When you encounter mist in real life, what do you recall? Stephen King’s novella? Frank Darabont’s 2007 adaptation of Stephen King’s novella? The 2017 TV series adaptation of Stephen King’s novella?
You may have even studied “The Mist” in literature class — the tertiary level equivalent of Lord of the Flies. This popular science fiction horror contains plenty for discussion and analysis.
Or maybe you’ve never encountered Stephen King’s Mist story before in your entire life, and you don’t scream to family members, “SOMETHING IN THE MIST TOOK JOHN LEE!” whenever fog descends.
I’ve seen the 2007 film numerous times but only just read the novella. There will inevitably be some conflation of those two slightly different stories below, so I’m going to talk about both without worrying about mixing them up.
Stephen King’s list of top ten ALL TIME favourite books is doing the rounds, because anything Stephen King has ever said regularly does the rounds. That’s why I’m going to focus on Stephen King as just one example of a wider trend: Men don’t count women among their favourites.
Every single one of those books is either entirely by a man or edited by men.
For any widely read reader, limiting favourites to ten is always going to be a ridiculously contrived list, which is why it’s so annoying that he mindlessly picked creators who look/ed just like himself.
In his writing book, On Writing—mostly read by other writers and uber fans—Stephen King lists more of his favourite books at the back. Here you will find a few women.
This is a list of the books he recommended for writers back in 2000:
It’s possible I’ve misgendered a few but I’ve emboldened the female creators on his list. As you can see, the expanded list still skews hugely male. (A couple of those recommended books are by his own wife, but okay.)
King is so powerful as a writer that he is unable to criticise other writers without sounding mean-spirited.
Nevertheless, King sometimes punches down. These are the books King recommends in his memoir as examples of bad writing:
“Asteroid Miners” — which King admits is not the exact title (and therefore can’t be found) Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Sussan — the story of three young women who become fast friends in the turbulent post-war worlds of Broadway and Hollywood Flowers In The Attic by Virginia Andrews — about some children who are locked in the attic by their grandmother and begin an incestuous relationship. The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller — the story of about an Italian war bride, Francesca, who lives with her husband and two children on a farm in Iowa, then falls in love with someone else.
Though his list of negative examples is short, of the books King names accurately, they are either by a woman or about a specifically female experience. I’ll make no comment about how terrible they are, because that’s beside my point: If he was going to pick mainly men as good examples, there were plenty of male creators to choose from when picking bad ones. His list of bad books skews female.
HETEROSEXUAL MEN LOVE MEN
King’s top ten list, combined with his list of bad examples, reminds me of the following quote:
To say that straight men are heterosexual is only to say that they engage in sex (fucking exclusively with the other sex, i.e., women). All or almost all of that which pertains to love, most straight men reserve exclusively for other men. The people whom they admire, respect, adore, revere, honor, whom they imitate, idolize, and form profound attachments to, whom they are willing to teach and from whom they are willing to learn, and whose respect, admiration, recognition, honor, reverence and love they desire… those are, overwhelmingly, other men. In their relations with women, what passes for respect is kindness, generosity or paternalism; what passes for honor is removal to the pedestal. From women they want devotion, service and sex.
Heterosexual male culture is homoerotic; it is man-loving.
Marilyn Frye, The Politics of Reality (1983)
KING’S FAVORITE SHORT STORY COLLECTION
Stephen King’s favourite short story collection, The Golden Argosy, was published in 1955. Inevitably, that includes mainly white male writers as well.
This collection is no longer in print, but a reviewer on Goodreads collected links to each of the stories as they exist on the web, and here it is.
This year I’ll make sure to read the paucity of women in this collection. If I haven’t already, I’ll write about their stories on this blog.
(Edit: Now that I’ve read them, only two of the five are about women — “Big Blonde” and “Flowering Judas”.)
LET’S MAKE LISTS OF WOMEN
Since publishing corporations will tell you, women keep their corporations alive. In the USA, women are the more avid book readers, per the study, being 13% more likely than men to have read a book in the prior 12 months (77% vs. 68%). Women are also far more likely to be buying books as gifts for others.
I don’t need to go out of my way to gender balance my reading. I’ve done a post hoc count up and it happens quite naturally, probably because I’m female myself.
I write a newsletter for a sports club, and each month I do a member profile. Our club breakdown is almost exactly half women, half men. Writing newsletters is a bit of a pain in the neck, but I go out of my way to ask as many women as men for interviews. This isn’t easy, because more men than women come down to play other members (rather than privately).
We can all do small things like this to improve the current state of play.
However, in the name of redressing a wider imbalance…
MY FAVOURITE ALL TIME FAVOURITEST MOST FAVOURITE BEST EVER AUTHORS
In no particular order, here is my list of ALL TIME favourite authors.
IT is a 1986 horror novel by Stephen King, first adapted for screen in 1990, and most recently in 2017. This blog post is about the storytelling of the 2017 film.
THE TERRIBLE MONSTER OF IT
I liked what one reviewer had to say about IT: The monster in this film is whatever the story requires him to be for the scene. Indeed, this monster is the ultimate shapeshifter, sometimes calm, sometimes unleashed. This monster is a writer’s dream — he seems to have no rules. Why doesn’t every horror writer create a monster like this? He’s awesome.
He’s also one-dimensional.
Here’s the golden rule about movie-length (or novel-length) stories about unpredictable monster villains with no redeeming features: Villain versus hero cannot, in itself, sustain a story. The character web is simply not interesting enough. Alongside the monstrous villain the writer must create a very human web of opposition. We see this time and time again in popular storytelling:
In Twister we have man versus tornado, but the human opposition comes from a couple of professional storm-chasers on the brink of divorce as well as an entire band of rival storm-chasers who aim to beat our heroes in their storm-chasing game.
In Jaws we have man versus shark, but the interest comes once again from the human opposition. Sheriff Martin Brody wants to close the beach, but this is opposed by local businessmen. Then there’s the most subtle, macho opposition between manly-man Quint and the others on his boat.
In Jurassic Park we have man versus velociraptor, but a park employee attempts to steal Hammond’s dinosaur embryos, among other interpersonal opposition.
And in IT, we have the evil outside villain (the shapeshifting clown), but there is a very strong human gang of bullies who are just as scary. The gang of bully kids is a common way to flesh out a web of opposition, especially in stories about children. Suzie Templeton used the bully opposition web for her short film adaptation of Peter and the Wolf.
IT: MODERN MONSTER
IT is very explicit about the symbolism of the clown, and why it is a shapeshifter. But this is the typical modern horror monster. I have written previously: What is the horror genre for? IT is a modern horror, having moved away from Christian symbolism and into psychological symbolism. The monster is a representation of whatever terrible thing happens to be in your own life.
SETTING OF IT
Realism interpretation of the IT setting: There is no clown. Georgie Denbrough drowns while trying to retrieve his paper boat from a drain. The body is never found. Bill bonds with the others in his vicinity who each have their own significant trauma: incest, Munchausen syndrome by proxy and so on. The monster is different depending on who sees him. This is like the Mirror of Erised in Harry Potter. Whoever looks into it sees their own unfulfilled desire. The Mirror of Erised is a descendent of an old fairy tale device, such as the mirror in stories such as Snow White.
Horror is one of the three most symbolic genres in existence. (The other two are science fiction and Western.) Much has already been said about the symbolism and, frankly, if you’ve seen a lot of horror, it doesn’t need saying.
CHILDHOOD REALISTICALLY DEPICTED IN A STORY FOR ADULTS
One thing that struck me while watching IT: The smart aleck dialogue, especially the crass sexual jokes in the dialogue of Richie Tozier, felt realistic. The irony is that this dialogue would never be acceptable in books for children of that age. These kids are meant to be 13, which upper middle grade, lower young adult. In children’s literature you never read dialogue such as:
Richie Tozier : You punched me, made me walk through shitty water, dragged me through a crackhouse… and now I’m gonna have to kill this fucking clown.
I have known adolescent boys who talk very much like this. Another difference between stories for adults and stories for children: Children in stories for children must function, to some extent, as role models. Child characters in children’s stories are more naive and wholesome than many real-life counterparts.
It’s not just the horror elements of this film which keep this movie out of children’s hands. The clown, all told, isn’t that scary for many kids. The clown is clearly a monster. But the stone throwing, the chase, the fat shaming, the mutilation on a boy’s belly — those elements all feel uncomfortably real.
CHILDHOOD SONGS SECONDED FOR ADULT HORROR
Listen to the IT soundtrack (composed and arranged by Benjamin Wallfisch) and you’ll hear a very creepy, echoey version of Oranges and Lemons, music box inspired atmospheric tunes and children singing, slowly and without instrumental accompaniment.
This technique is common across horror and thriller films. Quentin Tarantino understood the creepiness of Shivaree’s 2000 song entitled ‘Goodnight Moon‘ when he chose for the soundtrack of Kill Bill Vol. 2.
There’s a nail in the door And there’s glass on the lawn Tacks on the floor And the TV is on And I always sleep with my guns When you’re gone
There’s a blade by the bed And a phone in my hand A dog on the floor And some cash on the nightstand When I’m all alone the dreaming stops And I just can’t stand
That link to the well-known picture book is part of what makes for the creepiness of the song. There’s something about the admixture of horror and childhood familiarities such as songs, clowns, circuses and picture books which intensifies the creepiness of the creepy bit. This is how the folk at TV Tropes put it:
If a program or film wants to add fear to a scene one of the most creepy ways is to have a Creepy Child, or a whole creepy choir, singing somewhere in the distance or background, usually the tune is a mournful nursery rhyme. Sometimes it will seem like the characters can hear it and they may even call out, asking if anyone is there.
