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Monday, June 23, 2008


Scary dreams, safe plots

A while ago, I described having woken up screaming after watching a horror movie that didn't scare me; well, last night, it happened again. Over the evening, I was watching a horror movie that shall remain nameless, as I'm about to say bad things about it: the storyline was confused, the source of the horror poorly worked out, and the action wandered around in an unclear sort of way. It wasn't that scary, either; a few tense moments, but most of them overplayed, and all in all, not that great.

Yet at about half past midnight, I sat up in bed, screaming so loud my throat still hurts this morning.

I'm evolving a theory about this. Genuinely frightening films scare me into wakefulness - I had to sleep with the radio on for two days after I first saw Hideo Nakata's Ring - but if they get into my dreams, they do so in a less dramatic way. I might twitch in my sleep, but I don't wake up shrieking. The ones that really get me going seem to be ones that, not to put too fine a point on it, don't entirely hold my attention or convince me with their plots.

Storylines are a structure, they require order and control. Watch Rosemary's Baby, and the chain of cause and effect is frightening precisely because it's so ruthless. Even The Shining, the story of characters trapped in a building of obscure and incomprehensible malice, has a precision to its structure. Exactly how the Overlook is next going to express its hostility is up for grabs, exactly what kind of horror we'll run into next is an open question, but the overall trend is clear: the hotel wants to destroy six-year-old Danny and consume his father Jack, and will use whatever attacks and manipulations will work best. Some of what the hotel throws has a random element - a naked woman in a bathtub, a bartender - but they all make a certain kind of sense: they're all things that will get Jack's attention and draw him into the hotel, and the random horrors we see at the end are after Jack's mind has broken and anything can come flooding in. The hotel undoubtedly has its own logic: we don't fully understand it, but there's no doubt that it's there, and that's part of the nightmare.

Most horror stories, in fact, take place in a world of rules. Different rules, harsh rules - you shouldn't get your face sucked off just for remarking a few times that you'd like to meet Count Magnus - but rules nonetheless, and even all-bets-are-off rules like in The Shining have a kind of precision to them. The implacability of such rules is often part of the horror: without realising it, by watching Sadako's tape or opening the Cenobites' box, the victim has effectively signed a contract. The fact that they didn't read it correctly and don't like what they find they've signed up to is beside the point: they signed, and the party of the second part is not about to release them from the agreement. It's not fair, but it's got a by-the-book narrative justice. The logic of horror stories is presided over by a hanging judge.

We emerge from such stories into our own world, where we know the rules. A good horror movie can convey its rules so convincingly, dovetail them so neatly with the rules we live in, that it gets into your thinking: you remain jumpy because, after all, the characters began living in the same rules that we do, and they only discovered new ones once the horror started closing in. Probably Michael Myers won't break into your house, but then, you never see him until it's too late. Probably there's no Freddy Kruger, but we do dream, don't we? Probably there's no Sadako, but I watched the film on tape and breathed a slight sigh of relief after a full week had passed and Sadako didn't come to get me. Good horror stories mess with your sense of the rules: they start with the reality everybody accepts, and then add on some nasty little fine print to make you worry that you might just have missed it. After all, the characters didn't realise what they were signing until it was too late either.

That's good horror stories. But in the end, you can reason with those. We know, deep down, that the odds are in our favour, and the narrative logic speaks to our conscious understanding. When we get into the subconscious, it's different. Watching a not-very-coherent horror movie, I tend to comment on it as it goes along (in my own mind if people want me to shut up, aloud if not): That doesn't make sense. Those two claims about the supernatural seem to contradict each other. The monster doesn't seem consistent in its motivations. Most of what I feel a sense of narrative frustration.

Then I go to sleep, and it would seem that my subconscious hasn't been listening to anything I said. The subsconscious, too, has its own sense of structure. Good storywriting involves the subconscious, but it comes out in grammatical sentences and shaped plots: our brains are wired to create order. This is why they don't suddenly decide that maybe today they'll give breathing a miss, just to see what happens. Predictability is what keeps us alive. We're orderly creatures, and the creative brain delights, not in chaos, but in creating new and surprising patterns. But throw an incoherent horror movie at the subconscious, or at least at mine, and it picks up a different message: Things are confusing. The rules don't make sense. You can't predict what's going to happen next. And, alarmed by this disordered state, my dreaming brain starts assuming that if a monster can turn up for no reason in a horror movie - not just for an unlikely reason, but no reason, backed up not even by story-logic - then perhaps it can turn up in my bed as well.

