Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Don’t look in the mirror

with 4 comments

Shaun of the Dead

One of the incidental pleasures of having a newborn baby in the house is the chance to catch up on junk television. You invariably find yourself sitting for hours on the couch, either because the baby is feeding or because she refuses to sleep unless she’s being held at four in the morning, and you’re rarely in the mood for a show like Mad Men or Breaking Bad that demands sustained attention. Far better to go with something like The Vampire Diaries, which I’ve wanted to watch ever since reading an ecstatic writeup on The A.V. Club. My wife and I are currently burning through the first season on Netflix, and it more than lives up to its reputation as a teen soap with relentless pacing and insane plot twists. Part of the fun is how transparent it is about its sources: it’s a blatant knockoff of Twilight, but much more inventive, and it strikes a nice balance between earnestness and open acknowledgement of how ridiculous it all is. And it really won my heart in the second episode, which cheerfully indulges in not one, but two shamelessly contrived mirror scares.

You know what a mirror scare is. It’s that moment in countless scary movies and television shows when a character, alone in the bathroom, opens a medicine cabinet, then closes it to reveal someone standing right behind her in the mirror, inevitably accompanied by a scare chord on the soundtrack. It’s one of the hoariest of all horror movie tropes, to the point where the setup alone evokes a knowing grin from most viewers, yet it’s still as popular as ever, as this glorious YouTube compilation makes wonderfully clear. And you see it everywhere, in movies of all levels of quality. It’s a staple of the slasher genre, of course, but you also find it in marginally more canny entertainments, like The Mummy, or in the very clever Shaun of the Dead. Even Ang Lee, a director of tremendous technical resources, wasn’t above using it for an easy shock in Lust, Caution. And it’s worth asking why this simple effect has proven so enduring, and why it’s so hard for directors of all kinds to resist.

An American Werewolf in London

Because the great thing about the mirror scare is that it works. The visual vocabulary of horror movies isn’t large, which is why such films tend to return to the same handful of trick effects: the jump scare, the foreground or background surprise, the ominous empty hallway. As I pointed out in my post on the cinematic baguette, once a filmmaker stumbles across an effect that works on a consistent basis, it’s copied at once, because such tricks are priceless. The mirror scare is especially delicious because it’s so blatantly artificial: not only does it require a certain fixed camera angle, but it depends on the premise that characters are able to sneak up on one another in complete silence. There are other ways of suddenly revealing a character in the frame, as when, in the movies of Brian De Palma, a woman in the foreground steps aside or bends over to reveal a figure standing silently behind her. But there’s something about the use of a mirror that gives the moment an additional zing: it feels like a clever bit of sleight of hand, even if it’s been copied so many times as to lose all meaning.

And as a writer, I envy it. Cinematic horror has a bag of tricks that simply aren’t available to those of us who are forced to work on the printed page, and there are times when I wish I could draw upon something as simple and reliable. Novels and short stories can’t really startle us: you can’t just throw a cat at the reader and expect the effect to work. There’s no equivalent to the mirror scare in fiction, and when a writer tries to do something similar, usually with what John Gardner calls “superdramatic one-sentence paragraphs…of the kind favored by porno and thriller writers,” it comes off as hysterical or worse, when the mirror scare, even at its most gratuitous, has a nice kind of visual clarity. Literary horror is more about implication, anticipation, and dread, and even if its effects are more lasting, they’re much harder to achieve. It’s a reminder, as if we needed one, of how literary and cinematic horror are two very different beasts, and why the studios can crank out one horror movie after another, when truly terrifying novels remain so rare. They do it with mirrors.

Written by nevalalee

January 4, 2013 at 9:50 am

4 Responses

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  1. I’d never thought about the difference b/t cinematic and novelistic scares till just now. What tropes would you say exist in writing scary scenes? I don’t read a lot of horror, I would say that there are books with scary parts though it might be more correct to say that they cause anxiety. I read “The Passage” and “The Twelve” (both by Justin Cronin) last year and there were moments that scared the hell out of me.

    le cul en rows

    January 5, 2013 at 11:17 am

  2. For an amazing rundown of some of the best tropes available to authors of horror fiction, I can’t think of anything better than the chapter in The Shining when Danny enters Room 217 for the first time. They’re all here: the gradual buildup, the price of curiosity, the slow inexorable pursuit, the “it’s all in my head” moment, and best of all, the point when it seems the horror is past, when in fact it’s just getting started—and the rest is left to our imagination. These are basically all the tricks I know, and King covers them all in about four pages.


    January 5, 2013 at 12:28 pm

  3. Ever read George R. R. Martin’s short story Sandkings? There is a moment in there that made me jump in sudden disgust when I read it. Don’t know if it worked for most readers, but I remember being surprised that prose could do that.

    David Speyer

    January 6, 2013 at 6:38 pm

  4. I haven’t, although that story has been on my list for a long time. The closest equivalent to a jump scare in a book I can remember comes near the end of Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon—readers of the novel will probably know which moment I mean.


    January 7, 2013 at 1:41 am

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