The Wire is a TV series for adults, creepy because of its uncomfortable realism. The character Omar Comin is particularly interesting, due to his role as sometime-comic relief, for his incongruous same-sex attraction in an overwhelmingly macho environment, and for his sociopathic ability to kill. Regular viewers of the show will soon learn that when Omar Comin starts to whistle Farmer In The Dell, bad stuff is going to happen. In this clip, bystanders realise from the whistle that Omar is up to very bad business.
Why Farmer In The Dell? Because viewers familiar with the tune will associate it with innocence, childlike naivete and comfort. The tune works well in the story because Omar is probably using one of his own childhood favourites for dual purpose: To set up a nonchalant persona for himself in the eyes of others, and also to steady his own nerves. The words themselves may also have thematic significance, though The Wire is not known for its ham-handed metaphors in the manner of Mad Men, so this may be an overanalysis.
The tinkle of bells, the fast-to-slow tune of a music box, the call of the ice-cream van — all make for excellent horror soundtracks and IT makes use of it too.
The Gothic is notoriously difficult to define. This is a type of story in constant flux. Each new literary period adds is own spin. “Gothic” is more like a skin layered upon other genres, most often: horror, romance, science fiction and fantasy. Where does one genre end and the gothic element begin?
Gothic horror is also known as gothic fiction. Characters generally get caught up in paranormal schemes. The victim of these schemes is normally an innocent and helpless female character. In some instances, supernatural phenomena such as vampires and werewolves are later explained in perfectly natural terms, but in other works they remain completely inexplicable.
Reversals and reveals are vital for creating momentum and suspense in a story. Certain genres are required to be more page-turny than others, and all children’s literature must be page-turny. So you’ll find reversals and reveals everywhere in children’s literature.
WHAT ARE ‘REVEALS’?
A sudden change of events or reversal of circumstances, especially in a literary work.
Contemporary English speakers have a bit of trouble remembering ‘peripeteia’, myself included, so of course ‘reveal’ caught on.
‘Reveal’ started out as a verb, but is now commonly used by writers as a noun. This happened when novelists turned to TV, apparently.
‘Oh darling, [story is] just two or three little surprises followed every now and again by a bigger surprise.
Peggy Ramsay, agent
A revelation is basically a surprise.
Revelation is seen by the audience as motion, even if nothing has changed but knowledge or insight.
In a low-key way, a reveal is simply the answer to a question which the storyteller has prompted the audience to ask earlier in the narrative. The job of scenes is to answer (reveal the answer to) these questions.
The ending of every scene has to be logical; it can’t cheat the readers. They have eagerly read the scene, worrying about a question. So to play fair with them, the conclusion of your scene has to answer the question posed by the goal in the first place.
So if the question was whether the destroyer would sink the sub, the end of the scene has to answer that question. If the question was whether the woman would get the job, the end of the scene has to tell whether she did or didn’t get the job.
from 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes by Jack M Bickham
WHAT ARE ‘REVERSALS’?
‘Reversals’ are ‘big reveals’. The audience’s understanding of everything in the story is turned on its head. They suddenly see every element of the plot in a new light. All reality changes in an instant. ‘Reversal’ is a term writers use. Audiences tend to just say ‘plot twist’, but that often just means a sequence they weren’t able to easily predict. For example, when Andy escapes in Shawshank Redemption, that’s not a reversal. It might qualify as a twist because we generally expect life-prisoners to stay where they are.
The Sixth Sense, however, includes a genuine reversal because the famous revelation requires us to regard the entire story until that point in a completely different light. The big reversal reveal comes right at the end of the story. This has the advantage of sending the audience out of the theater with a knockout punch. It’s the biggest reason this movie was a hit. (M. Night Shyalaman didn’t come up with the idea of the psychologist being dead until well after his first draft. Though he managed to make it feel very new, Shyalaman was borrowing from a long tradition of Dead All Along characters.)
An example of a reversal is when the audience finds out who A.D. is on Pretty Little Liars. A mistake the writers of that show made was waiting seven seasons to give that information to the audience. Desperate Housewives, the writer’s mentor series, wrapped up mysteries at the end of each season, not at the end of the entire series. This is called a ‘reveal’ but is also a reversal because we realise A.D. was in front of us the whole time. We are asked to think back on everything we’ve seen so far and consider in a new light.
An example of the frustration experienced by viewers when information is withheld across years:
THIS LAST HALF HOUR BETTER BLOW MY MIND BC I WAITED 7 SEASONS TO FIND OUT AD IS SPENCERS TWIN WHEN THAT WAS PREDICTED ALREADY !!! #PLLFinale
@mitamxmaloley, 11:27 AM – 28 Jun 2017
The Greeks called this ‘peripeteia’. A classic example is Oedipus Rex — it’s the bit where he finds out about his parents. Fast forward a few years we have Luke Skywalker finding out who his father is.
A story can have more than one reversal. While minor reversals can occur in every scene, bigger ones tend to divide the work into specific acts.
A reversal reveal is most common in detective stories and thrillers.
A subversionis not a modern invention but peripeteia itself. it is the tool that catapults the hero into the opposite of their present state — from thesis to antithesis, from home to a world unknown.
That’s what inciting incidents are too — they are ‘explosions of opposition’, structural tools freighted with all the characteristics the characters lack; embodiments, indeed, of everything they need. Cliffhangers, inciting incidents and crisis points are essentially the same thing: a turning point at the end of an act; the unexpected entry point for the protagonists into the new world; bombs built from the very qualities they lack which explode their existing universe, hurtling them into an alien space of which they must then make sense.
Here’s a father making his toddler laugh with the Scooby Doo grunt:
Now You See Me (the film) has a twist which doesn’t follow the established logic and is considered a failure. It’s not interesting for an audience to see a 100% change of a character’s personality that has been built up throughout the whole movie.
The best reversal is the kind that creates the biggest surprise without ruining the established logic.
Create suspense by providing the audience with a certain amount of information, then leave the rest to their own imagination.
Give the audience just enough to see it coming but not enough to expect it. How to test if the plot twist works or not: The story is rewatchable/re-readable. It should be just as fun if not more fun to go back and see where the writers hint at that twist. This explains why studies show that spoiling a book before a subject reads it makes the reading more enjoyable. The path towards the reversal is more exciting, even though the reader has lost the enjoyment of the surprise. Perhaps this is why lots of stories spoil the ending at the very beginning.
For more on writing a twist ending, see this post.
EXAMPLES OF REVEALS AND REVERSALS
Gone Girl has a big reversal when we realise the victim is bad.
Victimised women who are actually evil in their own right may be a trend started by Gillian Flynn. In the b-grade horror/thriller movie Pet (2016) a stalker captures a woman he’s interested in and keeps her in a cage in ‘the tunnels’ of a dog shelter where he works. Halfway through the movie the young woman is discovered by the security guard. The reversal is that instead of wanting to be saved, the captured woman encourages her captor to murder him brutally. The big reveal is that she is a psychopath and the reason the stalker creep has captured her is because by stalking her he has realised this about her.
Safe Haven is a movie based on a Nicholas Sparks novel, which is fun to watch if you enjoy predicting romantic cliches. The minor conflict, the handsome widower, the woman who kids fall in love with. The downpour of rain, the first kiss… Eventually, however, just when there is nothing left (because they’ve fallen into bed), Sparks gives us the first major revelation: He tells the audience why his main character is being followed. All this time we weren’t sure if she’s a baddie, but now we know she’s the victim, abused and stalked by her cop ex-husband. But another supernatural revelation occurs right at the end, when we realize the woman who has befriended our main character has been a ghost all along. This is a reversal, because it causes us to see the entire progression of the relationship in a new light — this coupling hasn’t happened organically at all; it’s been ‘ordained’ by a higher power.
REVERSALS AND REVEALS DONE BADLY
The Rug Jerk
Any gratuitous plot or character twist tossed in solely to jerk the rug out from under the reader for the sake of surprise or shock, without sufficient foundation, foreshadowing or justification (retroactive or otherwise). Essentially any story twist that violates Chekhov’s principles: “If you fire a gun in Act III, it must be seen on the wall in Act I; and if you show a gun on the wall in Act I, it must be fired in Act III.” The Rug Jerk fires the gun without showing it first or explaining where it came from afterwards.
The Reset Switch, aka The Reboot
Any device that allows a writer to completely erase any already-occurred events of a story and bring the characters back to a predefined starting point, with little or no changes to them or their universe. Time travel (“It never happened”), parallel universes (“It never happened *here*”), unconscious duplicates (“We’re all just clones/simulations/androids of the REAL characters!”) and dream-sequences (“It was all a dream!”) have all been used this way. To be avoided unless the existence of such a phenomenon is, itself, the story’s or series’ central plot point (as in *The Man Who Folded Himself* or *The Left Hand of Darkness*).
A misperception I run into a lot: if a reader is not SHOCKED by your big twist, it’s a failure. This isn’t true! Here’s why…
First, guessing a surprise twist beforehand (as long as it isn’t insulting obvious) can make readers feel smart and vindicated to see they guessed right.
Second, when you use a trope where a certain plot twist/reveal is expected, knowing that reveal is coming ADDS to the tension, it doesn’t detract from it. We’re looking forward to him discovering *gasp* his gf is actually the empress! The anticipation is part of the experience.
So: a plot twist can have value not only in being surprising, but also in being anticipated. How to set up plot twists so they’ll delightfully surprise readers OR add to our breathless anticipation when we guess them early: foreshadow adequately, but don’t make it blindingly obvious (unless you don’t mean for it to be a reveal to us, only to another character).
Try to ensure that your reveal will escalate the stakes and/or evolve at least one conflict (the main external one, an internal conflict, or a conflict between characters) in a new way. If it doesn’t change things in some relevant way, it won’t impact readers.
Types of Reveals
A few main types of plot twists/reveals:
1. those that surprise us but not the character (this type is used often for unreliable narrators; can be super fun, but can also make a reader feel lied to, so use carefully).
