The Formula

I hope you're taking notes, because this will be on the quiz. IF YOU FAIL THE QUIZ YOU DIE.

I hope you’re taking notes, because this will be on the quiz. IF YOU FAIL THE QUIZ YOU DIE.

In the past few years, watching so much horror for this blog, I’ve seen an awful lot of generic, derivative tripe. Again and again I’ve argued that originality isn’t the only way to judge a film, and while that’s still true, there’s something particularly insulting about a film that just swaps a few arbitrary elements out of an otherwise recycled script.

The overwhelming “meh” quality of most of these movies makes them especially difficult to review. Mediocrity is boring, to watch and to discuss afterward. It could be argued that being a critic is useless, serves no purpose but fueling one’s own ego, or actually undermines the integrity of the art it takes as its subject; despite that, seriously guys stop making these movies. I mean it.

In this post I’m going to lay out what I think are the barest of bare bones of the majority of recent supernatural horror and supernatural thrillers (all loosely defined). Partly the sameness in these films comes from our hesitancy in dealing with the supernatural: we don’t really have a frame of reference for it in the contemporary Western world, except for horror films themselves. But more than that it comes from lazy filmmakers looking to ride the Conjuring wave all the way to the bank, or however that metaphor goes.

My skeleton plot occurs in a series of discrete steps. There are a couple of options for how each step unfolds, or how the characters respond. In practice these very often occur in combination. Here’s what I’ve been able to identify so far:

1) THE SETUP

In the beginning, we get the background in easily digestible horror nuggets. It usually takes one of two forms.

1A) This place has a history.

We’re often introduced to the place before the people, as it were. Horror movies of the more generic variety open in a creepy location, either the place where most of the movie will occur or else a place somehow associated with some supernatural evil. Maybe the first kill of the movie happens here to some throwaway character before the main cast is introduced (often this kill will be somebody later revealed to be connected to the main characters in some significant way). This house is haunted, and here’s why. Etc. etc.

OR

1B) There is an established pattern.

If the movie doesn’t dwell on the idea of a specific place, it may instead begin with a short sequence illustrating the basic premise: this VHS cassette is cursed and kills people who watch it; this monster is stalking firstborn brunette cheerleaders. Like 1A, there’s an example to be made, and the example sets the stage for the scary stuff to come. Mockumentaries will often narrate the history preceding the events of the film itself.

2) SOMETHING HAPPENS.

The supernatural isn’t just running rampant all over the world all the time, obviously. Usually it’s hidden from view. Something has to happen to upset the equilibrium. People come into contact with the supernatural in several ways, but there’s always some sort of change from the normal flow of things.

2A) Location, location, location.

Moving into a new house. Always a stressful experience, sure. And a perfect opportunity for otherwise unremarkable people to inadvertently offend some ghouls or whatever. At last count there were exactly 8,478 horror films that begin with people moving into a new house. (NOTE: I probably made that number up.)

OR

2B) You meddling kids.

Young, stupid, reckless: horror movies want us to think that kids are just the worst. Especially a group of five attractive college students. (Cabin in the Woods really hit this nail on the proverbial head.) They screw around, drink, mock the unmockable, and otherwise justify their own eventual deaths by angering the spirits or whatever.

OR

2C) You meddling journalist/documentarian/scholar/etc.

Sometimes the ancient evil is awoken by someone hoping to learn about it, or about the culture surrounding it. Or it may be a coincidence: an archaeologist studying an Upper Paleolithic burial site accidentally frees an ancient demon from its prison. There’s quite often a sub-theme of dangerous knowledge, a sense that Some Things Are Best Left Alone. Less frequently, but still often enough to note, the person may be deliberately seeking the supernatural as a source of power. In all cases, they learn, too late, that they really shouldn’t have done that thing they did. Whatever it was.

3) THE RISING ACTION (remember that from middle-school English class?)

Once the premise is laid out and we know the key players, stuff’s gotta start happening. So it does, of course. Furniture starts moving, or maybe somebody disappears, dark shapes move in the shadows, and the characters respond to these happenings in a couple of ways.

3A) Ain’t nobody got time for that.

Skepticism. Everybody’s a freaking skeptic. That stuff’s not real, man. Once the premise is established, and the scary stuff starts happening, we the audience understand immediately that the ghost is causing it, or the demon is responsible for pooping on the carpet and not the family dog, or whatever. But not the characters, oh no. Usually half the cast has to die before the rest will even acknowledge that something weird’s going on. This is among the most frustrating things the horror genre does, and ironically, one of the most unbelievable.

OR

3B) That one guy/lady knew all along but s/he’s dumb/ugly/crazy/a witch/etc. so we don’t believe him/her.

This is really just a variation of 3A. There’s that one tinfoil hat guy, or that one local cat lady, or that self-styled “demonologist” dude, and they tell you the shit that’s going on like five minutes into the thing. But you can’t believe them, because then the movie would be over.

4) THE CLIMAX/DENOUEMENT

Shit’s all out on the table now, man. We finally believe, we finally know what’s going on, we know the identity of the ghost or where to find the relic that will banish the werewolf or whatever. There’s a last-ditch effort to be made, a Hail Mary that may just be crazy enough to work. Does it?

