Instant Horror, Just Add Special Effects

A couple of years ago I had a frightening experience. I was getting out of the shower one evening when from behind me I heard the sound of metal scraping against metal. The house was empty and I was standing there in the bathroom, naked and dripping wet, and in that instant I knew that I was about to die. Immediately I had a mental picture of my killer: a tall, stocky man with a black mustache and some sort of knife or hook in his right hand. From the location of the sound, I knew that he must be standing inside the shower that I had stepped out of moments before. For about a tenth of a second I was scared out of my wits. The next moment I heard the shampoo holder crash to the floor and realized that the sound I had heard was the holder sliding off the top of the metal shower head. I felt pretty dumb at the time, especially considering how blatantly impossible the entire scenario was, but looking back I find that moment of fear fascinating. In the time it took for my toiletries to fall six feet to the floor of the tub, my brain conjured up a detailed mental image of something scary to explain the metal scraping noise. It’s like my imagination had this scary idea prepped and ready to go, and when the right variables came together (a disturbing sound combined with the vulnerable feeling of being home alone and buck naked), it sprang to life.

Last week I saw a preview for 1408, a new horror movie based on Stephen King’s short story of the same name. I was at the theater to see Grindhouse, which was quite enjoyable (especially Tarantino’s film, Death Proof). The preview for 1408 made the film look pretty mediocre, but I found myself even more disappointed than usual by the ad. Most horror story film adaptations follow the same formula: superfluous plot and characters + contrived rationalization of mystery + special fx + special fx + special fx = profit, and it seems that 1408 is no exception. What disappointed me about the trailer for 1408 is that the filmmakers seem to have dramatically misunderstood what makes King’s short story so compelling.

1408 is a short story about a writer staying in a haunted room and getting far more than he bargained for. The thing is, most of the story doesn’t take place in the room; less than half of the pages are spent actually describing the room and the writer’s experience there. The rest is dialog between the hotel’s manager and the protagonist, annotated with the protagonist’s own thoughts and memories. And even inside the room, not much really happens to the writer: the horror he experiences is comprised mostly of a nameless, implicit threat that manifests in a few key events. Despite the brevity of this part of the story, the effect on the reader (at least, on me) is intense.

The reason the story is so effective is that King has masterfully created a structure for horror and then left most of the detail work up to our imagination. He’s provided a locale (the haunted room), a reason to be scared (various deaths and other strange occurrences that the hotel manager spends most of the story describing), and a few key events to start the reader’s mind down a path. But from there on out King becomes more of a bystander than a storyteller. The weird history of the room and the series of increasingly disturbing things that actually occur once the writer enters it are more than sufficient kindling for the reader’s imagination to catch fire. And as the story ends, King shows his real skill by just letting that fire burn: he provides no rationalization or justification for the events that take place in the story, and thereby requires his readers to decide upon some personal explanation. This personalization makes the story extremely effective; as my brain demonstrated to me on my way out of the shower, we are much better at scaring ourselves than anybody else.

The trailer for the film version

Hooray for Hollywood

of 1408 seems to suggest that most of the film will be spent in the room itself, depicting various scary things. If the filmmakers are real screwups, they’ll also try to tell the audience why all these events occur and what they should mean. Doing this completely destroys the horror that the original short story is able to induce, and reduces the film to a mere catalog of CG effects. Some might argue that film as a medium requires more explicit visual narration, but I would argue that plenty of films are able operate on the same mechanic as King’s story by suggesting a lot but showing very little. Another King story-turned-movie, The Shining, is an excellent example. The Shining continues to be an extremely effective horror film because it gives the audience just enough information to let their mind wander into whichever territory they find the most disturbing. The gamut of effects-based nightmare events that seem to comprise 1408 is a cop-out on the part of the filmmakers: it removes the need for the audience to think and consequently lessens the impact of the horror it is attempting to deliver.

I should mention as a caveat that 1408 has not yet been released and I’m judging it based entirely on a single preview, which isn’t really very fair. But though I may be picking on a trailer for an unreleased film, I think that the contrast between the content of King’s short story and the events depicted in the film preview are a good basis for my point. In my notes from GDC 2005, I described Akira Yamaoka’s approach to horror, which involves “stacking” of fragmented and convoluted information to “create space for the imagination.” I think this approach is very similar to the mechanic employed by King in 1408, and helps explain why Yamaoka’s Silent Hill series is so consistently effective.

6 thoughts on “Instant Horror, Just Add Special Effects

  1. I’m sure it’ll be different, trailers have seemed to show scenes that aren’t in the theatrical release

  2. I just watched the trailer. I have not read that King story, but it cannot be as awful as the content in the preview. I don’t understand why any studio would spend so much money on fx with a John Cusack horror film. It’s Cusack for Pete’s sake! In a horror film! How am I not suppose to laugh (Identity aside).

    The only (recent) film I have seen use some of Akira Yamaoka’s approach is Noroi. However, it does over explain certain events at the end. As for any current Western film… perhaps Ils (Them), but it isn’t supernatural.

  3. I once read a short story called “The Yellow Wallpaper” that employed a similar storytelling technique, though most of the dialogue was internal.

    This movie sounds interesting.
    It reminds me of the situation with the American remake of “Pulse”, or “Kairo”-
    all the horror was taken out of the remake by tedious explanation for why the events in the story took place.
    I hope the end result will turn out differently. D:

    Thanks for the excellent article! I find myself having to defend Stephen King quite often, and this will give me some sharper tools to do the job.

    I don’t exactly remember the story…was it the one about the tape recorder and the people getting sort of lost in the room? I remember that one being very good and very creepy. It’s not something you could ever put down on film. I have to wonder why they chose it in the first place…Maybe because it’s sort of like “Silent Hill 4”?

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