2. The type of plot twist that surprises a POV character but not us. Often used in dual POV stories where one character has a secret that we’re in on, but the other POV character isn’t. Great for driving up tension and anticipation as you build toward the reveal.
And finally, 3. The type of plot twist that surprises (or is meant to surprise; refer to earlier tweet about readers guessing it early not necessarily being a bad thing) both readers and the POV characters. Often happens at midpoint &/or climax.
Planning and Editing A Reveals Plot
Further questions to ask:
Are these revealed secrets worth knowing? There must be a direct impact on the immediate situation.
Does the audience have enough context for this revelation to be meaningful?
Is the secret simple? If it needs heaps of explaining it won’t have any punch when revealed. (“Luke, I am your father.” Not, “Luke, I am your cousin thrice removed.”)
Have you foreshadowed but not telegraphed?
Like endings, reversals should feel both inevitable and surprising at once.
Is this so-called revelation simply one of two possible alternatives considered from the beginning? If so, the answer won’t be much of a ‘revelation’ — more like when you’re expecting a baby it’s probably going to be a boy or a girl. The surprise is pretty minimal in that regard. If you’re stuck with this problem, consider audience misdirection or hint at something different but related.
The Return may have a twist to it. This is another case of misdirection: You lead the audience to believe one thing, and then reveal at the last moment a quite different reality.No Way Out flips you a totally different perception of the hero in the last ten seconds of the film. Basic Instinct makes you suspect Sharon Stone’s character of murder for the first two acts, convinces you she is innocent in the climax, then leaps back to doubt again in an unexpected final shot.
There is usually an ironic or cynical tone to such Returns, as if they mean to say “Ha, fooled ya!” You are caught foolishly thinking that human beings are decent or that good does triumph over evil. A less sardonic version of a twist Return can be found in the work of writers like O. Henry, who sometimes used the twist to show the positive side of human nature, as in his short story “The Gift of the Magi”. A poor young husband and wife make sacrifices to surprise each other with Christmas presents. They discover that the husband has sold his valuable watch to buy his wife a clip for her beautiful long hair, and the wife has cut off and sold her lovely locks to buy him a fob for his beloved watch. The gifts and sacrifices cancel each other out but the couple is left with a treasure of love.
from The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler
My mother hates watching magic shows. She feels she’s being tricked. Of course, she is right. Other people love being tricked. They love magic shows and marvel at the magician’s skill.
I also know readers who hate stories with twists in the tale. They feel they’ve been strung along, manipulated and then lured into a trap as an author’s prey. Other readers marvel at the skill of a tricky writer. These are the readers who can enjoy a tricky ending.
Which kind of reader are you?
When I read a story I always seem to begin playing “Guess the Ending” about two-thirds of the way through. If I’m very lucky, I lose. There’s a disappointment about winning, and delicious fun in being faked out.
Dennis Whitcomb, The Writer’s Digest Handbook of Short Story Writing
Some Classic Films With Twist Endings
Thrillers, horror and mystery seem especially suited to the twist. How many of these do you know and remember? How many did you see coming? Which ones did you like?
Agatha Christie (by setting up false villains. The twist ending is almost mandatory in a good mystery.)
Roald Dahl (in numerous ways, especially in his short stories.)
Michael Crichton (e.g. Prey)
Whatever your enjoyment of twist endings (a.k.a. switch endings, the subverted trope), there is much skill involved in doing it well. First of all,inexperienced writers (or readers) may think they are twisting the ending when they’re falling into cliche.
John Yorke explains that a ‘twist’ might simply be a refusal to follow the usual story structure — what he refers to as ‘archetypal’ story structure:
Archetypal endings can … be twisted to great effect. The Wire found an extremely clever way of subverting the normal character arc — by brutally cutting it off at an arbitrary point. The death of Omar Little at the hands of a complete stranger works precisely because it’s so narratively wrong; it undercuts the classic hero’s journey by employing all its conventions up to the point of sudden, tawdry and unexpected death. Effectively saying this is a world where such codes don’t operate, such subversion also has the added bonus of telling us just how the cruel and godless world of Baltimore drug-dealing really works.
Into The Woods by John Yorke
If you’re not sure what is meant by archetypal story structure, see here.
HOW TO STUFF IT UP
1. The viewpoint character wakes up and it’s all a dream.
(Didn’t you do this as a kid, at least once? I did, when time ran out in class.) Similar to this: the VP character is actually crazy and it never happened after all. In fact, any ending in which the reader learns ‘It never happened at all’. This is a disappointment because there is no usually no epiphany, nothing to be learned and the reader feels they have wasted their time.
3. Introduce something random, out of left field, something obviously contrived and tacked on.
Storytelling is like writing a transactional essay in this respect: Never introduce anything new in a conclusion. You’ll end up with classic plot holes.
4. The Shock Value Ending
Someone gets killed off for no good reason. Or similar.
5. Unnecessary Complexity
Some post-modern story-tellers expect an audience to read/watch something more than once, and carefully, before making any sense of it. If this is your style, you’ll attract a specific sort of audience. Many people would rather not put in all that work.
RULE OF THUMB
If you’re going to use a twist ending, have the twist affect someone other than the reader. The twist must affect a character.
DON’T WRITE (UNINTENTIONAL) ABSURDISM
Absurdism was more popular with earlier audiences. Done well, everything does connect, but avoid the bad kind of absurdism where one weird thing happens after another. This is one way to create an unpredictable plot, but unpredictable doesn’t go far enough. Endings have to feel both surprising and inevitable.
It turns out that people don’t actually want to say, “I had no idea that was going to happen!” In fact, they’re often delighted to say, “I knew that was going to happen!” People love to get to know characters, and they feel clever when they can predict those characters’ reactions.
Defying expectations is easy. Creating expectations is hard. To create expectations, you have to write consistent, believable, well-defined characters.
The Secrets Of Story, Matt Bird
AN ALTERNATIVE POINT OF VIEW
Twists are overrated. Predictable isn’t as bad as you think it is. Audiences don’t need a twist in everything, or even in most things, so don’t manoeuvre one in to be tricky.
HOW TO PUT A GREAT SWITCH IN AN ENDING
1. Engender empathy in a character then expose that character for what they really are.
Bad characters are actually good. Good characters are actually bad. Such endings can make us question our own quickness to judge. It encourages us to see shades of grey in character, and this is its own epiphany. The trick-ending has a special kind of ‘epiphanic moment’, known as the ‘anagnorisis’ (discovery) – the protagonist’s sudden recognition of their own or another character’s true identity or nature.
2. Foreshadow without telegraphing.
In a good twisted tale, you can read the story again and see hints at what’s coming. You can enjoy the tale a second time in a completely new way. ‘Telegraphing’ is basically ‘stuffing up an attempt at foreshadowing’ by dropping such heavy-handed hints that any audience with half a wit knows exactly what’s coming at the end. Aim to foreshadow. Avoid the telegraph. At the end of the tale we should see how certain inconsistencies become logical.
Sometimes foreshadowing is done by making use of a ‘plant’ – an object that is ‘planted’ earlier but doesn’t become important until later. The plant is useful in any kind of storytelling, even if there’s no particular twist. e.g. in Six Feet Under, Brenda is writing a novel about the sexual exploits of a fictional character. The audience knows that she is not writing fiction; we’ve seen enough scenes where she has sex with a random stranger, confesses to her prostitute friend then types away on her laptop. One day, she writes a scene about a guy wearing a certain baseball cap. Nate reads her work. Then, while sitting on the veranda with Brenda, the guy turns up, wearing the planted baseball cap. This leads to the end of their first engagement.
Where something – be it an object, situation or character – is introduced early in a story for use much later, this is known as Chekhov’s Gun. Anton Chekhov himself, said that everything mentioned in a short story must have a use. Do not include a gun unless there is some use for the gun.
When the author makes use of false foreshadowing, it’s then called a Red Herring. This is most acceptable in mystery and detective stories. Readers of other genres may have little time for this technique.
Flashback, or analepsis, comes in useful for a variety of reasons, not least to provide a reader with backstory. In a trick ending, the flashback is used to suddenly reveal information/vital memories which provide the missing information needed to complete the puzzle.
The reader is told a story through the eyes of a certain character who doesn’t quite have the story right. We eventually work out for ourselves that we haven’t been told the whole truth. We meet unreliable narrators in real life, too. Have you ever started a new school or workplace and been told, on your very first day, to avoid certain people in the playground or workplace because they’re idiots or whatever? Eventually, you work out the true balance of power and you realise the person who tried to get you onside on your very first day was the very person who needs friends most, because that’s the person who is ostracised.
3. The Cliffhanger
The ending is unresolved. The characters are left in the lurch.
Some readers really hate cliffhangers. So why would you do this to your readers, who’ve loyally followed you all the way to the end? Maybe to recreate the Zeigarnik effect, in which frustrating and unresolved emotions are those best remembered.
Cliffhangers are best used at the end of a series, and only when another series follows. This will keep the audience coming back for more, without letting them down.
4. Reverse Chronology
The story opens after some pivotal event and works backwards via flashbacks or scenes which are dated and timed. Amnesia stories often work like this: A character wakes up and has no idea who he is. He works it out little by little.
5. Non-linear Narration
Readers have to work hard to get these stories, because we are given a series of random scenes and expected to piece the story together ourselves. Lost makes use of this technique and I, for one, can’t be bothered. Quentin Tarantino does it better in Pulp Fiction. The story may begin in medias res (in the middle of things), jump backwards for say, two thirds of the story, then exist in the present for the final third, after the cliffhanger. These stories are also non-linear, but audiences can grasp these kind more easily.
Remember, when matching wits with the reader, that your readers will be on the lookout for the twist in the tale. Especially readers of short stories, who tend to be the most widely read group of people of the lot.
