How To Make Things Frightening
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?