I get this question sometimes, the assumption being that since I write horror, I’m so used to wallowing in absolute darkness that merely ordinary fears couldn’t possibly have any effect on me. But of course they do. Getting cancer (again), having my middle-aged heart suddenly explode like a rotten tomato in my chest, failing the people I love, losing my mind cell by cell to Alzheimer’s, getting that terrible, unimaginable phone call telling me my wife or daughters have died . . . Those are all things that frighten me and there’s nothing particularly weird or special about them. I am mildly concerned that the exact duplicate of me that lives on the other side of the mirror might one day find his way out and try to replace me, but that’s another story.
Sometimes people are more specific and ask what books or movies frighten me. None these days I’m afraid. (See what I did there? Afraid?) This is where being a lifelong horror fan and writer has had an effect on me. I’m too familiar with horror tropes and story patterns to be frightened by them. But that doesn’t mean that I’ve never been scared – sometimes outright terrified – by books and movies. The ending of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” a young Ben Mears’ vision of Hubie Marsden’s hanged corpse in Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot . . . Scenes like those will haunt me forever. But movies have had a stronger impact on me. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because when you watch a movie you’re completely under the filmmaker’s control. With a book or story, you can regulate the pace of your reading. You can pause, take your eyes off the page, look around and remind yourself that you’re okay, it’s just a story. But a film unfolds at its own pace, shows you what it wants to show you, and as long as you keep watching (and you probably will) you can’t escape.
So here’s a list of my top five most horrifying movie moments. I’m going to describe the scenes to you (so SPOILER ALERT), and I’m going to tell you why these moments affected me so deeply as well as what I’ve learned from them that’s helped me become a better writer of dark fiction. I’ve arranged the movies in the order that I originally saw them – and you might be surprised to find that they’re not all horror films. Horror, after all, is where we find it. Or where it finds us.
EARTH VS. THE SPIDER (1958)
I was probably nine when I saw this on Shock Theatre with Dayton, Ohio’s own horror host Dr. Creep. (I dedicated my tie-in novel A Nightmare on Elm Street: Protégé to him.) Not long before I saw the movie, my Uncle Red (great-uncle, actually) had died unexpectedly. Red (who hated his real name Lawrence) was like a second father to me, and his death hit me hard. In fact, it sent me into a two-year depression that was hard to climb out of. I’d loved horror movies (and horror comics) ever since I could remember. The movie’s title is self-explanatory, and in one scene we see the destruction that the giant spider has wrought on a small town. The spider is long gone, and there’s no one around, except a boy about my age, with blond hair (like me), wearing glasses (like me), with one lense broken. And he’s crying. In that moment, I understood that monsters weren’t fun. Not if they existed in real life, anyway. They killed people, and there were survivors of their victims who suffered from the grief of losing loved ones. Just as I was suffering from losing Uncle Red.
This simple, schlocky horror film had a profound effect on me. It taught me that true horror doesn’t come from the monster but from people’s experience of the monster. It happens inside them.
In 1975 I was eleven years old, and my dad took me to see Jaws. It was one of the few movies my father ever took me to, and why the hell he picked this one to take an eleven-year-old boy to, I have no idea. The relentless suspense of the film put me into a state of complete terror that I’d never experienced before, and by the time the shark leaped onto the Orca to devour Quint, I was nearly out of my mind with fear. And then I got my first good look at the shark. I saw its jaws working frantically to grab hold of Quint, and more importantly, I saw how those jaws didn’t quite align. I thought to myself, This stupid-looking thing is what I’ve been afraid of for the whole movie? And I burst out laughing. Not normal laughter, either. Hysterical laughter. I literally fell off my seat and onto the floor, where I continued laughing, ruining one of the most important moments in the film for a packed house of moviegoers. Come to think of it, maybe this incident is the reason my dad didn’t take me to more movies.
So what did this experience teach me? Anticipation – or as we say in the horror biz Dread – is more powerful than seeing the Big Bad fully revealed in broad daylight. And if you are going to show the Big Bad, it sure as hell better be worth all the build-up you’ve given it. The lesson: people’s own imaginations can terrify them infinitely more than a fake rubber shark ever can.
DIRTY MARY, CRAZY LARRY (1974)
I don’t remember exactly when I saw this movie. Maybe when I was around twelve or so. It’s the story of a young couple who rob a bank and go on the run from the law. The couple are presented as anti-heroes, and the story plays out as a fun adventure where you root for the leads to get away from their pursuers. At the end of the movie, the couple roar across the state line in their car, and the cops have to let them go. The couple looks back at the frustrated officers, laughing in delight, and then their car slams into a train and bursts into flames. The credits roll as the car continues to burn. I was absolutely gob-smacked, and I wouldn’t be surprised if my jaw was hanging open as I stared wide-eyed at those flames.
I was horrified, if not a bit traumatized, by the sudden violence of that ending. Stories were supposed to be predictable. More, they were supposed to be safe. There was nothing safe about that ending, and the movie was all the better for it. It taught me the value of unpredictable narrative, as well as giving me a glimpse into the horror of living in a universe without safety, and perhaps ultimately without meaning. A lesson in cosmic horror derived from a sleazy action film? Hell, yes. The Dark is everywhere.
