I still remember the first I ever heard of “Night of the Living Dead”. It was a Reader’s Digest article, and boy oh boy, it made the movie sound like the fall of Western Civilization. I HAD to see it. Watched it for the first time at a midnight show at the Wiltern Theater on Wilshire and Western, and I can tell you that within fifteen minutes after the lights went down, I was looking for the exits, planning which one I’d scamper out of if the people around me lurched up and started munching brains.
I was TERRIFIED. And…I loved it. Why?
We define “Horror” as a work whose primary emotional charge is that of fear. It can be psychological (Psycho), science-fictional (Alien), or supernatural (The Exorcist). Why do we like it? To answer this, we have to go deeper into the question of why people seek out art in the first place.
If “art” is self expression with craft, then the point is to project an attitude, experience, perspective, emotion onto an audience. The audience will choose the kind of experience they want based upon what they need to adjust their tensions into an optimal range. If tense, they might look for something to relax them (comedy) or something that will focus their tension to take them higher and higher until a circuit breaker “pops” and they are back in relaxation.
Horror can be such a “circuit breaker.” You have vague, intangible tensions in your life, you go watch Leatherface hack up some teenagers, scream at the screen while munching popcorn, and for ninety minutes forget all about the mortgage. The roller coaster ride: trigger those survival drives, and you are NOT thinking about how the boss is firing people, for at least those two minutes.
There are so many themes that can be addressed in horror, that there is a LOT of scholarly writing about how this or that movie deals with this or that social fear. That would make sense, that different fears at different times are foremost in our minds, and movies that help us gain perspective will get folks lining up at the box office. As individuals we need to adjust that tension into the optimal range: too much and we wither. Too little, and we never grow strong.
What would be a perfect horror film to address the current tensions between men and women? Haute Tension? Ms. 45? Teeth? Sleeping With The Enemy? I don’t know…but there’ve been a bunch of ’em.
What about racial tensions? I think that this is much less explored, and GET OUT hit the bull’s eye for so many people that its become the most profitable independent film maybe ever. Amazing, really.
What I suggest is that if you want to write or create horror, go DEEP into your own personal terrors. Find a nugget you haven’t seen before (at least in that medium, in that way) and have something to say. What do YOU think and feel about this. Is there an answer (in the Exorcist, the answer to an apparently unsolvable riddle was faith and sacrifice) or are we lost? What do YOU really think?
Then…you can either present us with what you really think, or you can have fun playing with the social tropes around it. Notice the fantasy (the white virginal female of breeding age generally survives) and violate it. Do this well enough and you have a horror-comedy like “Cabin in the Woods” or “Scream”. That kind of hipster meta-movie is hard to pull off it you aren’t first to the game. Better to realize that “Scream” rested on a foundation of “Last House On The Left” and “The Hills Have Eyes”, straight-forward, ferocious, uncompromising horror deconstructing the sanctity of family, the most basic human social unity. Wes Craven mastered THAT before attempting deconstruction.
Just as we suggest that writers begin with short stories and master those before moving to larger works, it is also smart to start with “basic” work before trying something more sophisticated. If you are interested in expressing a social perspective (and most art does) understanding how others have done it will both help you avoid cliché and empower your imagination: imagination is primarily re-combining existing elements into forms we’ve not seen quite THAT way. All you have to do is connect them with your internal aesthetic, and you will be about as original as you can be. Add a serious education in the tropes of your field, and you have a recipe for success.
The SUNKEN PLACE class is for fans, teachers, and creators of the dark fantasy and horror of the African Diaspora. We can’t wait to share with you (heck, I haven’t gone through T’s class, so some of it will be a surprise to me!) We’ll be discovering a century of amazing nightmares together. It is the Yang to Afrofuturism’s Yin. Afrofuturism is Dreams to banish nightmares. The SUNKEN PLACE is Nightmares to enable our dreams.
We start this Saturday, and we’d love to have you! WWW.SUNKENPLACECLASS.COM