This is a remake of a 1976 movie based on Stephen King’s 1974 (breakout) novel, Carrie. Critics don’t like this new one much. The criticism is mostly that the remake was unnecessary because the first adaptation was so good. The original has a slower, more sinister pace and the main thing the reboot did was to add the social media dimension and some modern SFX. However, Carrie is — unfortunately — a timeless story of high school exclusion and bullying.
PREMISE OF CARRIE
A shy girl, outcasted by her peers and sheltered by her religious mother, unleashes telekinetic terror on her small town after being pushed too far at her senior prom. (In the book it’s called the Spring Ball — a lot of the slang/words have been updated.)
SENTENCE BEHIND THE STORY OF CARRIE
Your own powers can be the end of you.
I don’t believe the designing principle of this film is its main strength. Instead it makes an emotional promise: Watch this film and you will be thrilled and entertained. It possibly aims to sadden. (I don’t feel saddened by this remake.)
It also makes an intellectual promise to a modern audience: Watch this and you’ll learn of a different, slightly off-kilter world than this.
Horror films require us to face the unknown — they allow us to face our fears and put them into context. They shape our belief system, and provide a safe space to explore. Carrie was notable for being one of the few to broach the topic of menstruation which, 40 years later, is still somewhat taboo. There is nowhere near as much menstruation in children’s literature as there are girls dealing with it in real life, outside a few standout books from authors such as Judy Blume.
GENRE BLEND OF CARRIE
The horror genre is one of the most highly symbolic forms (along with Westerns and science fiction). The origin of the horror in this story comes from demonic forces. Another example of this kind of horror is The Exorcist. Other horrors might come from whatever lies beyond death (Dracula) or from humans daring to fool around with nature (Frankenstein). Those are the big three.
Interestingly, the genre of the 1976 adaptation is simply ‘horror’ according to IMDb. This remake must have been aiming for a bit more character development with the addition of ‘drama’.
The horror film is a genre aimed largely at pubescent and adolescent youth — the same people who love to scream on roller coasters and look for out-of-control sensations elsewhere in their lives. Attracting people who are not part of this constituency is often difficult. The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby did so by dealing with families in a serious way — something the mostly young audience for horror films isn’t especially interested in seeing.
— Howard Suber
I don’t think Carrie manages to deal with family matters in any serious way. The mother is not a rounded character. This feels all horror, not much drama.
The Female Gothic
Stephen King’s Carrie is a descendent of the Female Gothic, invented by writers such as Anne Radcliffe, Mary Shelley and Charlotte Bronte.
Following a Gothic Bildungsroman-esque plot, the Female Gothic allowed its readers to graduate from adolescence to maturity along with its heroine.
The readers of these novels didn’t lead very thrilling lives — many restrictions — this was their outlet
The Female Gothic is about the suppression of female sexuality, or challenges the gender hierarchy and values of a male-dominated culture.
The natural cause of terror is not the supernatural, but rather female disability and societal horrors: rape, incest and the threatening control of the male antagonist.
The female protagonists pursued in these texts are often caught in an unfamiliar and terrifying landscape, delivering higher degrees of horror.
The end result, however, is the explained supernatural, rather than terrors familiar to women such as rape or incest, or the expected ghosts or haunted castles.(For example, the female protagonist will think there’s a ghost in the dungeon but when she gets down there it’s actually a real man wanting to rape her.)
In Stephen King’s variety of the Female Gothic, we have an out-and-out evil boy pulling strings behind the scenes, but female characters feature as all shades of good/bad.
STORYWORLD OF CARRIE
Many horror films could correctly be called “supernatural films” but this might reveal more than we care to acknowledge about the religious origins of so much horror.
— Howard Suber
She was alone with Momma’s angry God.
The blue light glared on a picture of a huge and bearded Yahweh who was casting screaming multitudes of humans down through cloudy depths into an abyss of fire. Below them, black horrid figures struggled through the flames of perdition while the Black Man wat on a huge flame-colored throne with a trident in one hand. His body was that of a man, but he had a spiked tail and the head of a jackal.
— Stephen King, Carrie
The setting of Carrie is very recognisable as our own but King includes supernatural elements.
Night journeys are a common element seen throughout Gothic literature. They can occur in almost any setting, but in American literature are more commonly seen in the wilderness, forest or any other area that is devoid of people. A prom, always held after dark, provides the perfect reason for a night journey.
Stephen King writes what some have called ‘supernatural realism’. We might call it ‘magical realism‘ but I think ‘supernatural realism’ is a better descriptor. Carrie is set in the real world but there are supernatural elements. Carrie has the power of telekinesis and might be an ancestor of Roald Dahl’s Matilda in a sense. This is a world in which anything could happen.
The film is set in the USA in a mainly white suburban town in Maine called Chamberlain but the film is shot in Ontario. Here’s the house. Note that the creators of the remake decided to keep a general 1970s vibe in the setting — it’s also fitting that Carrie’s mother would have little money and therefore have to drive a car from that era. The original novel starts in 1966 and the main events happen 1979.
She continued to walk down the street toward the small white house with the blue shutters. The familiar hate-love-dread feeling was churning inside her. Ivy had crawled up the wests side of the bungalow (they always called it the bungalow because the White house sounded like a political joke and Momma said all politicians were crooks and sinners who would eventually give the country over to the Godless Reds who would put all the believers of Jesus—even the Catholics—up against the wall), and the ivy was picturesque, she knew it was, but sometimes she hated it. Sometimes, like now, the ivy looked like a grotesque giant hand ridged with great veins which had sprung up out of the ground to grip the building. She approached it with dragging feet.
Deaths In Schools
By the 1970s there had already been enough mass executions in American schools due to gun violence for the fear of a blood bath at a prom to be based upon a real, deep-seated fear. There have been many more school shootings since then. Unfortunately the terror of Carrie’s loner rampage still feels all too real.
King wrote the novel as epistolary, using a combination of letters, news clippings, magazine articles, and passages from books. Sometimes when an epistolary story is adapted for screen some of that form is maintained, often with use of a storyteller narrator (the person who wrote the letters). But because I hadn’t read the book before watching the movie it was a bit of a surprise to find it was an epistolary novel. There’s nothing left of that. The reason for the epistolary form must have been to create a sense of realism for the reader.
The desire to be known, to be seen, and to be powerful in your own sphere is a common desire in both real people and in the fictional realm. This particular desire seems to be having a moment in the West. The promotional material for the Carrie reboot reminds me very much of the posters which came out for Breaking Badaround the same time. Carrie and Walter White have the same psychological need.
Carrie’s problem is that she is an out-and-out social outcast. High schools are a great arena to show social exclusion — Vince Vaughn even sent Walter White back to school and made him the butt of some teenagers’ jokes in the pilot episode as they mock him washing cars — there’s something about mockery you get at school that stays with you your whole life, even when you engage your logical adult brain and realise your high school opponents had their own issues which had nothing to do with you.
The epistolary form of King’s novel allows for a variety of opinions on Carrie, leaving the reader with no ‘true’ impression of what she really looked like (and consequently, who she really was.) Described by the narrator as ugly, fat and blemished, she is described later as ‘pretty’. Carrie herself considers herself repulsive, especially her face, covered in blackheads and clusters of pimples. These various accounts of Carrie add to the gossipy, unreliable nature of the retelling:
Carrie’s psychological shortcoming is that she needs to belong somewhere. She is totally alone in the world. Like any teenager (or adult), she wants to fit in.
Found written repeatedly on one page of a Ewen Consolidated High School notebook owned by Carrie White:
Everybody’s guessed/that baby can’t be blessed/’til she finally sees that she’s like all the rest….
— Stephen King, Carrie
In this movie adaptation she has been homeschooled until very recently, which is how the screenwriters get around the weird fact that Carrie doesn’t know what periods are. It’s hard for a modern audience to believe a 16 year old girl could not know anything about that. Stephen King had to lampshade that one quite heavily in his 1976 novel, especially since in the novel Carrie has been attending school all along.
Psychological overlay is an element connected to how characters within an American Gothic novel are affected by things like the night and their surroundings. In Carrie’s case, Carrie’s menstruation is connected to everyone’s general fear of blood. Blood symbolism can be seen throughout the film, culminating famously in the big struggle scene.
Does Carrie have a moral shortcoming? Is she treating others badly? A fairytale victim character like this doesn’t need to show us that she is a fully rounded human being with flaws — Carrie is not a normal human being anyhow. She’s kind of the second coming, perhaps from the devil. In the films, at least, Carrie does not demonstrate any moral shortcomings. She is a Gothic Good Girl. (The virginal character in a Female Gothic.)
King has used a number of character archetypes from the gothic novel to create his setting:
Virginal maiden – young, beautiful, pure, innocent, kind, virtuous and sensitive. Usually starts out with a mysterious past and it is later revealed that she is the daughter of an aristocratic or noble family. (Carrie)
Older, foolish woman (Mrs White)
Tyrant/villain (Chris and her boyfriend)
Bandits/ruffians (the cast of school girls who mock Carrie rather than standing up for her)
Clergy – always weak, usually evil (not present in the film adaptation — the clergy is the invisible force behind the uber-Christian Mrs White). In the novel we do have a modified ‘clergy’ stand-in in the form of Mr P. P. Bliss:
Mr. P.P. Bliss, who had written this hymn and others seemingly without number, was one of Momma’s shining examples of God at work upon the face of the earth. He had been a sailor and a sinner (two terms that were synonymous in Momma’s lexicon), a great blasphemer, a laugher in the face of the Almighty. Then a great storm had come up at sea, the boat had threatened to capsize, and Mr. P. P. Bliss had gotten down on his sin-sickly knees with a vision of Hell yawning beneath the ocean floor to receive him, and he had prayed to God. M. P.P. Bliss promised God that if He saved him, he would dedicate the rest of his life to Him. The storm, of course, cleared immediately.
Brightly beams our Father’s mercy From his lighthouse evermore But to us he gives the keeping Of the lights along the shore
All of Mr. P. P. Bliss’s hymns had a seagoing flavour to them.