THE LAST AMERICAN VIRGIN (1982)
I saw this not long after it came out, so I was probably seventeen or eighteen. The movie presents itself as a coming-of-age comedy. An awkward teen boy desires a beautiful and naturally unobtainable girl who has a boyfriend. The girl gets pregnant, her boyfriend dumps her, and the awkward teen – who’s a good guy with a good heart – helps the girl through an abortion (even paying for it), and consoling her afterwards. The two make love, and it seems as if they’re going to stay together and the movie will have a happy ending. But the next day at school, when the boy sees the girl, she’s with her boyfriend again. She looks at the boy who stood by her, took care of her, and there is nothing – absolutely fucking nothing – in her eyes. The boy turns away and departs, devastated. I was equally devastated. For me, that ending was a glimpse into an endless abyss of nothingness that I prayed I would never have to look into again.
The lesson? Emotional wounds cut just as deep, if not deeper, than physical ones. Jason may wield one hell of a machete, but he never sliced up anyone like the girl in that film did. Even worse – she didn’t intentionally hurt the boy who’d helped her. When Jason and his ilk kill someone, that victim matters, if only for that moment and only as a target. That boy didn’t mean a thing to that girl. He wasn’t worth hurting on purpose. This film taught me that the Death of the Self is the worst death of all.
BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (1999)
I saw this a couple years after it came out. My daughters were both young then, ages seven and two. The film is a surreal head trip (See what I did there? Part 2) from Charlie Kauffman about a door that, if you pass through it, allows your mind to enter and control the actor John Malkovich (playing himself). At the end of the movie, the main character, played by John Cusack, attempts to enter Malkovich’s mind but (for various reasons) he ends up in the mind of his own young daughter, who is next in the chain of people the mysterious door permits entry into. Cusack’s character is only a passive passenger in his daughter’s mind, seeing what she sees and hearing what she hears. He will not be in control of her body until she’s grown. (Again, for reasons.) The end of the film shows the daughter looking at Cusack’s ex-wife and her girlfriend, who are both obviously very happy. Cusack, in a pained, pleading thought-voice says, “Look away. Please, look away.” But there’s nothing he can do to make his daughter avert her gaze. That’s horrible enough, but the implication is that eventually – and Cusack will not be able to prevent this – his personality will take over his daughter’s body and in the process her personality will be destroyed. He’s forced to be a passive observer as his daughter lives her life, knowing all the while that he’s a malignant psychic cancer growing inside her that will one day kill her.
What I learned here is as simple as it is awful: there are worse things than death. Way worse. Too many horror stories use death as the ultimate horror and sure, death is scary. I don’t want to die, and I bet you don’t want to either. But death is too easy, too generous an outcome in horror. From this movie, I learned to seek other ways to torture my characters than simply shuffling them off this mortal coil a bit earlier than their scheduled departure date. And my fiction has, I hope, been all the more effective for it.
So now you may be thinking to yourself, Cool blog post, but what does it have to do with me? Fine, you self-centered, greedy things – here’s your takeaway.
Make your own Top Five Movie Moments List and focus it on whatever type of fiction you write. Write science fiction? List your top five sense-of-wonder movie moments. Write suspense? Do a top five the-tension-is-killing-me movie moments. You can do the same for all genres: romance, mystery, thriller, etc. For those who write literary or mainstream fiction, I’d suggest doing a list of your five most emotionally impactful movie moments. Whichever list you choose to do, I urge you to look beyond your particular genre to film moments that truly, deeply impressed themselves upon you. Then look for the lessons these moments have to teach you, lessons about yourself that you can use to make your writing even stronger than it already is.
DEPARTMENT OF SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION
My surreal/psychological horror novella Deep Like the River is now out from Dark Regions Press. I’m especially proud of this one, and the advance word on the book has been overwhelmingly positive. Here’s a blurb to whet your appetite:
"A descent into the madness of a ruined psyche, Deep Like the River puts Waggoner's talent for the eerie, desolate, and unpredictable in the spotlight. A must-read for those who like their horror tinged with desperation and guilt." - Ronald Malfi, author of Cradle Lake
Deep Like the River is available in both print and ebook editions. You can order from the usual online bookstores or directly from the publisher at http://www.darkregions.com/books/deep-like-the-river-by-tim-waggoner
My latest urban fantasy novel is now out from the good folks at Angry Robot Books. It’s called Night Terrors and it’s the first in a new series. Audra Hawthorne and her nightmare clown partner Mr. Jinx are officers in the Shadow Watch, an organization which fights to protect the world from bad dreams made flesh. Available in both print and ebook editions from Amazon, B&N, etc. or you can order directly from the robots themselves at http://angryrobotbooks.com/books/night-terrors-by-tim-waggoner/My zombie novel The Way of All Flesh is still available from the usual suspects and directly from Samhain Publishing: http://store.samhainpublishing.com/tim-waggoner-pa-1820.html
FEARnet says it’s “one of the most original and surprising takes on the zombie genre I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.” Why not check it out and see for yourself?