better to have it running through the trees at night rather than giving the wild thing some glamor shots.
My favorite “monster story” (if it can be called that) is House of Leaves. The monster is literally space. You can’t give that a face, no matter what you do. If you read nothing else this month, go read that.
2. Thoughts on Ghost Stories
90% of the time ghost stories involve warping the best parts of life into tragedy and some sort of furious revenge. I grew up on the East Coast, so most of the ones I grew up hearing involved the ocean somehow. Take 1 pair lovers, remove one on an ocean voyage, kill someone in either illness or a storm, and the remaining lover haunts either the coast (if died at sea) or the location of the old house (if died on land.) Hurricanes and lighthouses were usually involved.
Out in Iowa the stories seem more Native American (I’ve heard a lot of Skinwalker/wild man stories), focused on some grand old past (haunted hotels in particular), or just plain religious (the Black Angel of Oakland Cemetery was literally three blocks away from my old apartment). The theme’s the same, though: good thing in life is horribly taken away to the point where the person harps on it forever, even after death.
That’s effective for a reason, clearly. It plays on another base fear: loss.
The exception here are films like the Paranormal Activity franchise or The Blair Witch Project. I’m not sure if those count as ghost stories or monster movies, but they take the best scary parts out of both.
Anecdote: I went to go see Paranormal Activity 3 in theaters and the entire block suffered a power outage in the final 15 minutes of the movie. One second some lady’s possessed and floating down the stairs, the next the movie ends and the lights come on, no credits. Someone in the audience said in a high-pitched voice, “Toby’s here…”
Still have yet to see the real ending. I don’t think it could beat that.
3. Thoughts on Slasher Stories
These are probably the scariest. Remember that whole “the unknown invades the normal” thing? Serial killer movies take that to an extreme. Like ghost stories, the theme’s pretty consistent: person kills people. Usually it’s a weird person, which is a huge shame– the more normal the killer the scarier the story. But they strike me the hardest.
Mostly because these can be based on true stories.
Sure, ghost stories can be based on real events, but I’ve yet to see concrete evidence of an angry ghost. Serial killers have criminal records. They actually exist, 100%. Nobody argues that Dahmer was a fictional character. You can look around and convince yourself that your living room isn’t full of bears– it’s a little harder to convince yourself you’ve never met a murderous psychopath.
Okay. The chance of being a part of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre is pretty slim. But (and this is a genuinely not-holiday-spirited-but-just-plain-sad observation) mass murder is becoming fairly normal in this country. Arbitrary gun violence is a huge thing. I received an email this morning from my boss in the local public school system reminding us of the protocol for reporting threats of violence. I work in elementary schools, I should not have to find that relevant to my life.
Got a little real there for a second.
Let’s talk about tropes.
4. Thoughts on Tropes
Tropes are awesome for writers. Partially because they give the audience a place to stand when they’re reading your story: they have a set of expectations and it gives them a starting point to connect from. They give you something to play around with, even a template for characters if you’d like– and scary stories have arguably the most versatile set of tropes for a writer to work with.
Seriously. Send five teenagers camping in the woods and it’s more predictable than a romance novel.
Here’s the fun part: tropes can be broken. They can be broken in the weirdest possible ways. The Cabin In The Woods is probably my favorite trope-breaking (trope-destroying) film. Classic camping horror becomes SCP becomes Lovecraft, and the teenagers still make ridiculously stupid choices. It’s amazing.
Basically, if you choose to go campy, all bets are off. You wind up with complete creative freedom and no one’s going to question you.
Well, I’m out of things to ramble about. I’ve got a less-long-winded article showing up over at Some Nerd Girl tomorrow about hunting for ghost towns. If you’re as hyped up about Halloween as I am, go check that out. It’s a great way to spend a weekend, and I took pictures!