Hence, I suspect, the maniacally snarling face that loomed over me last night. I tend to hallucinate stuff hanging over my head when I'm half-asleep anyway, but it's usually grey glittery lights or vague shapes (once I saw a furry snake with a mouse's head, which was startling but not exactly scary). This time my brain, primed to anticipate unjustified spooks, put a scary face on it. The vague sense of menace had lingered from the film, and the garbled logic, that seemed so unconvincing when I was awake, suddenly seemed threatening in my sleep. I suspect, too, that this may be one reason why children are so prone to nightmares: the rules of the world are complicated and take a long time to learn, and until they've got the hang of them, kids have far fewer defenses against the suspicion that the world might suddenly lurch. Confusion is debilitating, and it would seem that if you confuse me enough, I regress to childhood dreams.

There's a joke in here somewhere - what makes a writer wake up screaming? Bad plots - but it's an interesting thought, anyway. Anyone else have this experience?

I actually did dream about Bareback once. [No that's not a bad book!] I dreamt I was in a situation where I was unable to "lune" and I was terrified that someone would find out.
But I do share your experiences of bad plots invading my dreams. They do fade rather quickly however, but I then get an odd sense of deja vu when I'm reminded of the film. The only aspects of bad movies work that work at all are the terrifying images and concepts. They stand out because the plot is poorly handled but the image or concept synapses to create a very primal reaction. I think the dreams are like the muscles of the mind twitching in memory of that reaction that wasn't then soothed by reason/good writing.
For me, the horror films that affect me the most are the ones without a resolution. Ring scares the crap out of me every time I watch it because I know there's no end ... Sadako is still out there, perpetuating her curse. The book is just as bad (by which I mean good) in that sense.

I adore the Friday 13th movies for many reasons, but largely because I get that same freaked-out thrill reaction with every one, no matter how lame and predictable the films get. Jason is always going to be out there killing promiscuous teenagers, no matter what anyone does, and that has some deep-rooted effect on my psyche that drags me back for every sequel. Maybe it's part of what you said about us needing consistency to survive? ;)

That said, one of the films I hate the most is the Blair Witch Project. Not only do I not really empathise with the characters, I find the ending completely unsatisying. And I really can't put my finger on why, but I suspect it's a lot to do with the sense of expectation the film builds up in me. I want to see the monster, I want it to be terrifying, and I never get that and it really frustrates me. Possibly this is just proof that I do not posess a subtle mind.
Well, they aren't exactly what you described, but I remember two particularly vivid encounters with horror stories.

The first was when my parents rented Scream. I wasn't even in high school yet; I seriously don't know what they were thinking when they rented that and didn't send me to bed. I only saw the beginning and the end, but it made me realize that horror stories (well written, of course) involving actual human beings, are potentially more bone-chilling over a longer period.

And second, if you've ever heard of the Resident Evil video game series: well, when I was younger I watched my brother play it one evening. When I got older I realized that the plot and action make for a decent story, and the music added a sense of aloneness, of desperation, while being creepily downplayed. But as young as I was, and with my ma out of town that weekend (IIRC), I wanted to stay in my dad's bed so he could protect me.

But having read your post, I think the theory you suggest could make for the basis of a good story.
This is a different sort of "horror plot," but in light of your vivisections of the Anxious Masculinity of American myth, you might like to check out Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer novels. Although a fan of detective novels, I never went in for the old "hard-boiled" ones when I had the easy access to them, and I honestly didn't know what I was missing until I picked one up the other day at a yard sale. It's like a parody of all the Macho Sue elements packed into one, just in the first ten pages - he's a Warrior, a fighter against violence who angsts about how he's bad but he's the only one who protects the silly sheep from the worse wolves out there and they're so ungrateful, all these wimpy unmanly men, blah blah blah - I actually couldn't choke through it any further, after we get to Hammer (snicker!) grinning and winking with a NYC cop about beating up left-wing dissidents and getting away with it, along with proclaiming "America, love it or leave it!" and snide remarks about the gender-nonconformism of the critics of Capitalism. Only The Hammer can complain about the sad state of Society, apparently! And this was 1951 - "One Lonely Night". You can see why John Wayne was a fan of Spillane, along with Ayn Rand.
The bit of evidence I can toss in is a conversation with a cousin, a fairly hard-bitten police officer working in a very rough areas.