Stephen King, Carrie
The watchful eye of the clergy is symbolised by the picture The Unseen Guest:
She walked up the hall and put her coat in the closet. A luminous picture above the coat hooks limned a ghostly Jesus hovering grimly over a family seated at the kitchen table. Beneath was the caption (also luminous): The Unseen Guest
— Stephen King, Carrie
On the other hand, the teachers at the school might be seen as the modern equivalent of the Gothic clergy, in charge of the virgin’s life, seeking counsel.
Carrie’s mother might as well be a mythical monster or a fairytale witch. The (semi) realistic setting allows us to read her as a woman with mental health challenges but her archetype predates such knowledge. American Gothic novels in particular tend to deal with a “madness” in one or more of the characters and carry that theme throughout the novel. In his novel Edgar Huntly or Memoirs of a Sleepwalker, Charles Brockden Brown writes about two characters who slowly become more and more deranged as the novel progresses. King’s novel The Shining is also about Descent Into Madness. Non-King examples include Sunset Boulevard, Black Swan, Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing and Apocalypse Now.
What Carrie lacks in complexity, Stephen King makes up for in his web of her opponents. In Carrie’s classmates we see all shades of bullying, from the out-and-out evil, dark-haired girl (Chris Hargensen) to the blonde* girl who wants to do the right thing but ends up making Carrie’s life worse (Sue Snell). Even the teacher (Miss Desjardin) has excellent intentions but inadvertently makes Carrie’s life worse by setting in action the suspension of Chris Hargensen, who because of this plots the blood in a bucket incident.
*In the novel Sue has dark hair.
King apparently wrote this book inspired by catty bitches he knew from school and from teaching high school. So I don’t kid myself that King is particularly sympathetic to the teenage girl at this point in his writing career. But in contrast to the ‘women are catty bitches’ reading, King turns Chris into a bullied victim herself. Her boyfriend is truly bad; if she hadn’t had sex with him he planned to rape her; later, he does in fact rape her.
but it had all begun to slip out of her hands, and it made her uneasy. If she had not given in willingly on Monday, he would have taken her by force.
Chris is punished, partly for her willingness to have sex, partly for her short skirt and also, partly, for being really mean to people.
There are lots of people—mostly men—who aren’t surprised that I asked Tommy to take Carrie to the Spring Ball. They are surprised that he did it, though, which shows you that the male mind expects very little in the way of altruism from its fellows.
Here King is kinder on men.
Carrying the pails back to the trunk, his mind made a dim, symbolic connection. Pig blood. That was good. Chris was right. It was really good. It made everything solidify.
Pig blood for a pig.
The bad boys are playing a different, more basic game. The menstruation connection is from the girls; the boys think they’re simply insulting Carrie by comparing her to an animal.
As we get to know the opponents and what they are capable of, we are also introduced to a mystery: What is the exact nature of Carrie’s newfound superpower?
Revelation is important in any story containing a mystery. (TV writers call them ‘reveals’.) But a story doesn’t have to be ‘mystery’ or ‘detective’ genre to contain a mystery element. Part of this story’s dynamic is to have Carrie find out/realise something that’s been true (latent) for some time: That she is a witch, and has inherited her powers from her grandmother. The story’s momentum comes from the finding out, and during the big struggle sequence we will see the full extent of Carrie’s superpowers.
Much Gothic literature also includes a mystery of some kind. For instance, Jane Eyre has his first wife in the attic. Rebecca’s new husband Maxim went and killed his first wife in a re-telling of Bluebeard. Notice that these Gothic mystery novels are also named after the female leads.
King’s novel tells us near the beginning that Carrie has the powers of telekinesis, so the mystery there is in waiting to see how she’s going to use it.
“Wait. Just wait. Let me talk. You want me to ask Carrie White to the Spring Ball. Okay, I got that. But there’s a couple of things I don’t understand.” “Name them.” She leaned forward. “First, what good would it do?” And second, what makes you think she’d say yes if I asked her?” “Not say yes! Why–” She floundred. “You’re… everybody likes you and–“ “We both know Carrie’s got no reason to care much for people that everybody likes.” “She’d go with you.” “Why?” Pressed, she looked defiant and proud at the same time. “I’ve seen the way she looks at you. She’s got a crush. Like half the girls at Ewen.” He rolled his eyes. “Well, I’m just telling you,” Sue said defensively. “She won’t be able to say no.” “Suppose I believe you,” he said. “What about the other thing?” “You mean what good will it do? Why… it’ll bring her out of her shell, of course. Make her…” She trailed off.” “A part of things? Come on, Suze. You don’t believe that bullshit.” “All right,” she said. “Maybe I don’t. But maybe I still think I’ve got something to make up for.”
In King’s story it’s not Carrie who has the plan. In fact, Carrie is a co-star at best. Despite the character of Carrie carrying the title of the work, and huge images of the actress emblazoned across the posters, the person who undergoes the character arc is Sue Snell who, like the majority of empathetic readers following along, wants to do something to help the outcast underdog. However, we don’t see quite enough of Sue in this film adaptation to rightly call her the main character. Both these girls are the stars — mirror images of each other in many ways:
Carrie is an outcast/Sue is popular
Carrie is lacking in confidence/Sue is full of confidence
Sue has Tommy for a boyfriend/Carrie goes to the ball with him but knows he is very much not her boyfriend
Carrie starts the book with blood between her thighs/the book ends with blood between Sue’s
It is Sue who comes up with The Plan that sets the plot in motion. She will offer her popular boyfriend to Carrie as a companion to the ball. This is of course a condescending gesture and Carrie can see right through it — the only way any girl would offer her boyfriend to another girl for an important life event like this is because she knows she’s no competition whatsoever. However, the plan works. It is undermined by Chris and her pig-killing guy friends.
In the book, Stephen King puts the entire big struggle sequence into a section called ‘Part Two’. It comprises almost half of the book.
The sequence beginning with the bucket of blood on Carrie’s head. The blood in the bucket sequence is of course the set piece of this film and even if you forget every other scene, this is the bit which eventually enters pop culture. In fact, you probably know this scene even without ever watching the film or reading the book. Part of what makes this so successful is the build up, in which we see Chris as a puppeteer, literally pulling the strings (but of the bucket) from above, as a symbol of omniscient evil against good. (Her own abusive boyfriend is using Chris as his puppet, and also as his non-consenting sex doll.)
Structurally speaking, I’m guessing this is the part which could have posed the biggest hurdle for the writer(s). Miraculous survivals are elements within American Gothic literature in which a character or characters will somehow manage to survive some feat that should have led to their demise. The problem is, with Carrie’s anger-fuelled telekinesis, Carrie is all powerful. She can stop an oncoming car and murder people without even touching them. This superpower means the opponent is fully at her mercy. Sure, the revenge is sweet to watch, but when a character is so much more powerful than their opponent this makes for a boring blood bath.
To create a satisfying big struggle sequence, King gave Carrie two separate big struggles, one after the other with a quiet moment in the middle:
The big struggle on stage against everyone at school
The big struggle against her mother, who has been proven to be a formidable monster and who stabs her quietly in the back.
Interestingly, we are shown the new situation before we’re shown Sue’s anagnorisis. Usually it’s not that way around. We know that she is pregnant with a girl and from the court scene we know that most of her friends are dead. We can extrapolate that Sue will give birth to a girl, and we might even wonder if Carrie has done something to that girl to imbue her with witchy superpowers, in the style of Rosemary’s Baby (1968).
This isn’t how the book ends. Somewhere else, a woman called Amelia Jenks is pregnant with a baby who turns out to have witch powers. It is implied that Tommy gets Sue pregnant, but the final scene is bookended with blood — Sue gets her period (which may actually be a miscarriage).
Stranger Things is a Netflix series created by the brilliantly named ‘Duffer Brothers’, out this year but set in 1983. Though I suspect strong ‘recency bias’, season one scores a very high 9.2 on IMDb.
**CONTAINS ALL THE SPOILERS**
The show feels like a mixture of Twin Peaks (with the missing kids and small community), Freaks and Geeks (with the three nerdy boys playing Dungeons and Dragons and the older sister trying to find her place in the cool group), something done by Stephen King, and Minority Report (with its sensory deprivation bath and freaky magic-genius girl).
The show also feels a bit like the computer games Don’t Starve and Minecraft, with its own version of the Nether (“The Upside Down”).
Stranger Things is a blend of drama, horror and mystery.
The drama gives us a great character web; the horror gives us rich symbolism and mystery drives the plot forward.
What happened to the boy (and the young woman) who went missing?
Why is Joyce getting creatures coming through her walls and messages through the lights?
What’s going on inside that big building on the edge of town?
What is the nature of the mysterious creatures? What dangers do they specifically pose and to what extent are they human?
How is that other world related to our real world?
Who is Elle and what is weird about her?
In a lot of mysteries, the audience wonders whose version of the truth to believe. In this mystery, however, the audience knows that Joyce and the kids are right about the supernatural goings-on because from the very first scene we are let in on the setting fact that strange things are going on inside the lab.
If this were a novel, we’d also classify this series as (classic portal) fantasy.
If the story takes place in a world other than our own, it is fantasy.
If the story starts in the real world but the characters enter a new one in the story, that is called a Portal Fantasy.
The other world is called a ‘parallel world’.
Classic fantasy takes a single main character from mundane world to fantasy world and back to the mundane. So, classic fantasy is also portal fantasy.
A passageway is normally used in a story only when two subworlds are extremely different. We see this most often in the fantasy genre when the character must pass from the mundane world to the fantastic.
In good portal fantasies, the story dwells for quite a time on the portal itself. The characters will go back to it several times, and they will spend quite a bit of time in it before they infiltrate the parallel world.
