My Neighbour Totoro (1988), from Japan’s Studio Ghibli, is one of the few genuinely child centred films in existence. In contrast, most films out of DreamWorks and Pixar contain dual levels of meaning, including jokes only the adult co-viewer will understand, or emotional layers inaccessible to children. Continue reading “My Neighbour Totoro Storytelling”
“The Ritual” is a horror film directed by David Bruckner, adapted by Joe Barton from Adam Nevill’s novel. Although this film is pretty standard in its tropes and structure, the CGI monster makes the viewing experience truly scary. This article says more about the monster and its basis in Swedish folklore.
When I think of Sweden I think ‘safety’. I think of social security, free university, and a society that looks after its sick and elderly. This hygge expectation of Scandinavian countries is utilised by Luke Pearson in his creation of the Hilda series. It’s used again in The Ritual. On a hiking trip to Sweden, what could possibly go wrong?
In common with fairytales, the forest in this horror is a metaphor for the subconscious. By entering the trees, you have signed on to take a deep dive into your darkest, most terrible fears.
One reading of this film: A man struggles with guilt and regret when his friend is killed as he stands by, frozen by fear. He replays this situation over and over, wondering what he might have done differently. He blames himself, and when he imagines his friends also blame him, he becomes emotionally isolated from them, emerging alone, with no friendships intact.
The man’s PTSD is symbolised by the monster. When Luke’s friends are picked off one by one, that’s him, cutting himself off, because hanging out with his usual friends only reminds him of the friend that he lost.
This makes The Ritual is a horror story for the modern age: The monster represents a major psychological weakness. The main character (an everyman rather than a hero) must come face to face with his fears before he has a hope of overcoming them. This is in line with the tenets of modern psychology. Suppression and repression are thought to lead to intrusive thoughts, doing damage to our mental wellbeing until we share our fears with others, acknowledge them and use strategies to help us deal with traumas.
The Ritual makes use of a classic trope of horror: A group of people go on a journey, they meet some kind of monster(s), and then each gets picked off, one by one. This is a horror-take on the classic mythic journey. In many ways, four men going off on a hiking trip is the same as a road trip film, because these characters are stuck with each other in close quarters, and the conflict between the men is as important to the narrative as the conflict between man and monster (which is scary, but not otherwise inherently interesting).
This is a story written, adapted and directed by men, and one of the first things that stands out to me is the masculinity of the main characters. The middle-aged friends are jokey-mean and have known each other since their university days. There’s a clear pecking order, with Hutch at the top. There is no room for weakness, which they equate with femininity. When Dom twists his knee/ankle, Hutch refers to him as an ‘Egyptian princess’.
A group of women in the same situation would likely turn back. Women would believe another woman who says she’s too injured to continue. But men of this particular milieu, with a long history of oneupmanship, are not afforded this luxury. They have no choice but to press on. Hence, they take a shortcut through the woods.
The viewer is left to deduce that the men have gone on the hiking trip to Sweden in memory of their dead friend. He wanted to go, even though they did not. They’re not at all athletic. These are men who’d rather be sitting around in pubs or on beaches. This is perfect for storytelling — it makes them fish out of water.
Although it’s the promise of beer that makes the four friends plough on through the Swedish woods, that is simply the surface desire. It is the toxic competition and lack of empathy between them which drives them to plough on. But the monster will sorely test their manliness, as we later see them screaming, cowering and crying. By the time Luke emerges staggering from the woods, he is no longer the same man — he is possibly no longer a ‘man’.
I figure the monster is scary mostly because of its chimera qualities, blending human with animal. The human arms coming out of its jaw give it an insect appearance, and giant insects are terrifying. (Have you ever seen a blown-up image of a bed bug?) The nice thing about choosing Swedish folklore for a contemporary story is that Swedish monsters are shapeshifters. They can look however you want them to look.
Parts of the monster are revealed to us slowly, which creates several effects:
- We feel a foreboding sense of decapitation. That is hardly subtle in this film — the offering they find in the cottage literally has no head — just hands holding its antlers in place.