We were chatting about Stephen King (who I don't much care for). We'd both recently read Christine and both had had essentially the same experience--turning page after page saying disappointedly, "oh, that's not all that scary!"

But despite that, right after finishing the book, I felt very "spooky" and had trouble getting to sleep. My cousin said that after he finished the book, he had a horrible nightmare and uncharacteristically woke up, as he put it, "hollering" (hard-bitten cops being disinclined to scream, or at least to admit to it).

King's work of course isn't incoherent, but there is something about Christine that seems not particularly scary while one is reading it. Possibly the idea of haunted car parts seems sort of silly?
dash - I wonder if that's the problem of "modernity" seeming unromantic? After all, think of all the still-popular-well-into-the-20th-c stories of ghostly hearses, demon riders, horses-that-aren't-really (and pull you underwater)in folklore - but after all, when those were written, horses w or w/o carriages were as exotic/romantic as, well, cars and motorcycles...
Bellatrys, that makes excellent sense. I don't know if the movie Duel counts as a supporting example or a counterexample, but it's quite spooky (to me, at least) and becomes less so when one sees any part of the truck driver. (Ah, truck controlled by malevolent human--yeah, I know about malevolent humans. Can deal. No longer spooky.)

FWIW, both the truck in Duel and Christine-the-car are depicted as very old vehicles to the point that it looks like they shouldn't be running any more, supporting your point about modernity.

OTOH, elevators, especially modern-looking ones, seem to be useful for ghost stories. Possibly because, since they move, they allow for the possibility of being controlled by an unidentifiable and malevolent will.
That's a good theory Praline (I especially like your point about children), but I'd like to propose an alternate. Given your impressive skills of analysis and storytelling, is it possible that when you see a bad horror movie it sets your subconscious to trying to improve it?

That is, if you see a good horror movie, there's no need for a nightmare because you're already frightened. If you see a bad one, you're unimpressed and have to "fix" it with a scary dream.
I wonder if that's the problem of "modernity" seeming unromantic

Of course, this gets picked up on and reversed in an interesting way in Neil Jordan's COMPANY OF WOLVES, when the devil turns up in the pre-industrial neverland the story is set in - and he's being driven in an elegant twentieth century car...
There's a guy called Jamie Pennebaker, who shows that if you get people to write diary to themselves entries about traumatic things that they have experienced, they actually show health gains months later.

The theory goes that if something is traumatic, it floats about in your brain, and when you start processing it, you just seize up and think yourself in stressful circles. By forcing yourself to write it down (or talking to someone seems to help, but not talking to yourself), you force it into a narrative. Then, when you think about it later the narrative thread carries you through to the end, and you don't get stuck in the panicked feedback loop.

That's not too dissimilar than your idea here. Presumably bad stories have no narrative consistency to them, so when your mind summons them back (especially when you are asleep and so it's harder to impose your own narrative), you end up just swirling endlessly with the nightmarish imagery and associations.

Maybe you should do an experiment - when you next see one of these crappy films, flip a coin. If it's heads, spend 20 minutes sitting down and organizing the crappy movie into a sensible story of your own. I bet those ones won't wake you up like the non-writing ones will.
ecks, I like that idea a lot. Maybe that's also the answer to uncomfortable/angry/frustrating incidents the memories of which get stuck in "brooding repeat loop" in my head: write them down in such a way as to give the narrative an ending.

You know the fairy tale about the unappreciated main character who hears the elves singing "Monday and Tuesday, Monday and Tuesday" over and over again in a dreary loop, and who absentmindedly hums a phrase ending for them: "and Wednesday, too," and the elves are so happy they give the main character wishes/remove his hump/make diamonds and rubies come out of her mouth when she speaks? Yeah, that.
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