Some reviewers have wondered who this series is for. Is it a family film? The horror film is a genre aimed largely at pubescent and adolescent youth, so I think that answers that question. There’s quite a bit of schlock shock in this film, but mainly from the scene transitions. There may be a few times when you scream out loud.
This show feels impressively like a genuine throwback to the 1980s. Everything from the movie poster to the intro scene adds to that feel. It’s interesting to me that the Duffer twins were born the year after this was set. Still, I bet these guys grew up with a heavy diet of 1980s stories.
There’s a strong E.T. flavour to this film, though E.T. was genuinely filmed AND set in the early 1980s.
A huge advantage of setting stories about kids in this period is that it predates mobile phones and the Internet. Kids genuinely had a lot more freedom to roam their environs. These days if you want to write a story about kids riding around on their bikes after dark, you’d better cover yourself by also making those kids from neglectful homes. And that leads to a much different kind of story, in which the neglect is in danger of becoming The Story.
A disadvantage of living in this period was lack of Internet. Remember how Bella works out that stuff about the Cullens? She finds out all about it on the Internet. This is not a particularly exciting thing to portray on TV however, and in this setting we have the character of the geeky and pushover science and math teacher who the boys can ask anything, from parallel universes to how to make a sensory deprivation chamber. This guy is a fount of knowledge and always willing to help. As a well-meaning character, he has other plot uses too.
A lot of the scariest scenes take place at night. If they don’t take place at night, they take place inside dingy houses, abandoned caravans and sheds.
Though we are told that this town is in the state of Indiana, and is filmed in Georgia, Hawkins is fictional. It’s a quiet ‘all-American’ town and centres on the police station, family houses, huts in the woods and in the schools.
The woods as a place of danger come straight out of the darkest fairy tales. Bad things happen in the woods, especially at night. But during the day the woods are a safe place to play.
Who are the main characters of this show?
This is an ensemble cast but some are archetypes and others undergo a character arc. (If ever in doubt, main characters = people who change the most over the course of the story.)
So that would include Hopper, the reluctant police sheriff. When we first see him he is living in semi-squalor. In the establishing shot we see him wake up, smoke a cigarette, brush his teeth, then wash down some pills with Schlitz. On the balcony he smokes a cigarette. This is your archetypal ‘defective detective’.
On the job, he insists to his secretary that ‘Mornings are for coffee and contemplation’, despite having a serious missing child case right under his nose. But over the course of the first season he springs into action, and his lackadaisical attitude has a positive upside: He is quite happy to work outside the law and is open to the idea that mysterious things are happening in his town. He then demonstrates great ingenuity and problem-solving and shows that, when sufficiently interested in the case, he is in fact an excellent cop.
Hopper has a ‘ghost’ — not a particularly original one: he has a dead daughter himself, explaining his descent into squalor and not-caring, but also causing him to eventually care deeply about the missing children.
Joyce (Winona Ryder) also has a ghost. We keep hearing around the town that she has mental health issues, and her general anxiety leads her into a very dark place after her younger son goes missing. But a change in circumstance does not make a character arc. Joyce was ‘crazy’ at the start and after a few weeks of understandable agony, others around her learn she’s been right all along, but Joyce herself remains basically the same person. Joyce is therefore not a main character.
CHARACTER AND GENDER
A Variation On The Rape Revenge Storyline
If you’ve watched enough TV, you’ll have predicted it as soon as you saw the three geeky boys playing that boardgame: You just know one of them is going to have a snarky, unkind older sister who is interested in the cool group.
You see it a bit in Freaks and Geeks also, though Lyndsay is presented from the get-go as a more sympathetic character. In contrast, Mike’s older sister slams her bedroom door on him even as he kindly offers her pizza. This manipulates audience sympathy in favour of the boys. It’s only later in the story that we get a more rounded picture of the sister (Nancy) when we see her let down by her unpleasant jock boyfriend and his much nastier friends. Our sympathies for Nancy are at their peak when we see her put down as a ‘slut’ in public, and no one comes to her defence. I am a little sick of these cheap and highly gendered methods of guiding audience sympathies for characters. Another version of this storyline is the rape storyline. While it’s true that in real life women and girls are frequently called whores and sluts as a form of control, when it comes to entertainment, it would be nice to not have to deal with that again and again and again. I think perhaps it takes a female writing team to understand that this storyline does not constitute pure ‘entertainment’ for a large portion of the population, as it hits too close to home. And in a story with any number of made-up things, the writers could have made something else up here, too.
That said, Nancy Wheeler does have a character arc. She learns that chasing the jock is not going to lead to happiness. After spending her life sheltered by parents who live at the end of a cul-de-sac, she realises that she does have what it takes (most of the time) to rise to the challenge of a life-and-death crisis.
Feisty Girls With Powers
There are a lot of faux-feminist stories out there in which the girl characters — often described as ‘feisty’ — are the ones with the abilities while the boys around them are sometimes shown up for their shortcomings.
Here we have Nancy, picking up a gun for the first time, but out-shooting Jonathan, who has been shooting between cans for years.
Then we have the character of Eleven, of course, who is an even better example of a feisty girl with powers. The fact is, superhuman strength is even more amazing when it comes from a girl, precisely because that’s not what we have been trained to expect. The younger the girl, the stronger this effect. As chauvinist Ted Rumsen says of Peggy in Mad Men when she comes up with the creative line that leads to her first break promotion: “It was like watching a dog play the piano.” The same applies when little girls defeat men in stories.
But let’s not mistake this for ’empowerment’. Don’t forget that these girl characters exist mainly for the character development of the boys who surround them. In the case of Nancy, the jock who slept with her then lead to her public shaming has an epiphany in episode seven and comes to realise that Nancy is a much better person than his other friends. In the case of Eleven, she is the cause of Mike’s sexual awakening and also the cause of Lucas Sinclair’s realisation that it’s not always so easy to tell good from evil without digging a little deeper. When female characters appear mainly to serve the character arcs of boys around them, I call this the Female Maturity Formula. It’s absolutely everywhere.
In the final episode we see our heroes attack the monsters. Here we have the classic trope of Guys Fight, Girls Shoot. This reminds me of the pro-gun sentiment that comes out of America after any big shooting: The idea that civvie ownership of guns is a good thing because it ‘levels the playing field’. A girl with a gun can overpower a big guy, for instance. I have heard this argument coming out of very smart people, who completely forget how many more women (to say nothing of men) are shot by their intimate partners each week.
Don’t Go In There!
One of the most genuinely scary moments in this series happens in the dying deer scene. Soon after, Nancy is wondering what happened to that deer, and she hovers at the edge of a most unappealing open tree trunk, obviously dripping with blood and full of cobwebs on the inside. Anyone sitting in the audience is thinking, “Jesus, don’t go in there!” But what does Nancy do? She goes in there. Despite being too grossed out to shoot a deer herself and put it out of its misery (instead relinquishing the gun to the older boy, despite her already having proved herself as the sharp-shooter of the two), we are to now believe that she would be brave/foolish enough to enter a tree which presumably contains a dead deer and some other horrible supernatural goings-on.
This is a common trick in horror. And it’s almost always a naive (read: stupid) female character who goes into danger despite everyone, including the audience and other male characters, knowing that she’s going to get herself into strife. Why wasn’t it Jonathan Byers who went into that tree trunk? Because that defies the gender rules of the horror genre. Only a silly girl would go in there. Also, Jonathan is given the opportunity to prove his manliness by pulling her out when she sticks her hand out for help. She ends up lying on top of him, pressing her full body against his, hugging him in terror.
Would it work the other way around?
This series barely passes the Bechdel test. There is the friendship between Nancy and Barbara of course, but the writers soon get rid of Barbara.
A serious shortcoming of this storyline is that the disappearances of the children have an unrealistically low-key effect on this small Indiana town. Something more could have been done to show the audience that the disappearance of Will Byars is occupying the town’s consciousness (as I expect it would), but the disappearance of Barbara is dealt with as if no one, except Nancy, really cares she’s gone. I rather cynically think that people are much more interested in missing children if those children are classically pretty, and it’s no coincidence that almost every murdered girl on a crime show is beautiful to look at. Not so Barbara. In fact, her uncoolness and her boring sensibleness are very things that lead to her downfall. (If she’d just stayed inside with Nancy she wouldn’t have been taken at the pool). It’s not just the town who seems uninterested in Barbara’s disappearance; the audience is likewise encouraged to focus elsewhere.
The ending of this season felt icky to me. The boys are elated to have their friend back. Even Nancy has moved on, and her main focus is on replacing Jonathan’s smashed camera. Hopper has come to terms with the death of his daughter. But Barbara is collateral damage. No one misses Barbara. Though found dead inside The Upside Down world, at no stage is there any scene in which her family — or anyone else — mourns her absence.
Then there’s Wynona Ryder’s character: The archetypal crazy-with-grief mother, who turns out to be right, due to the widely acknowledged invisible bond that ties a mother to her children. This trope is called Cassandra Truth, and the reason it works so well in stories when applied to women and children is that both women and children are widely perceived to be liars — children because their understanding of the world is limited by dint of their age, and women because, well, women are liars. And overly emotional. To the writers’ credit, I suppose, the women at least accompany the men on their mission to save the day. But Wynona is given little to do but scream. And be instructed by Hopper on CPR. (Another male-instructs-female dynamic.)
It’s rare for male writers to attempt a female friendship, and the Duffer brothers have avoided it here, too. It would seem Joyce Byers has no female friends to call upon in her time of need. Instead the deadbeat Dad turns up to give her lectures, alternately comforting and upsetting her. Via this dynamic we get to see a little more about the history of this family. But it’s telling that in this made-up story, the writers felt safer getting rid of Joyce’s sources of real support (via the argument with Karen Wheeler) rather than attempt something that might result in an uncomfortably feminine dynamic.
Then again, doesn’t Jane (known for most of the series simply as ‘Eleven’) undergo her own character arc? Yes, perhaps we can say she does.
