The Scared Brain: Favourite Cerebral Scares


Considering I’ve written some 300 short stories in the genre of the fantastic, I feel that stories in which one’s inner doubts and fears are made irrefutably solid is the bravest choice to make aesthetically.

Psychological stories achieve a unique level of catharsis but shocking images must be yoked within the service of powerful ideas. The stripping back of artifice and the abandonment of sentimental hope to create a cathartic release is hard to pull off. The language of film was not a Hollywood invention but has since been bastardised into a catalogue of physical confrontation, weapon fetishism and aggression seemingly connected to settler mentality, the need to stake out territory. The majority of cerebral films function without recourse to the same language.

One could argue that Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’ is the most cerebral story of all because it is unknowable. While crime and mystery stories have neat explanations, fantastical works mine psychology depth and don’t need them, which is probably why Kafka and Camus remain two of my favourite writers.

Readers often ask me about my favourites, so here are a few that immediately come to mind.

Folk horror is paradoxically attracted to and repelled by pagan religions. It offers an idyllic return to nature so long as an unpalatable payment is extracted. In the novel ‘Harvest Home’ author Tom Tryon suggests that a heteronormative fantasy requires rules and punishments. It’s no surprise that folk horror made an appearance after the hippie dream had soured. The restored cut of ‘The Wicker Man’ (UK) plays like a free folk concert/ love-in right up until the doors are locked, and ‘Midsommar’ (Sweden-US) lives in its shadow. Clearly Catholic guilt clearly exists in unorthodox religions too.

There were numerous walkouts during early screenings of ‘New Order’ (Mexico), an urban Lord of the Flies riff in which a dark-skinned underclass rises up against their lighter-skinned foes.

The end of a political regime, and by implication civilisation itself, is depicted through the eyes of the privileged white 1%. A glamorous wedding reception is interrupted by the sights and sounds of rebellion; the throwing of paint and gunshots. The proletariat has finally risen, but who do you side with when you’re the intended target and the rebels prove as corrupt as the old order?

‘High Rise’ (UK) offered a violent variant, taking the class war into new areas of discomfort. The idea that society is a thin veneer that can easily be stripped away runs through all such films.

Ben Wheatley’s controversial breakout feature ‘Kill List’ (UK) started as a neo-realist drama and morphed into something more fantastical as two morally bankrupt thugs attempt to live normal home lives while facing ethical choices within their own codes of behaviour. Like the protagonists of his previous film ‘Down Terrace’, they are middlemen, doomed to forever follow orders like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. It never occurs to either of them that they might be part of a larger game over which they have no control. As they work their way through their client’s kill list they fail to spot its most obvious implications, and face a very dark night of the soul.

‘Let The Right One In’/ ‘Let Me In’ (Sweden/UK) explored the true meaning of vampirism – the deceitful use of another human soul for one’s own infinite selfish needs – in both versions of this chilly thriller, set in midwinter on a snowy housing estate. Because we trust the youthful protagonist and believe in the notion of redemption through love, we blindly ignore what’s really happening and are helpless to prevent it. How better to depict age-old evil than through innocent children, as in ‘The Innocents’?

On the surface ‘Spoorloos’  aka ‘The Vanishing’ (Holland) appears to be a missing girl crime story, but the heroine and her boyfriend were disconnected before she vanished in a crowded, sunlit service station. The boyfriend doubts his own motives for needing to find her and the abductor, terrifying because he is so selfishly conformist, pursues a fateful resolution unseeable from the outset, one that we do not wish to see. The result is a film that continues to unsettle through the years, and like ‘La Madre Muerte’ (Spain) has discomfiting moments of dark humour.

In the B-movieish ‘Penumbra’ (Argentina) a condescending estate agent becomes the subject of a #MeToo escalation that she doesn’t see coming, even though we’re filled with dread from the outset. Rushing to sell her mother’s gloomy flat to an ominous stranger, she gradually loses control of a male-dominated situation. The panicky slide from arrogance to victimhood can be seen as a magnification of what occurs in everyday life, and the sense of dread is equal to that of Toni Collette’s in ‘Hereditary’.

