Halloween Was Two Months Ago, Can’t You Write Something About Turkeys?
I love horror movies.
This is much to the chagrin of my girlfriend, my roommate, and a few of my close friends, who are not nearly such big fans as I am. I will never forget the first horror movie that truly scared me. Not Chucky or Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th. None of those movies that I snuck into the living room for a few minutes of as a kid, when I was probably much too young to be watching that sort of thing. No, the first horror movie that scared me as an adult was The Ring.
Now, before you scoff or call me a wimp, just read on a bit. I’ll admit that I haven’t watched it in a while, and so I’m not entirely sure whether it holds up after all these years. But that night in the theatre (yes, I saw it in the theatre, which was probably a contributing factor). I can remember feeling chills all over my body when Ayden said “You weren’t supposed to help her. You don’t understand, Rachel. She doesn’t sleep.” Hell, I got chills typing it just now. And that night, I didn’t sleep so well, either. I kept half expecting to see a sodden, pale, half human girl-monster crawling out of the TV or leering over my bed when I opened my eyes.
Now, I’m not an idiot. I know that it’s just a movie. I know that Samara is just the product of some (brilliant, brilliant, brilliant) horror writer’s imagination. I know that I was not in any danger on my couch or in my bed or anywhere else in my apartment. And that’s one of the things that I love so much about horror movies: Really good ones force you to suspend your disbelief. Because while I knew those things during the day, and surrounded by other people, once the lights went down, I became not quite so sure. In his first novel, my favorite author, David Wong, put it like this: “We’re out here, in public with lights on and the whole world’s solid and lined up real neat. But down in that basement, in the dark, alone, you believed in things. Dark things.” By now you can see why I, as a writer, am so fascinated with that phenomenon. How do they do that? How do they take a rational, reasonable, functioning adult and turn him (or her) into a cowering, frightened child? Amazing.
I’ve been reading a lot of Stephen King lately (or rather listening to him — I got an Audible subscription for one of my trips to New Jersey to visit the Scatterbrained Seminarian, and my credits have been kind of piling up). Right now I’m in the middle of 11/22/63, which is so, so good. Definitely check it out. But anyway, one of the recurring ideas in the book — no spoilers, I’m only part way through it myself — is a monster (maybe? I’m not really sure what it is) that King calls the “Jimla.” If that sounds like a nonsense word to you, that’s because as far as I know, it is a nonsense word, and yet every time it comes up in the book, I get a chill that rivals the one I felt during Ayden’s terrified warning to Rachel all those years ago. And it’s not because it might be a monster — when King first calls attention to it, it’s just a word; part of a cheer chanted by a crowd at a football game. But it gave me chills, even then.
How does he do that? This isn’t even the first time — I remember reading Lisey’s Story and discovering “the Long Boy with the endless piebald side.” Nonsense. I know what “long” means, and what a boy is, and I even looked up piebald. None of them are inherently scary, and when combined, it’s nearly incomprehensible. But I still don’t like to look in mirrors at night when I’m by myself (and don’t even get me started about mirrors!)
Somehow it’s even more terrifying when it’s a book. In a movie, you’ve got music, lighting, and camera angles, and the inflection and expression of actors. That filmmakers can scare us is still amazing, but those things have a more unifying effect on audiences. We all see the same things in a movie. We see them differently, sure, but the lighting is not different for you than it is for me. In a written story, the author has to rely on the imaginations of the readers, each of which is a deck of wildcards. The Jimla and the Long Boy won’t affect every reader the same way, but for those of us who are affected by them, it’s because King has latched on to something in our minds that scares us. Maybe the thing in your mind is different than the thing in mine, but maybe it isn’t. And if not, what is it? What did King grab out of our imaginations, or the collective unconscious, or whatever?
How does he do that?
Thank you to horror writers everywhere, especially David Wong. And a special thanks to Stephen King, for being a strange, brilliant, and terrifying human being. And thank you to all of you for reading. More to follow.