Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, culture, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Descent

The horror, the horror

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With Halloween right around the corner, my thoughts have been turning to horror, and not just at the prospect of providing candy for the 250 trick-or-treaters I’ve been reliably told to expect. The success of the third installment of the Paranormal Activity franchise, which scored both the highest October debut and the all-time best opening weekend for a horror movie, provides ample proof that the horror genre is alive and well. And while I have no intention of seeing Paranormal Activity 3, or anything else from the makers of the loathsome Catfish, I can’t help but admire the ingenuity behind a franchise that has grossed $450 million worldwide on a combined $8 million budget. Audiences love horror, it seems, which remains the only genre truly independent of budget or starpower, so I thought it might be fun to spend the next few days reflecting on this most potent, and misunderstood, segment of popular culture.

The first point, which can’t be stressed enough, is that horror in film and horror in literature are two very different things, although they’re often misleadingly conflated. Cinematic horror is a communal experience: nothing compares to seeing a great horror movie, whether it’s Psycho or The Descent, in a packed auditorium with an enthusiastic crowd. At its best, this carnival atmosphere adds enormously to the fun, as the A.V. Club’s Mike D’Angelo notes in his recent consideration of Scream 2, and is only diminished when a movie is experienced on video. (For what it’s worth, I suspect that the increase in the critical reputation of The Shining, which was widely dismissed on its initial release, is because it’s one of the few great horror movies that can be profitably watched at home, although its power is incalculably increased on the big screen.)

Horror fiction, by contrast, is experienced in solitude. This is true of all fiction, of course, but here the solitude is as much a part of the reading experience as communality is at the movies. For the full effect, horror novels or stories are best experienced alone, at night, in an empty house, and the best horror fiction amplifies the reader’s loneliness, so that every creaking floorboard or unexplained sound participates in the overall mood. (It’s no accident that many of the best horror stories are built around a spooky house.) And while every good novel is grounded on the reader’s identification with the characters, horror takes the identification to another level, until it becomes not just mental, but physiological. The sweating palms, the accelerating heart, the white knuckles—these are all signs that the identification is complete. And it can only achieve its optimal intensity when the reader is completely alone.

Clearly, an art form centered on a communal experience will evolve in utterly different ways than one that depends on solitude. And indeed, successful works in either medium have developed distinctive strategies to achieve the common goal of complete identification with the characters, at least for the duration of a scene. It’s unfortunate, then, how often aspiring writers in horror fiction take their cues from the movies, without realizing that the two forms have little in common, and how badly the movies have distorted the works of serious horror novelists like Stephen King. Writing good horror fiction, in particular, is a skill that only a handful of authors have managed to achieve, which is partially due to the misleading influence of cinematic horror. Tomorrow, I’ll talking more about this distinction, and about the differences between horror, terror, and the most powerful sensation of all, dread.

Written by nevalalee

October 24, 2011 at 9:10 am

Great art and the problem of spoilers

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Today on the A.V. Club, an article by critic Noel Murray has inspired a nice little discussion on the problem of spoilers, an issue on which I have some mixed feelings. On the one hand, I’ve been spoiled before. I had the death of a major character on The Wire spoiled for me by a clue in the New York Sun crossword puzzle, of all things. (Why, Peter Gordon, why?) And it always stings. On the other hand, I also believe that avoiding spoilers entirely can make it hard to read any kind of serious criticism. In some cases, a detailed plot summary can make it easier to get through a challenging work of art, whether it’s Game of Thrones or Andrei Rublev. And a good work of art is, or should be, more than the isolated details of its plot. It’s impossible to spoil a movie’s visual aspects, its director’s style, or the details of a great performance—although it’s certainly possible, alas, to spoil a joke.

In fact, you could make the argument that a defining factor of great art is its immunity to spoilers. And the opposite also holds: once a bad work of art has been spoiled for you, there’s rarely any reason to seek it out. Like a lot of people, I enjoy reading detailed plot summaries of horror movies that I never intend to see, to the point where I could probably give you a pretty good description, sight unseen, of the plot of Saw II. And I don’t think I’ve missed much—which is not the case for The Descent, for instance, not to mention The Shining. The same is true, unfortunately, of many works of mystery and science fiction. All too often, such stories are little more than delivery systems for a twist or an interesting idea, which could be conveyed as effectively in a paragraph as in an entire novel. (That’s why I like Borges, who pretends that the novel he wants to write already exists, and gives us the essential points by writing a review of it.)

A really good novel or movie, by contrast, has qualities that can’t be expressed in summary form. And it’s still possible to enjoy such works of art while knowing how they conclude, if the artist’s craft is strong enough to return you, at least temporarily, to a state of narrative innocence. One of the most striking examples is The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Everybody “knows” what happens in that story, so it’s startling to read it again, as I did a few weeks ago, and remember that the original novel, unlike its many adaptations, is structured as a straight mystery. Stevenson saves the revelation of Hyde’s true identity for the end of the ninth chapter, and the effect, if you can put yourself in the position of a reader experiencing it for the first time, is stunning—the only detective story, as others have pointed out, where the solution is more horrible than the crime.

The same is true of many classic movies. I’ve lost track of how often I’ve watched Psycho—I’ve seen it on the big screen three times, twice in the past two years alone—and yet the structure of that movie is so strong, with its brilliant opening mislead, that the first appearance of the Bates Motel, through its dark curtain of rain, hasn’t lost any of its original power. (Seeing it with an audience also helps, especially when it comes to that wonderful second murder, which has rarely, if ever, been spoiled.) The same is true, to a lesser extent, of the end of Citizen Kane: I’ll never be able to experience it the way it was intended, but by the time that moment comes, I can glimpse at least a shadow of what it might have been. Is it good enough? Yes. But I’d still give anything to experience it, just once, the way it was meant to be seen.

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