I wondered how long it would be for someone to link black experience with cinema of unease. ‘Us’ (US) Jordan Peele’s follow-up to ‘Get Out’ can’t quite top that smashing debut but combines satire with a fantastical premise to terrific effect. A suburban middle-class family faces its doppelgängers in a riff on ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ that suggests alien invaders come from somewhere much closer to home. The ‘tunnels and rabbits’ explanation jettisons credibility but by that time we’re prepared to go all the way with the premise.

In ‘Wake In Fright’ (Australia) a teacher heads to Sydney for a holiday, but after losing all his money he’s adopted by a group of men from a bar who drag him into increasingly macho standoffs, starting with drinking games and progressing to an astonishing night-time kangaroo hunt.

The outback men don’t understand why he questions their alcohol-enforced friendship. At one point a character asks; ‘Why’s he sitting over there talking to a woman?’ to which the sarcastic reply is, ‘He’s a schoolteacher’. Australians were horrified by their on-screen portrayal as drunken vulgarians and the film flopped. Despite its selection for Cannes and becoming a hit in France it was lost until a team of film researchers restored the original negative.

‘Get In’ aka Furie (France) is a virtual mirror-image to ‘Wake In Fright’, suggesting that the call to ‘man up’ can work all too well, and once unleashed cannot be reversed.

In ‘The Advantages of Travelling By Train’ (Spain) a wife regretfully commits her husband to a mental home. On the train, her doctor tells a story that leads to other tales of love and cruelty. One involves the secret world of dustmen, another (the darkest) reduces a kindly woman to canine status after meeting her dog-obsessed husband. Surreal twists turn everyday conversations into awkward, disturbing encounters. The great Luis Tosar turns up in drag with one arm. The message is clear; people are unknowable, none of us can be trusted.

Bacurau is a quilombo, a settlement founded by escaped slaves many years before. While the audience takes a stroll around the place, the townsfolk start popping hallucinogens – and did you just see a flying saucer pass by? The pieces of the puzzle are surreal but a master plan becomes clear in time. There are signs and portents; the schoolteacher discovers that Bacurau has vanished from his GPS and that the phones have stopped picking up a signal. Riderless horses, a water truck riddled with bullet holes, coffins piling up…the sheer impossibility of understanding what you’re seeing keeps you off-kilter even when explanations arrive. ‘Bacurau’ is the winner of over 50 international film awards.


11 comments on “The Scared Brain: Favourite Cerebral Scares”

  1. Helen+Martin says:

    The human imagination is a very scary place. This is all outsde my experience and way beyond what we called as kids “a scary, scary movie”.

  2. Stu-I-Am says:

    I think Rod Serling was a master of the “genre” and although there are simply too many “Twilight Zone” episodes to relate that make that point, “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” is a fine example. You may remember that the town in the episode is manipulated by aliens in an experiment to turn neighbors against one another, with the goal being to see if humans will destroy themselves and make Earth ripe for invasion. And of course, each episode is usually a parable in the bargain, as the closing narration of “The Monsters…” demonstrates:

    The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices…to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill…and suspicion can destroy…and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own—for the children and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to the Twilight Zone.

  3. Andrew+Holme says:

    I’m currently pushing ‘The Lottery’ onto my Yr 9 and 10 students. It really does get them into some dark thoughts about society and traditional practises that continue because – well- we’ve always done them. Here in Abingdon we still throw buns from the old Town Hall roof once a year. Nobody knows why. There used to be a staple tabloid story every year about Spanish donkeys being hurled from high places during religious festivals. ‘The Lottery’ was published soon after the horrors of WW2 had been fully disseminated and it explained to America that we’re all capable of such behaviour. I wonder what traditions we have now that we’re going to look back on in fifty years time and ponder, “what the hell were they thinking?” Electing Old Etonians for Prime Minister is my contribution.

