Essay: The Secret of Long-Lasting Horror Fiction
Forget the insufferable bro vibe you're getting from that author portrait, Ryan Sayles is one of the best internet people I know. He is a friend, a colleague, a narrative arts philosopher and a perhaps a nerdier pop culture addict than I am. He's not good people, he's GREAT people. He's the author of the Richard Dean Buckner detective novels, which I still claim today are the best detective novels written in the 21st century. He was kind enough to drop by the blog today to discuss his love for classic horror movies and the reason why some movies beat Father Time and some don't. Whether you agree with him or not, let me know in the comments or on social media. If you like what you've read, make sure to also check his books. Ryan is a one-of-a-kind talent.
Oh, and WARNING: spoilers of The Walking Dead Season 7, Episode 1 ahead.
Written by Ryan Sayles
If I remember correctly, Chuck Palahniuk called it a “gothic horror” structure when you have a group of people being hunted by a singular enemy and get picked off one by one. I might be reading into it a bit or filling in some holes with my own thoughts, but that’s the gist of it.
Gothic horror. The basis for some classic scary movies, right? Every slasher flick ever. Ever. A group of ridiculously dumb horny teens who stumble upon a summer camp/school party/creepy, dank cave and think there’s nothing better to do than stay right there, drink and pork. Then one by one they get butchered while we as an audience gasp and enjoy a death we’d sell our children for so we wouldn’t suffer that same thing.
I mean, one minute this cheerleader-type gal is in the shower, rubbing herself down with a bar of soap that refuses to lather up at all, and the next minute our killer rams her in the face with a four foot chainsaw that lifts her off the ground six feet and pins her to a wall where, even though the chainsaw is through her face she still screams and wiggles and writhes as it chews up her entire body into bucket after bucket of red goop. Sucks to be her, huh? Oh well. I already forgot her name. I hope they kill the jock next.
A collection of almost faceless, can’t-tell-the-difference-between-them actors bundled together so we can see them die for the next ninety minutes. And that’s that. The latest homogenized, neatly packaged forgettable moment in the Hollywood factory’s production schedule. You see the movie poster for two weeks while the thing is in theaters and then poof. Disappeared into the night. Maybe into the Redbox. Maybe.
But there’s other movies out there that use the same formula which have stood the test of time. Became classics. Stuff that artists imitate and even give homages to. John Carpenter’s The Thing (albeit it suffered greatly during its theatrical run, it’s gone on to become a cult classic), the first two Alien movies, Predator and any other coincidentally sci-fi horror movie I’ll take too much time thinking of to list here. Scream. There’s another one, and it’s not sci fi.
And who can forget the direct-to-video genre-changer, Hellraiser XIX: Pinhead on Mars? *
Never mind. We all forgot that movie. (I just put that in there to upset Ben, who apparently loves that series and we all know it’s nothing but dumb late 80’s Blue Oyster leather, nipple clamps with inexplicably sharp teeth and erotic fetish gore-sex.)
Anyway, why are so many of these films completely forgettable while others refuse to go away? The same reason The Walking Dead has, against all odds of taste and decency made it to its seventh season. They have characters we actually care about. And that’s it. (by the way, TWD, if you kill Daryl, you kill your show.)
Stephen King said in an interview that he always tries to put the “care” in “scare.” When you care about the people you’re seeing/reading about, you as the consumer become involved. The difference in seeing Paris Hilton in House of Wax, another forgettable teeny bopper slasher flick, getting mutilated and seeing Jamie Kennedy in Scream 2 getting pummeled so badly inside that broadcast van that it rocked on its axles is that we cared about Jamie Kennedy. No one except God Himself cares about Paris Hilton. And thusly her death was a cheap thrill telegraphed on one of the movie’s posters to sell some tickets and was nothing which impacted movie-goers.
Remember how hard it was to accept Glenn getting beaten to death in The Walking Dead? How difficult it was when Hudson was pulled through the floor into a sea of xenomorph hands? When Glen Bateman, Ralph Brenter and Larry Underwood travel to the post-apocalyptic Las Vegas in The Stand to put an end to Randall Flagg’s army and insanity and instead get captured, Glen gets beaten to death (not TWD Glen, another one… wait. Did TWD steal this?) and the other two did nothing but get nuked by the same atomic bomb that put an end to Randall Flagg’s army and insanity? Why the hell did they even go there in the first place?
But, those deaths affected us. The millions of sexy coed blondes and dudes with bright teeth and nice abs getting slaughtered and set on fire and dragged to Hell and torn to pieces and chopped up, their deaths mean nothing.
You have to care about these people in order for their sufferings to matter. Sure, some deaths are crucial to the plot and, as a narrative device, means something in their own right. We might not care about that character but how/when/where they die is necessary to the story.
In my second Richard Dean Buckner novel, Warpath, I kill both of Detective Clevenger’s grandparents *. His grandmother was only there to die and set events in motion. His grandfather was there to be a lovable character. You guys know who Chris Leek is? British author, Zelmer Pulp member? Amazon.com that guy. Check our fiction haunts and look him up. Dude is a force. But anyway, he read the first fifty or so pages of Warpath and actually told me I had better not kill the grandfather because he was too cool. So when I did, I made sure his death was necessary to plot. Yes, I’d hoped I’d written him in such a way that the readers were affected, because then he rises out of the body count pile and enters into the memorable character pile.
Our society is, in too many ways, cheap and fake. The entertainment industry as a whole shits out mass-produced crap where the value of human life has become nothing more than a cheap death scene. These people have no meaning except to die in a way that’ll make us gasp and then forget about it, instantly wanting the next bigger death. So the folks who we get to know, who we get involved with, they all of a sudden mean something to us. I imagine if we got to know real people in our lives we might find out they’re better than we thought, and are actual human beings.
* Editor's Note: I did not review it because I worked on it, but it is very good. Check it out.