The indefatigable 12-year-old protagonists on their bikes are straight out of Spielberg – especially when they find Eleven, an almost-mute girl with large eyes and strange powers who they have to hide in the basement and who gradually learns by their example what friendship and loyalty mean.
Note that the reviewer above has pointed out that the female character has to ‘learn’ friendship from the boys.
I’ll clarify here that when I have a problem with female friendship as most-often written in popular stories, we very rarely see realistic (if any) female-to-female friendship.
When it comes to Jane’s character arc, the boys are presented as models, as if male-to-male friendship is the most pure kind. This has to be our conclusion when there is no positive example of female-to-female friendship.
Then of course we have boys as mentors, girls as infantalised learners. Boys learn from their circumstances whereas girls learn from boys. (We have the most classic case of this in the film ParaNorman, in which Norman gives the young — but actually much older — witch a life lecture in the forest.)
Some reviewers have said that Winona Ryder is upstaged by the kids when it comes to acting. But I’d like viewers to consider the dialogue as scripted, and the difference between what the boys are given (great one-liners and definite character arcs) versus what Wynona Ryder is given (crazy Cassandra mama bear).
Despite her considerable screen time, Ryder is given very little to play with. For the first four hours, she runs a narrow gamut of emotions from anxiously perturbed to anxiously distressed. “My son is missing!” she announces in the first episode, trying to provoke a response from the lazy, beer-for-breakfast police chief (a wonderfully dishevelled David Harbour). Two hours later: “My son is missing!” And that’s it. It’s not until Joyce discovers a supernatural way to contact said missing son – risking her sanity in the process – that Ryder is allowed to explore a broader dramatic pallet.
Don’t forget that Joyce isn’t the only unstable woman in the town. When the writers rely on the mental instability of yet another distressed mother — Eleven’s mother — an unfortunate pattern starts to emerge. Hopper’s grief for his child is the impetus for hyper-masculinity — bravery and an increasingly thick beard, in fact. But with the grieving mothers you get… crazy. I mean, stuck in the house talking to the lightbulbs crazy. Mute and sitting-in-a-rocker-all-day kinda crazy. It makes little difference that these women are ‘right’. Hopper is also ‘right‘. He gets to leave the house and be a hero.
But will an audience really accept anything else?
A somewhat reluctant word on the actress who plays Nancy.
This young woman is now looking so fragile and waiflike that I’m worried for her health.
Even if this is Dyer’s natural phenotype, the choice to cast a super-thin actress, when the young male actors look 1980s slim but nevertheless sturdy, says disturbing things about our culture.
Especially when the actress who plays Barb is dressed up to look dowdy. Shannon Purser, in contrast, looks to be in the healthy weight range for her age and gender. (The actress is a very similar build to me, which is how I know!)
This series has a wonderful range of opponents, beginning with the inhuman, moving into the semi-human, and then into the rounded humans who can stand in the way of progress despite themselves.
The problem with monsters as villains is that they’re not all that interesting. Sure, they’re scary, and those long-armed, Venus-fly-trap-faced things are some of the scariest creatures I’ve seen on TV. But they’re not interesting. The best opponents are human.
To occupy that position of human evil we have ‘Papa’ (Dr Brenner) from the lab, who has kept Jane captive since her conception. This guy is surrounded by some nameless sidekicks and is a great villain because he is single-minded in his mission to get the best out of this child for his own personal gain.
An interesting evil sidekick is the middle-aged woman, Agent Connie Frazier, who looks as harmless and professional as you could imagine. In a quest to recapture Eleven, this woman poses as a social worker, a science fair organiser, a police officer and whoever else the situation requires.
As for the ordinary characters, the detailed character web means that even characters who care about each other can at times be opponents.
The Wheeler parents are the opponents when the boys hide Eleven in Mike’s house.
And when Nancy brings boys back to her bedroom, and the mother never knocks.
Lonnie Byers is Joyce’s main emotional opponent, though the whole town is against her.
The three boys disagree about the girl, and whether or not she is The Monster. They also disagree about whether it’s possible to have a threesome when it comes to ‘best friends’.
Nancy has frenemies who lead her astray then fail to stick with her.
Nancy and Jonathan have a complicated friendship, which is also the beginning of a romance. (You can tell because they have a big argument, which is a sure-fire way to know they’re meant for each other.)
and so on
Horror is about humans in decline, reduced to animals or machines by an attack of the inhuman. While traditional horror is religious in nature, these days most horror stories make use of medical or psychological ideologies.
Since this is a horror story, obviously ‘light’ and ‘dark’ are symbolic.
Most annoyingly this comes to fruition in the final episode, with all of that flickering at the climactic big struggle scene — to the point where I seriously thought we could’ve used a warning for photosensitive epilepsy.
But even before that, we have the lights in Joyce’s house, flickering on and off. We have the ‘light’ world of the town in contrast with the dark underworld below.
This opposition between light and dark are from Christianity, and symbolise good and evil. We all know that intuitively. Also from Christianity we’ve got the snake, which rather disgustingly comes out of the missing boy’s mouth.
Menstruation is depicted rarely in fiction. Perhaps you are rattling off half a dozen stories which feature menstruation right now, hoping to prove me wrong. But when you consider the impact of menstruation on lives, and how frequently it occurs, menstruation is heavily underrepresented across storytelling. We need more of it. People going through female adolescence in particular need to read more of it. Menstruation is one of the last taboos.
Outside basic instruction for adolescents, it seems adult women don’t read or talk about something that, for most of us, occurs every single month for more than thirty years of our lives. No one ever gets her period in a novel or a film, unless it is her first period, which is typically a part of the plot if it’s shown…even the famous Kinsey and Hite reports don’t mention sex during menstruation.
The Magical Life of Mr Renny by Leo Timmers is a modern Magic Paintbrush story in which a central dog character can paint anything he likes. Timmers adds a romantic subplot.
PLOT OF THE MAGICAL LIFE OF MR RENNY
A ‘starving artist’ (represented by a dog called Renny) can’t sell any paintings at the market. Everyone just wants to buy fruit and vegetables. Wishing he could eat the picture of an apple he has painted, a mysterious stranger turns up and tells him that if he were to take a bite of his apple painting, all of them would spring to life. Sure enough this happens, Renny is no longer starving and embarks on a lifestyle of rampant consumerism until an attractive female rabbit turns up wanting to buy one of his actual paintings. Obviously wanting to impress the cute rabbit, Renny renounces his ability to turn paintings into real-world objects and presumably lives ever after, but as a successful artist this time, because Rose the fruit seller has suddenly become interested in Renny’s paintings, which attracts the attention of all her customers.
As an adult reader I do take issue a little with this plot resolution. I’m always a little uncomfortable when a female character (usually dressed in pink — this one also wears high heels, carries a handbag and wears an apron) turns up in what is essentially a male story with her main function being as a love interest. Of course, we’ve all grown up on Warner Brothers/ Looney Tunes cartoons and may not even notice this happening — my daughter certainly doesn’t. So she loves the story without reservation. It’s possible that the author has no such intention for the character of Rose, but my suspicions are aroused when I see female characters depicted as so obviously ‘feminine’, who with few troubling words are able to completely change a male character’s life direction.
The book opens with a picture of an apple with the caption ‘This is not an apple’. Turn overleaf you’ll read, ‘It’s a picture of an apple’. This is a reference to the art of René Magritte, whose most famous image involves a pipe:
Adult readers will pick up the reference; children are less likely to but it doesn’t matter — the concept is now introduced, and when they do happen upon the René Magritte image, they will be familiar with the concept. I suspect this is the concept that started the whole story, in fact.
NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION OF THE MAGICAL LIFE OF MR RENNY
Leo Timms is trained in graphic design (rather than in, say, fine arts) and I’m starting to be able to pick it, even before I read about the author on the back flap. It seems a high proportion of men come to picture book illustration after a background in graphic design or animation, and this may help to account for the disproportionate number of male illustrators winning the top awards, because if you read any jurors’ commentaries you will see that they tend to admire is use of white space/negative space, page layout and use of line. (Of course, plain old institutionalised sexism may well play a role in the prize-winning gender divide too.)
Back to the wonderful illustrations in hand, this book is a wonderful example of negative space used to great effect.
First, a white background can make a bright colour palette really pop. On the other hand, a bright colour palette such as this can almost require a lot of white space in order to work. Second — a technical issue — picture books with white space allow for simple black text on a clear background, leading to ease of reading. I’m constantly amazed when I see experienced publishers producing picture books which overlay dark text on dark backgrounds or (more rarely) vice versa. (It’s probably to do with colours printing differently from how they look on screen, but still.) In other illustrations, white space highlights object which lead the eye across the page.
The illustrations themselves seem to gleam. And the nice thing about illustrating for children is that you can make full use of visual hyperbole: When Renny goes on holiday his suitcase is enormous, filling up most of the page. Timmers knows how to play with proportions to comic effect.
Here is Mr Renny at his usual painting spot, perched on the edge of a precipitous cliff. Metaphorically, Renny is in a financially precarious position.
The pictures are detailed enough that more will be discovered on each re-reading: A cigarette butt dropped on the ground (interesting given modern anti-tobacco sentiments), a goat looking horrified as eggs fall from a basket, a copy of The Titanic propped up against the easel as Renny paints a ship (a foreboding image). A little red bird who appears in most images is soon joined by another little red bird who together create an entire unmentioned subplot. (The real bird looks very dejected once its new mate turns back into a painting.)
STORY SPECS OF THE MAGICAL LIFE OF MR RENNY
First published in English in 2012 by Gecko Press, the translation was funded by the Flemish Literature Fund, so I’m only guessing the original language was Flemish.
The book is a larger-than-average square shape which allows the reader to fully appreciate the illustrations. The white space seems even larger when the book itself is big.
