Believing The Horror Stories

Reading & Writing

Believability is something all genre writers must grapple with. We write about the undead, vampires and ghosts, and are expected to provide plausible explanations for mankind’s oldest fears, which were really only the summation of one fear – the fear of death. The fact that we are irrational creatures should absolve us from providing explanations, but we also need satisfying outcomes to our stories. This creates a problem for the writer; how do we satisfy, yet make believable our tale by leaving part of it unknowable?

‘The Exorcist’ managed to for an interesting reason. The film has a strong documentary feel in its opening scenes, and sets such a realistic tone that we believe everything that follows. But it’s also because the spirit of the age underpins both film and book; the suggestion is that Regan’s mother is Godless; an actor, a single parent, foul-mouthed, ‘modern’, not part of a committed righteous family, and she keeps questionable company, so evil is allowed into the moral vacuum she and her daughter inhabit.

When the film was made, America was in turmoil – there was a powerful sense of loss and confusion, a feeling that the country had mislaid its moral compass. Charles Manson had committed appallingly senseless crimes, but it was the Watergate break-in just the year before, and the subsequent impeachment of Richard Nixon – an unthinkable event for an elected president – that shattered the American psyche. Into that whirlpool of self-doubt ‘The Exorcist’ intruded, subtly suggesting that where there was an absence of good, the Devil would find an entrance.

And yet ‘The Exorcist’ doesn’t feel reactionary or right wing. That’s the beauty of its structure – to suggest the prevailing subconscious sensibility without hammering it home. It’s human nature to try and put a face on guilt.

The deeply reactionary ‘Hostel’ films appeared at a time of retrenchment and suspicion of foreignness, and here the overt, unpalatable sentiment is that if you go beyond the safety of your backyard you’ll get into trouble, so it’s best to stay home. This time around, the message is so blunt and shrill that the films never gained mainstream popularity, because human nature tells us that the story is unlikely – foreigners aren’t out to ‘get’ naïve tourists. This is a thematic cycle that always reappears every few years – in the 1920s we believed that white slave traffickers were lying in wait to kidnap our women and drag them off to China.

Films like ‘Turistas’ and ‘The Shrine’ give audiences what they don’t even realize they fear most. In the same way that the perfect Daily Mail story is one which confirms your unvoiced fears, horror stories like to reflect the unspoken anxieties of the times.

So the stories that work best are ones which reflect the current climate – no surprise there. But that brings me to my problem with the well-written TV show ‘Being Human’. Try as I might, I can’t take it seriously at any level, because the far-fetched premise is such a huge stumbling block. For all of the show’s efforts to tap into a youthful zeitgeist, it seems entirely disconnected from the world I inhabit.

Horror, fantasy, edge and SF are still frowned upon by some of the snobbier ‘literary’ booksellers and critics, despite the long and illustrious careers of their writers, and it’s partly because of the issue of disbelief surrounding the supernatural.

Unfortunately, a great many films set themselves up to be scoffed at. Every few years Dracula is rebuilt as a romantic hero, from Frank Langella’s seventies smoothie to the mopey drips of Twilight, or ‘Fangtwinks’ as I like to think of it. But Dracula was intended as the embodiment of spiritual corruption, not a whey-faced, flopsy-haired teen-swoon who can be ‘saved’ by the love of a good woman.

This is where ‘Let The Right One In’ and its superb remake ‘Let Me In’ get it so right, by suggesting that while corruption can have innocent and alluring appeal, it’s merely a devil in disguise that will destroy you as surely as the young hero is doomed to become the latest in a long line of Renfields.

‘Let The Right One In’ is an instant classic because it conforms to something we don’t even realize we feel deep inside – that we might be tricked by appearances, and that our emotions will always betray us. We think this as we emerge from a disastrous love affair – ‘Why didn’t I see that coming?’

With the success of ‘The Woman In Black’, ghost stories are popular again, and here the traditional supernatural tale can lay the perfect groundwork for being tripped up by our own frailties. The script flaw in ‘Woman’ is that tragic events are not caused by the hero’s blindness.

