How To Make Things Frightening

Film

Birds-1

Although I’ve written fewer of them in the last few years, I’ve always enjoyed a good supernatural story or film. In the last few years, the genre has become lost, without much of a way forward. Once it reflected simple fears of darkness and unknown lonely places, but subtlety is required to build the right atmosphere, and anything that that takes time runs the risk of being called ‘slow’. We’re into shocks, but critic Kenneth Tynan warned about writing for sensation only many years ago.

When I decided to write a ghost story, I took a typically perverse attitude towards it. After all, if you can’t bring something new to the genre why bother? (adaptors of ‘The Woman In Black’ film, please note). So, as one perspicacious reader has noted on this site, although the book is ostensibly about bad histories in houses and what lurks in the shadows (readers expect you to tick those boxes) it’s actually about our heroine’s state of mind, her future and the bright light. I wanted to make sunlight creepy, not darkness.

The only time I’ve seen this done before is in the opening of ‘Spoorloos’ (‘The Vanishing’), the Dutch smash hit in which a young woman vanishes in a service station. The place is in dazzling sunshine, is packed with customers and feels normal and welcoming up until the time she disappears. Immediately after, we look for threats in the most innocuous details. The film wisely doesn’t point them up (unlike the truly appalling Hollywood remake) but lets them prey on your mind.

So I kept my sunlight bright and cheery until (I hope) you felt you wanted to get the hell out of it.

We know the old tricks no longer work – the crash cut, the ominous chords, the loud music sting – but bad films still use them. In ‘The Innocents’, there’s only birdsong on the soundtrack, and even that vanishes just before something bad happens, so that you come to dread silence. To my mind, silence and stillness are crucial to making something eerie – you need opposites to balance scenes out. Hitchcock knew this, and a number of his key suspense scenes are played out either in total silence or with natural sound.

This understatement, used to heighten emotion, was once so common in books but has now almost gone, and only seems to turn up in world cinema. And it’s not just in supernatural films but in SF. ‘2001’ is the best example of sound perfectly used, and in the apocalyptic movie ‘Los Ultimos Dias’ (‘The Last Days’) the end of the world comes about for the most brilliantly banal of reasons – people simply become scared of going out.

Fears need simplicity – we make reasons too complicated. ‘Jaws’ is probably the best example of a simple fear well rendered. Can we ever get back to basics?

5 comments on “How To Make Things Frightening”

  1. Steve Nagel says:

    Recently I watched The House at the End of Time. It was a terrific fright film, mixing scaring with caring, about the fates of the mother and son.

  2. Helen Martin says:

    I have had arguments with my son several times on the subject of “background” music. I feel that the action should create the mood, not rely on musical keys (I mean the kind that open locks!) to set tone (huh, you know what I mean) Think about that Jaws music. It couldn’t be used in any other kind of film. Now think about 2001. That was music we all knew so it didn’t so much set the tone as separate the action from everyday. It would have still been good without the music, although different. You can read 2001 and still feel the same as you do in the film, although you will say that the material in the book provides the mood while the film doesn’t have that material so it uses the music in its place, I suppose. I’d be better off if I did my thinking before I started writing and not try to write the whole process.

  3. Helen Martin says:

    Oh, and it’s “scared of going out” or “scared to go out”. Afraid and scared, bored and tired are two sets of verbs that can drive you distracted.

  4. John says:

    I liked Nyctophobia. It was like a blend of Barbara Michaels’ early supernatural and haunted house novels and Dennis Wheatley’s love of occultists and their bizarre rituals. Have you ever read any of Michaels’ work? The protagonist in Nyctophobia could have been lifted from the pages of one of her books.

  5. admin says:

    I’ve never even heard of Barbara Michaels – thanks for the heads-up; I’ll do her as an ‘Invisible Ink’ column.

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