Saturday, July 2, 2011

Danse Macabre, Redux

Super 8 is out, and J. J. Abrams has established his style quite clearly: master of the let-down.

In Lost, a thousand perfectly concealed secrets wove together to end up with a cheesy group hug.

In Cloverfield, he built a marketing campaign around concealing the appearance of a monster that nobody will remember.

And now, in Super 8, he builds a marketing campaign around concealing the appearance of a monster that… well, at least he sticks to what he knows.

Now, it’s hard to criticize him too much, I mean, how could any monster fulfill our pent-up imaginations? I mean, Abrams is just following the classic rules of horror: show only shadows. The good horror writer creates the suggestion of something big and lets the audience fill in the details with they’re imagination.

Stephen King writes about it in his classic book, Danse Macabre. He also wrote about the disappointment inherent in this approach.

The protagonist throws [the door] open, and there is a ten-foot-tall bug. The audience screams, but this particular scream has an oddly relieved sound to it. 'A bug ten feet tall is pretty horrible,' the audience thinks, 'but I can deal with a ten-foot-tall bug. I was afraid it might be a hundred feet tall.'”

It can be a sad problem, because you have no choice but to show the monster eventually. Anticipation without an eventual reveal leaves an audience feeling hopelessly ripped off. Even if a reveal can’t live up to imagination, it’s better than no reveal at all.

So, do we have to forgive J. J. Abrams and other storytellers whose reveals disappoint us? Are they doing the best possible when trapped by the limitations of surprise and imagination?

Well, no. This big a flaw in storytelling can’t be left alone as the status quo, not as long as there’s a chance to do it right.

In my last blog entry, I talked about Pyramid Head of Silent Hill 2. Now, I mentioned that I believed he was the best character design in horror history and I stand by it. That doesn’t, however, make him immune to the principles of the Danse Macabre. As good as a design as he is, it doesn’t overreach the limits of human imagination. Somewhere in our deepest fears is something worse, even more carefully tailored nightmare for the shadowy reaches of our unique fears.

So why is it, then, that he didn’t disappoint viewers and instead became a memorable design?

Well, let’s break down his first appearance. At one point in Silent Hill 2, the protagonist, James, is walking down a hallway which is separated by a set of bars. Pyramid Head is standing behind the bars.

He doesn’t move. He doesn’t react. You can get a great look at him. Oh well, at least he’s not a hundred feet tall, right?

On the surface, it seems like this does everything wrong. We should be seeing only shadows, right? Why is he showing us the whole monster in detail and even giving us time to examine it?

It might seem like the introduction of Pyramid Head defies the conventions of the Danse Macabre, but, rather, it exemplifies the principles. What Team Silent understood so well was that revelation doesn’t require the end of mystery.

Staring at Pyramid Head just standing there, we start to wonder, “Why is he just standing there? Who is he? He looks like a grizzly, murderous fiend, so why doesn’t he attack? What the hell is going on?!”

Hiding a monster’s appearance is such a limited concept because appearance is something that you can understand completely. No matter how many scaled claws, fearsome fangs or rubbery tentacles a monster has, shape leaves no room for ambiguity. Even with its appearance concealed, the Cloverfield monster must look like something, and once you get a good look, there is no more mystery for its appearance to offer. Past that, there’s really nothing to know about him. He’s a huge monster that wrecks things. It gets rid of the mystery we have but it doesn’t replace it.

Pyramid Head, on the other hand, invites us into a mystery based around understanding complex actions. The darkness of the mind is an endless labyrinth, and for each door we open another ten appear. In the end, we look back on our experience with him like the patterns of an elaborate nautilus. A web of strangeness that is satisfying in its terror.

So, here is the twist, I believe, that can let horror survive the Danse Macabre without the letdown: the promise of the next dance. Horror works when each reveal compounds a greater mystery. The reveal isn’t about the ten foot bug, it’s about the staircase the bug came down from, and how it seems a little to long for the house we’re in…and why is the bug smiling?

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At July 3, 2011 at 12:55 PM , Blogger Ryan said...

For that reason, I like when villains are human. Hannibal Lector is much more interesting than the average monster, because it's not what he looks like that matters, it's the actions he could take.

At July 3, 2011 at 2:07 PM , Blogger Rarer Monsters said...

@Ryan: A fair position, and that's largely how I feel. But, I think it doesn't have to be limited to humans, and there is definite benefit to drawing on the alien appearance and nature of monsters. Furthermore, I think there's an interesting dimension when you have a monster which invites the audience to expect brutality and complete strangeness, and yet instead you see strangely relatable emotional acts.


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