In Sarah Waters’ excellent (if overlong) novel ‘The Little Stranger’, the protagonist fails to realize that he is the cause of tragedy until it is too late – I can’t think of a more realistic angle on the ghost story than that. Often we destroy relationships because we simply can’t see what others see – that we’re obviously unsuited and not helping each other by being together.

Great ghost stories rely on more than just twists – they point out these human truths and resonate with us.

10 comments on “Believing The Horror Stories”

  1. Dan Terrell says:

    Good piece, but I would add believability – to broaden the point – is something all writers must grapple with, including non-fiction writers.
    Starting last week, publicly, that genre should be able to write about “the first split/split second,” “the first moment” and “in the beginning” with more exactitude than at any time in the past, although metaphor shouldn’t be retired just yet. All writers need and love metaphor.
    “Houston, this is the ISS. We have a … We have a … Actually, we’re not certain what we have. The entire crew wants to… report… At 14.21.01, we all heard – and have recorded – a big voice outside saying: WARMER, GETTING MUCH WARMER. Did you pick that up down there, Houston?”

  2. snowy says:

    Hostel was an appalling piece of xenophobic trash, with a collection of characters each as detestable as each other, that was consigned to the bin straight after I watched it. (I only paid a pound for it after all. But I relented and took it to a charity shop later.)

    But the reference to the Transylvanian neck botherer, has happily reminded me of a long forgotten Mel Brooks comedy. Hmmm.

  3. glasgow1975 says:

    I like Being Human, I don’t think there’s a believability problem, it is about werewolves, vampires & ghosts (Oh my!) after all. Is there a reason for the US picture rather than the UK one? Not seen the US version & don’t want to. Maybe the US version is too slick? The UK original is pretty bleak 🙂

  4. Meechye says:

    I agree with glasgow1975, the UK Being Human was excellent. I can imagine that the US version is just like Friends.

  5. Jez Winship says:

    One of the reasons The Exorcist was so powerful was because it was open enough to allow for many interpretations. I’d not considered the possibility that it was a reactionary attack on single parenthood and the working mother. Its one reading amonst many others, all equally plausible.
    I liked Being Human at the start, when it was a small scale drama focussing on the domestic lives of supernatural creatures trying to be normal. But it all got caught up in the seemingly obligatory requirement to provide grandiose, overarching story arcs. It was better when it was quieter and more intimate – and funny. I still think there’s potential in a modern supernatural soap which just ambles along at its own pace.

  6. Bob Low says:

    I couldn’t agree more about the attempts to portray Dracula as a romantic hero.Frank Langella made him look more like a slightly shifty hair-dresser than a predatory, undead beast. I think I read somewhere that Stoker referred to the Count as ”this monstrous rapist leech”, and you don’t seem to get a sense of that primal evil in something like ”Twilght”. I really liked ”30 Days of Night” because it portrayed vampires with no redeeming or romantic features at all-just cunning,powerful, blood-thirsty predators. I have some reservations about the film ”Let the Right One In”, but I did like the unsentimental portrayal of the life of an immortal monster-and the growing sense that no relationship between a vampire and a human is ever going to end happily.

  7. glasgow1975 says:

    The recent Christmas BBC Dracula was awful, completely miscast Marc Warren.

  8. Helen Martin says:

    As long as vampires get blood they stay alive, right? What about a vampire story about one who cannot take his life any longer and commits suicide by locking himself up where he cannot get near people and starving(?) to death?

  9. Bob Low says:

    Oddly enough, Helen, that idea comes up in the last-or one of the last- of the Hammer Dracula films, ”The Satanic Rites of Dracula”. Set in 1970s London, a newly revived Count hatches a scheme to bring about the end of the world by unleashing a virulent new strain of bubonic plague . When one of the good guys points out that Dracula would just starve in a dead world, Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing utters the line-or something like it-”Perhaps that’s what he finally wants-an end to it all”.

  10. Helen Martin says:

    Doesn’t matter what idea you get there’s always an earlier version. Still, that’s only guesswork on Van Helsing’s part – it would be different if it were the main theme of the story. Killing the world in order to kill himself – now there is a self centred bit of thinking.

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