- We don’t know what exactly we’re in for. We wouldn’t know what to look out for, and we can’t avoid something we don’t understand. It’s everywhere and nowhere at once.
- The gradual revelation of the monster symbolises the gradual descent into the darkest pits of psychology.
- Eventually the entire monster is revealed and this is the Battle scene. It’s also the payoff for the audience, who enjoys the horripilation. The rule of horror: You can’t show bits and pieces of the monster without eventually showing us the monster. That would be unsatisfying.
Another part of the monster’s scariness derives from its movements. Slow and deliberate followed by rapid movements seem to be the most scary of all. This describes the movements of the most poisonous spiders in the world. (And I speak from experience — I once found the most poisonous spider in the world waiting for me on the carpet beside my desk.)
The old woman in the cottage in the woods is a very old trope, connected to the Baba Yaga stories seen across various eras and locations. This old woman is sometimes helpful, sometimes murderous, which makes her even more terrifying than the monster. At least with the monster you know what you’re getting. But the old woman in The Ritual, who shockingly reveals the stigmata across her chest in place of nurturing breasts, cares for Luke while torturing Dom. There’s no rhyme nor reason, to us.
Why is this creature always a woman? I believe it’s a dichotomy people carry regarding all women: motherly women and non-motherly women. Motherly women will lay down their lives for you. Motherly women will never ever do you harm. Their love towards all children — towards all people — is unconditional. But at some point in our development we must go out into the world, away from our actual mothers, and we must realise, bitterly, that not all women are going to love us unconditionally. This comes as a huge shock. For various reasons to do with how boys and girls are brought up differently, and the more distanced parenting approach of fathers, who let their daughters (and sons) down much earlier in life, the realisation that not all women are motherly types probably comes as an even bigger shock to men.
This is what makes The Ritual a solid horror film. It is scary. It says something deeper about the human condition. The masculinity of it stands out to me precisely because I’m not a man.
By the same token, is it possible to critique male fears while simultaneously indulging in them? The witch is terrifying because she is old and sexually unappealing. This trope has been historically terrible for older women.
The men are punished for their constant oneupmanship, but Luke is also punished for failing to ‘be a man’ and lay his life on the line for his mate. The possibility that he may well have been killed for being a hero is never explored overtly in the film.
This month I’m blogging a series aimed at teaching kids how to structure a story. This seven-step structure works for all forms of narrative. It works for picture books, songs, commercials, films and novels. Today I take a close look at The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson to show how universal structure exists behind all good stories. The Gruffalo is an example of mythic structure, which has been super successful as a story structure across cultures for the last 3000 years.
Julia Donaldson is a master at taking old folktales and rewriting them in rhyme for a contemporary audience. The Gruffalo draws heavily from Alexandra the Rock-eater: An old Rumanian tale, retold by Dorothy Van Woerkom and published in picture book form in 1978. Julia Donaldson uses the same device of tricking a formidable creature into thinking you’re much stronger than you are.
In the Romanian tale, an underdog hero convinces a dragon of her own considerable might. This is a familiar device in many folk tales. (For example, you might squeeze cheese but persuade a formidable opponent that you’re really squeezing buttermilk from a stone.) She’s trying to get rid of the local dragon in return for a gift of animals. She needs animals because she has 100 children to feed (all magic results from having wished for them.)
STORY STRUCTURE OF THE GRUFFALO
For more on mythic structure, see this post. Basically, a character goes on a journey, meets friends and foes, changes as a person (or animal, in this case), and returns home. Sometimes they find a new home. In any case, they’ll be different for their experiences than they were at the beginning. This is called a ‘character arc’.
WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?
What’s wrong with Mouse? They’re small and therefore vulnerable.
But Mouse’s great strength is that they are a trickster character. The trickster is a super popular archetype in stories from every era. For a successful story (or scene), a trickster character is your absolute best bet. Go ahead and create characters who play tricks to get what they want. You may not approve of what your characters do morally, but readers love tricksters and their tricks.
