I’ve been thinking lately about horror, and about how best to create it in the course of telling a story in some medium. I’ve been aware of this for a while but it’s only recently that I’ve been articulating it to myself. So I thought I’d write it down now while I’m thinking about it again.
The most potent forms of fear are internal. It’s not the adrenaline panic of being ambushed or pursued. It’s the fear your own mind creates out of an ambiguous situation. When you’re alone in a dark house and you think you hear a noise, the fear you feel is what your mind comes up with out of that ambiguity. There’s nothing objectively wrong or threatening. It’s your own mind that threatens you by attempting to map a coherent pattern onto incoherent data.
In roleplaying games, I’ve seen this work and experienced it myself. Let’s say that you have assembled a set of clues to a mystery. You’re sitting there at the table and nothing in particular is happening, so you’re sifting through these pieces of paper and trying to put it together. And suddenly you make a connection between the clues and you have a realization. It isn’t spelled out anywhere. There isn’t a sentence you overlooked that explains the mystery. It’s just that you’ve made the connections and suddenly an explanation appears in your mind that’s frightening. And you start to panic a little, and you wave your arms or say something to get the attention of the other players, and you start babbling, trying to explain what you’ve just realized. That terror, that sudden vertiginous feeling of plunging into the dark heart of a mystery, is a tremendous sensation. It works because you scare yourself, not because the game master scares you outright.
I got an inkling of this idea a long time ago, when I was in high school. There was news of a tropical storm, and the newscaster explained how storms are named alphabetically starting at the first of the year, so the first storm is named something that begins with A and then the second begins with B and so on–Andrea, Betty, Camille. And I thought: what if you were watching the news and you heard about a tropical storm named Wanda. And it’s just another storm, no big deal, but then you realize that means it’s the 23rd storm of the year, and that’s a weird and terrible thing that there have been so many.
If you want to scare someone in a story, it’s best if the audience makes a realization that the characters don’t. This may be because you’ve been privy to information they haven’t witnessed, or simply because you’re thinking about things in a way they aren’t. So the story gives you A and B, and you put them together and get C and that’s what scares you.
This happens in a relationship when your partner is having an affair. The most tortuous event in that situation isn’t when your partner says, “I’m in love with someone else.” It’s before, when you come across A and B and those incidents mean nothing in themselves, and they don’t even prove anything, but they suggest something. And that something is C: your partner is having an affair. But it’s internal. It’s a thought, not an objective reality. So it tortures you. You obsess on A and B, turning them over in your mind, trying to see if they really do add up to C. When your partner tells you the truth, that’s D: definite. And that’s horrible. But C…C is what really tears you to pieces.
Good horror storytelling is all about C.
I’ve been a David Lynch cultist for years. I’ve enjoyed all of his films, including Dune and Fire Walk With Me. When I saw FWWM, I left the theater and told my companion: “I feel like there are insects crawling under my skin.” After watching Mulholland Drive, my only reaction was that it sucked.
That’s a real bummer. I’ve been looking forward to this film for months. And it sucked.
I feel that if Lynch had just released the TV pilot that the movie is built on as it was, it would have been fine. We would have a story that was still full of possibility and ambiguity. We could have wondered for years: where was that storyline going? What was that character up to? It would have been a wonderful, unsolvable mystery.
Instead, Lynch went back to it and built it into something else. Something that, while still unsolvable and ambiguous, is nonetheless a closed system to which nothing more needs to be added. And that closed system is itself not very intriguing or satisfying.
I can and do respect Lynch’s dedication to following his own visions and ideas, even to the extent that he destroys narrative and betrays audience satisfaction. But that doesn’t mean I have to respect the resulting work, and I don’t. I think he started off telling one kind of story and then tried to turn it into a very, very different kind of story, and that he failed to do so in a successful way.
It’s a real letdown. There are certainly elements in the film that I really liked. But overall, it just sucked.