  4. Brooke says:

    What Stu-I-Am said. As the cartoon Pogo announced, “We have seen the enemy and it is us.” Bigotry should be classified as a potent WMD and banned.

    Re: The Lottery. The story is even more horrible if related to Jackson’s abusive marriage to a minor (very!) intellectual and her faculty-wife lifestyle in rural small town Vermont. Traditional sacrificial and war rituals pale in comparison to small town college meaness and living with a miserly, egomanical, untalented partner–Jackson’s chosen lot, even when she became financially stable on her own. (see Franklin’s rather entertaining biography of Jackson)

  5. Brooke says:

    On another topic–crowd funded publishing. Take a look at
    For those among us who would like to have access to your short stories.

  6. Stu-I-Am says:

    Off-topic, but related to film. M. Fowler has explained why B&M haven’t (yet) made it to any screen (other than as ebooks). And while that is probably just as well, I have to believe that with all of the competition-driven original productions issuing forth from the streaming services (Netflix and Amazon, in particular) — some of it very well done — there may well be an opportunity. That is, assuming M. Fowler wants to, and can, serve as Head Hyphenate (producer-director-writer) on any production.

    However, while I’m spitballing — to use a pleasant American idiom — I have to wonder about casting ? Who among present British actors (of a certain age) might suit ? Would younger actors work, or would that put the damper on a key humour element ? And what of a mixed double ? Would we avert our eyes if one or the other of the beloved characters was a woman ?

  7. admin says:

    Hi Stu –

    We have played the casting game many times before, with real casting. At one point Michael Gambon and Derek Jacobi were lined up, and at another point Stephen Fry was on board. The series has been optioned a LOT but none of the scripts ever came remotely close to tackling the books, tending to turn them into mundane procedurals. We don’t like mundane, do we readers?

  8. admin says:

    Thanks for the link Brooke…

  9. Stu-I-Am says:

    @admin Was there some reason you did not write the scripts ? Or — heaven forfend — you did and they were rewritten ? I also have to believe at least one stumbling block were the necessary historical “themes” or underpinnings which give the books (at least to me) a good measure of their interest. Surely the device of introducing them, even in a suggestive way, in opening scenes to set the stage would not be a great creative leap and would (in my humble opinion) likely whet viewer interest, without necessarily giving away the plots. Paraphrasing what you’ve said elsewhere, the real issue is, no doubt, the intellectual laziness (politely speaking…) of those who control the levers. However, having said that, I’ve seen enough “quirk” in good productions from the likes of Netflix and Amazon to where a “responsible” version of B&M would not be a stretch, I have to believe. But then, in the cosmic scheme of things,perhaps like the Dead Sea Scrolls, B&M were never meant to transmute to the screen.

  10. Jonah says:

    No, sir, we don’t like mundane. If the scripts are mediocre and misrepresent the Bryant & May novels, better they’re not filmed. Just look (or better still, DON’T) at the cock-up of James Matthews’s “Red Sparrow”. The humor drained out (granted impossible to visualize the chapter recipes but the movie leaves out much more than that), its Russian heroine Domenika coming off as violently psychotic, and its American hero Nate, fit, in his 20s in the book, re-written to suit the actor Joel Edgerton, so he was made 40-ish and out-of-shape.
    But … if a Bryant & May mystery was filmed, I can see Timothy Spall as Bryant, although he’d have to put the weight back on! The current slim-line Timothy Spall looks more suitable for May. As Janice … a glammed-up Miranda Hart? Anna Chancellor? I think I’ll go with Anna Chancellor in my head when I read the upcoming B&M.

  11. Wayne+Mook says:

    Oddly enough one of the modern crime series on TV that does give historical information and lurches at time into full blown folk horror is Midsomer Murders, if they can get away with some really bizarre episodes I don’t see why it can’t be done elsewhere. Th killing of a monk is the basis for one (complete with history of that time), cults, even Ufologists and crop circles.


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