There is a classic Chinese tale translated into English as ‘A Magic Paint Brush’ or ‘The Magic Paint Brush’ about a poor painter whose fortune changes when his paintings come to life. There is a Ladybird Read-it-yourself version, which is probably my daughter’s favourite of all the Ladybird Read-it-yourself books on the shelf.
The idea that the world is ‘painted’ into being is an old and widespread idea, probably as old as brushes themselves.
Timmers’ story also reminds me of the simple and effective story app by Bo Zaunders called The Artist Mortimer (available on the App Store). In both instances paintings intersect with the real world.
Then there is Stephen King’s Duma Key, in which our main character Edgar suffers a life changing accident and heads to the island of Duma Key to recover, discovering a painting ability that turns him into a local celebrity. But the things he paints are more than his imagination and the island claims lives.
The modern equivalent of a magic paint brush may be the 3D printing machine, as explored in The Everything Machine by Ally Kennen.
Writing scary tales for children is difficult, because it has to be interesting without being too scary. How is it done? Where’s the line?
What have storytelling experts said?
I’ve always believed that children, even at a very young age, know their limits, and if a story is too frightening and overwhelms them in some way, they will either fall asleep or walk away. If you read to your child on a regular basis, it’s easy to navigate this terrain with conversations about each story that help you instinctively calibrate what is appropriate for bedtime reading. Reading fairy tales may expose children to the dark side, but it also introduces them to survival skills, teaching them to use their heads to outsmart predators. Shoving the witch into the oven may be a bridge too far, but no reason to be reverent about the words on the page, especially for the younger crowd.
People say, ‘Your book keeps giving me chills,’ but I don’t know what that feeling is. Horror always makes me laugh. Normal adult things scare me, but not things from a book or a movie.
R.L. Stine, from an interview with Village Voice
There’s no formula. I think you have to create a very close point of view. You have to be in the eyes of the narrator. Everything that happens, all the smells, all the sounds; then your reader starts to identify with that character and that’s what makes something really scary.
What’s the difference between a monster movie and a dark fairy tale?
It’s a very, very, very thin difference. I think that horror stories come from fairy tales, in a way. They share a lot of similarities. I think the difference is tonal. You know, the fairy tale contains a lot more elements of magic and whimsy and the the horror story contains a lot more, sort of, almost existential feelings — sort of dread, and ultimately they are similar melodies, played at a very different key.
Over time, supernatural and horror fiction that has been targeted to children and young adults has become darker. If we look at books from the early 20th century through to the 1950s or 60s, we see books similar to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in their mild handling of frightening characters and scenarios. As we move into the 1970s we start to find horror novels targeted towards young adults. Stephen King’s works Salem’s Lotand Firestarter won the American Library Association’s Best Books for Young Adults award in 1978 and 1981 respectively, showing that children and young adults have been quite willing to read scary literature for some time. Neil Gaiman’s books Coraline and The Graveyard Book are also targeted for the tween audience, and could easily be considered scarier than even these specifically labelled horror books from authors such as King and Dean Koontz. In recent years, it appears clear that more and scarier books are being targeted to the child and young adult audience, and as a result, children are reading scarier books than in the past.
It is debatable whether or not fear of the unknown is greater than fear of the known, but in childhood so much is unknown that a child, in order to make sense of fear, must isolate and identify it; only the known can be dealt with.
I believe that children should be allowed to feel fear … Walter de la Mare … believed that children were impoverished if they were protected from everything that might frighten them … Once one has answered this basic question … the second problem arises of how it is to be presented. This is really a technical problem which has to be faced by every writer for children.
Catherine Storr, from ‘Things That Go Bump In The Night’ in the Sunday Times Magazine, March 1971
“We’re not really being scared by movies at all, at least not in the ‘brain chemistry way’.”
The Center for Scholars and Storytellers has come up with seven factors which induce fear in children:
The threatening appearance of a character
A character behaving threateningly
A character children identify with being under threat and helpless
Stories that make children aware, for the first time, of threatening scenarios within their experience
Stories in which safe places are deliberately breached
Music and sound that signify danger
Scenes depicting injury and homicide
Importantly, ‘many programs that most parents and professionals would not consider problematic, induce fear reactions as well – from Disney animated movies to even educational programs. For example, little Dumbo’s trunk reaching out to his caged mother was painful to watch for many children. Similarly, scenes from the classic Wizard of Oz that included the Witch and the monkeys elicited strong fear experiences.’
The researcher recommends content creators and parents offer thrill experiences rather than fear experiences. Unfortunately no further clarification is provided for the word ‘thriller’. I have taken a deep dive into the meaning of thriller and it’s a nebulous term, used differently by storytellers than by marketers.
Whatever is meant by that, most children can’t cope with thrillers until about 7 or 8.
When you were a kid, did you like scary stories?
What about those of you who have kids of your own? Do your kids like scary stories?
Our four-year-old daughter loves the Hayao Miyazaki movies (Studio Ghibli). I’m sure there are many, many reasons for this, but she loves those films partly for the periodic frisson of horror. Her favourite of the lot is Spirited Away, which includes a particularly scary scene in which Chihiro briefly loses sight of her parents, only to come back and find they’ve turned into pigs. This scene haunts and delights our daughter in equal measure. She asks to watch Spirited Away over and over again, and some days she only wants to watch up until the part where the parents turn into pigs (the first inciting incident, as it happens) before turning the DVD off and doing something else. For that reason, I can tell she watches it for the thrill.
She also loves Princess Mononoke. Like Spirited Away, this film has a well-deserved PG rating here in Australia, not least for the ‘monster covered in worms’, as she puts it. You can see a screenshot of that horrible thing on this blogger’s list of Top Ten Movie Monsters. Demon boars deserve their place on that list, though I’m sure Japanese stories could fill a top ten list all on their ownsome. If you’ve never delved into the monsters and demons of Japanese folklore, you’re in for a miserable and thrilling treat. (Who needs Stephen King when you’ve got Wikipedia?) Then, when I look at this seriously unsettling clip from the disturbing new children’s film Toys in the Attic (brought to us via io9), I see that the Czechs have a higher tolerance than we do for scaring the bejeebus out of their children, so maybe we in the West are particularly antsy about what we let our children watch.
I sometimes wonder, though, whether our four-year-old should be watching these films. She enjoys them, all right. She is mesmerised by them in a way ABC for Kids can’t quite achieve. That said, she also likes eating McDonalds, and I wouldn’t give her unlimited access to that. I’m reluctant to limit her viewing to the bright and cheerful though, for a few reasons.
1. These stories all come good in the end.
At the end of Spirited Away, the parents turn back into people, and Chihiro leaves the spirit world safe and sound, ready to embark on her new life. At the moment when the parents turn back into humans, our daughter rushes in to tell me this, with a big smile on her face. In children’s literature there are rules which don’t necessarily apply to adult literature, and the happy ending is one such rule. (Actually, I’m going to stick to the phrase ‘reassuring ending’. ‘Happy’ can sound trite and cliched.)
2. Children imagine terrible things endogenously.
They don’t need outside media input: children seem universally terrified by the idea of parental abandonment for example, and no one taught babies to cry out of loneliness at night. If anything, stories with reassuring endings might have a healing function rather than a terrorising one. Also, how good are we, really, at predicting what our children are going to find scary? It’s impossible to reimagine any children’s show as horror, even The Magic School Bus.
3. Once we get to a certain age, we know when we’re being (over)protected from the harsh realities of life.
Drawing on my own childhood experience, I was sent to bed to read every night after dinner, so I never viewed TV that was meant for an adult audience. I don’t begrudge this — I was allowed to read in bed until much later, and this did wonders for my imaginative life. But it also meant that the few times I caught a glimpse of adult TV, those scenes became memorable for their rarity.
One Saturday night I must have been up later than usual and I caught the beginning of a horror film before being sent up to bed. The film was probably a terrible 1980s B-grade thing, and I have no idea what it might have been called; I only remember the horrific scene of a child being locked inside a wooden chest in his grandmother’s attic, then etching a cry for help into the wood with his fingernails. That must’ve been the scene that alerted my mother to the inappropriate content, and I was sent to bed at that point, protestations ignored.
Had I watched the movie to its conclusion, it’s likely I’d have been disappointed, because no film lives up to a child’s imaginative world. Instead, I concocted my own events, and even managed to terrorise my younger cousin with that made-up story, because we shared a bedroom over the Christmas holidays and that scene formed the basis of my ghost stories. My cousin still remembers those stories. (I remember those evenings for a different kind of disappointment: Lisa had always fallen asleep before I got to the really scary part.)
So this point is related to my second point: the imaginings of children out-colour much of the media content out there, and certainly out-colours the scariest of the scary stories produced with a child audience in mind. All children are different in this regard, and parents are the best judge of their own children’s scariness thresholds. But there’s a fine line between ‘protective’ and ‘over-protective’. Some commentators argue that some parents are going too far in an attempt to shield their children from anything less than peachy:
‘If it’s true that childhood is a kind of walled garden, then it shouldn’t surprise us that children try to poke through the wall at every chance they get’, writes Kathleen McDonnell in her book Honey, We Lost The Kids: Rethinking Childhood in the multimedia age. ‘If there are secrets, kids will try to uncover them, simply because it’s their nature to want to know. In fact, it’s precisely because this knowledge is kept secret that it becomes so highly charged for kids. The forbidden fruit is invariably the most appealing.’
22 Incredibly Creepy Toys, from Buzzfeed. I don’t care what it is, if it’s got those shutting and opening eyes with stiff black lashes on it, it’s creepy. (Those Jolly Chimps come a close second, and I drew one in The Artifacts. Did you see it?)
The World’s Largest Rodent on Wikipedia I wouldn’t want to feel this massive thing swimming between my ankles in any dogdamn South American waterhole. It’s a lot less cute when you know it’s a rodent though, no? Otherwise it might pass for a catdog.