WHAT DO THEY WANT?
Mouse is off on a journey. We don’t know where s/he is going, but Mouse tells everyone along the way that they are off to see the Gruffalo. Obviously, this is not the mouse’s real desire. Mouse doesn’t think Gruffalos really exist. We’ll never know where Mouse is really going. I’d say they’re off to find nuts, with no particular destination in mind.
Mouse encounters only baddies on this trip — no true helpers/mentors. Mice tend to have a lot of enemies because they are small. That puts them near the bottom of the mammalian food chain. Mice are popular characters in children’s stories because both mice and children are small. So the mouse is a stand-in for the child.
Because Mouse is a trickster, s/he quickly turns the Gruffalo into an ally, even though s/he didn’t even believe in Gruffalos until meeting one.
WHAT’S THE PLAN?
The plan is to walk through the forest freely by telling opponents that s/he’s off to meet a Gruffalo, scaring everyone off.
In lots of stories, the initial plan doesn’t work and has to be changed. Our quick-thinking Mouse does not disappoint. When she realises the Gruffalo is real she decides to trick the Gruffalo into thinking s/he herself is fearsome by having Gruffalo walk behind.
Julia Donaldson has done something masterful here, pulling off what writers call a reversal. The reader now knows that the reason all those other animals were scared of the Gruffalo isn’t just because they’re easily duped — it’s because the Gruffalo really does exist. Perhaps Mouse heard about the Gruffalo but didn’t believe it was real… until this story.
In stories with mythic structure, there won’t be just the one battle. There will be a series of them, increasing in intensity until the final showdown. There is a minor standoff every time Mouse meets a creature who wants to eat them. When Mouse is surprised to see the Gruffalo, that’s another. Then the story works in reverse, very similar to what Roald Dahl did with The Great Big Enormous Crocodile. With The Gruffalo behind, Mouse meets all of those animal opponents again, this time scaring them.
So what’s the Big Battle? It doesn’t consist of much — it’s that ending scene — we might call it the climax. Mouse doesn’t need The Gruffalo anymore, so talks about Gruffalo Crumble, scaring The Gruffalo away.
Mouse has won.
WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER LEARN?
At a surface level, Mouse has learned that Gruffalos really do exist.
At a lower level, Mouse has learned that wits can overcome size in any battle.
At an even lower level, we might posit all sorts of psychological theories about how if you pretend for long enough, that thing really will seem true after a while. Bluster over substance can work. Fake it til you make it…
HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?
The final page shows Mouse eating nuts, and everything is good. For Mouse, life will continue as before, though I imagine Mouse is a little more confident about their abilities as a trickster now.
STORYWORLD OF THE GRUFFALO
Axel Scheffler’s illustrations are well-suited to Julia Donaldson’s stories because although many of the stories feature scary characters in forests, over boggy marshes (Room On The Broom) and on lonesome highways (The Highway Rat), the colour palette Scheffler uses is colourful and bright even when the atmosphere is raining and dark.
Forests and fairytales go together. If you want to add danger and intrigue to your story, you can place your cast in the middle of a forest, or if they live in a town, put that town right next to a forest. That way, there’s always the threat that something will come out of the forest. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. Doesn’t matter if you use the forest in this way. The existence of a nearby forest is enough.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST
A picture book writer very similar to Julia Donaldson is New Zealand’s Joy Cowley, who also writes rhyming picture books using ancient tales as inspiration. If I told you Nickety Nakkety Noo Noo had been written by Joy Cowley, or that Joy Cowley had written The Gruffalo, you’d probably believe me.
Letter to Momo is a 2011 Japanese feature anime directed by Hiroyuki Okiura, also known for Ghost In The Shell. After the oceanographer father drowns in a disaster at sea, mother and daughter move from Tokyo to the small island village where the mother spent holidays once per year with her aunt and uncle to recuperate from her asthma as a child. Creatures from Japanese folklore appear to guide young Momo through the grieving process, in this story intimately connected to Japanese Buddhist and Shinto traditions.