Nyctophobia: A First Look
So, here’s the latest rough of the cover artfor my 2014 haunted house thriller, Nyctophobia.
Why do so many suspense and horror films take place in virtual darkness? I’ve always found the dark a cliche, probably because I was never very bothered by it. However, an early movie, ‘Wait Until Dark’, did scar me as a kid, to the point where I made woodcuts of Alan Arkin in my art class at school just to get the image of his character, Roat, out of my head. The film features a blind woman (Audrey Hepburn) confronting crooks who are trying to find a heroin-filled doll in her apartment. It’s an oddity, with its skewed, creepy score by Henry Mancini, and bits that don’t quite make sense – why go to so much trouble to deceive her when a threat would have worked? And why would one of the crooks disguise his face if she’s blind? But the finally scare after Hepburn smashes all the lightbulbs in the flat stayed with me for years.
Apparently it works brilliantly in the theatre, where it originated. Light and dark signify what’s hidden and what’s in plain sight. In ‘All The President’s Men’, characters slip back into shadow when they can say no more about what they know. It’s hard to scare people in bright light, but ‘Spoorloos’ (‘The Vanishing’) does it so brilliantly, with its abduction at the sunny, crowded gas station that for years after whenever I stopped at a gas station in France I felt uneasy.
When it came to writing ‘Nyctophobia’ I knew that light and dark were the key to the novel, so I decided to shift its location from the English countryside to Southern Spain. I needed to be sure that the light sections of the book were really bright and would contrast with what was happening in the shadows of the house, in the way that paintings by De Chirico caught the sharply delineated oddity of Mediterranean light.
But perhaps we don’t respond to too much claustrophobic darkness – ‘Buried’, the tour-de-force movie set entirely in a coffin flopped at they box office, despite being incredibly tense and smart. Dark suggests enclosure and confinement. Nyctophobia sufferers speak of ‘stifling’ and ‘suffocating’ darkness. Light is associated with open spaces and freedom.
The best use of light and dark I’ve seen in a film is ‘Darkness In Tallin’, in which a man is released from prison to heist a gold bullion van by blacking out a city, not knowing that his wife is on an emergency support system. The ‘lights on’ sections of the film are in black and white, and the dark sequences are in colour – I’m amazed no-one has remade this.
Shadows denote passing time. The sultans of the Persian dynasties built courtyards with direct sunlight so that no shadows ever cut them in half, because they believed that death hid in the darkness. In ‘Nyctophobia’ I found a number of ways of using encroaching shadows to suggest something sinister – but you’ll have to wait until next year to find out what’s in the dark!