4A) So close and yet so far.

‘Twas all for naught. It seemed like it worked, but HAH! it didn’t. Jerks. All that work for nothing. See you in hell, losers.

OR

4B) It… worked?

So the ritual succeeded/the spirit is appeased/the monster is dead! The hero and anybody else left get to gaze at each other with relief, maybe–gasp!–love? And cautious optimism gives way to hoarse laughter and limping off into the distance, possibly as the sun rises. Only SHIT FOOLED YOU YO it isn’t over yet, as there’s one more ravenous humanoid, or another clutch of demon eggs, or the ghost was actually just taking a smoke break. But you won’t find that out until the

5) FINAL MOMENTS

Horror either has to be wrapped up in a neat bow, or else it has to continue endlessly, because fear is eternal. So you either get

5A) Closure.

It worked, it didn’t work, whatever. The main characters are done, either dead or too emotionally exhausted to care. Conversely, maybe they really did manage to shake off the curse or kill the demon, but the implication is usually that there’s more stuff like this out there. How could there be exactly one ghost and no others? You’re still dealing with a world where this shit is real, so even a “happy” ending–which is rare–has scary implications.

OR

5B) No closure because screw you.

Sequels. The monster was faking it, the ghost wasn’t banished, the head vampire is still out there. Maybe the main characters don’t get away after all, killed in the last few frames by the gleeful monster relishing its own comedic timing. Or maybe we, the audience, catch a view of a dark shape sinking slowly back into the water or fading into the shadows of the abandoned castle. Either way, nothing has been resolved.

* * *

To be clear, these are deliberately really broad, broad enough to encompass nearly any supernatural plot. So following this outline does not automatically make a film bad. On the contrary, the greats of the genre have all followed this basic outline, but they’ve done it in ways that are smart, creative, and which disguise the generic narrative structure beneath good writing and cinematography.

What do you think about the formula? Is it too broad? Or too specific? Would you add anything? Is it possible to tell a supernatural story in film without following this outline?

“The Haunting of Hill House” (1959)

Dr. John Montague was a doctor of philosophy; he had taken his degree in anthropology, feeling obscurely that in this field he might come closest to his true vocation, the analysis of supernatural manifestations. He was scrupulous about the use of his title because, his investigations being so utterly unscientific, he hoped to borrow an air of respectability, even scholarly authority, from his education. [1].

Yes. Just, yes.

This passage is from the first page. Right out of the gate, we know we have a winner. I love everything about this passage, from its assertion that supernatural phenomena are best studied from the vantage of anthropology, to its roundabout concern with the “scientific.” Not only that, but Montague’s reasons for studying anthropology sound surprisingly familiar to me personally, as a folklorist who studies the supernatural, and I think it’s awesome.

Listen to me. Gushing.

But I can’t help it. The first word that comes to mind when I think of Shirley Jackson’s brilliant haunted house novel is delicious. It is a comforting, slightly spicy dessert–like, homemade carrot cake and a cup of good tea on a cold day. It is wonderful. If anyone doubts that horror can be subtle, profound–as well as oddly humane, warm, and inviting–I’ll bet The Haunting of Hill House will change their mind.

As long as they can tell it apart from all those other things, anyway.

The book centers on a group of four people who come to spend a week in Hill House, a rambling old mansion in the unpleasantly-rustic countryside (more on that in a moment). The fearless leader is one Dr. John Montague, who in the strangest example of participant observation ever undertaken by an ethnographer, rounds up his little group and whisks them away to the eponymous domicile in order, essentially, to see if he can’t get a bunch of damned freaky stuff to happen.

Though Montague contacts a large group of potential informants, only two actually show up (hurray ethnography!). These are Eleanor, the protagonist, and Theodora, the coquettish-but-probably-lesbian foil to Eleanor’s frumpy, crazy cat lady. Montague duly explains that he chose these women on the basis of their past experiences with psychic phenomena: Eleanor endured a poltergeist event as a child, and Theodora apparently enjoys some degree of clairvoyance. They are joined as well by Luke, the heir of the Sanderson family, the current owners of the derelict mansion. Together the four of them embark on a week of luxury and dissipation: brandy, chess, strolls on the lawn, relentless ghost  attacks. Pretty par for the course.

But I jest. The Haunting of Hill House is not par for the course. Its scares aren’t cheap. They aren’t accompanied by jarring, discordant imagery, by abrupt violence, by twisted sexuality, or any of the other sets of symbols that are attendant on so much contemporary horror. Hill House relies on the contrast between normalcy and moments of intense, creeping weirdness. These moments are familiar in content: the bizarre cold spot in front of the nursery; the sound of banging moving up and down the upstairs hall while Eleanor and Theodora can only listen, approaching hysteria; the cryptic and frightening writing that appears on walls and seems deliberately timed to drive the characters apart when their only safety is one another. But they are executed with such finesse, with such attention to detail, and with such meticulously crazy narration (it’s all told from Eleanor’s perspective) that the scares leave behind the dull terminology of other works in the horror genre. They are “scares” no longer. They are intrusions, disruptions, challenges to the cozy little atmosphere, the nest that the characters have made for themselves–and by extension, they are intrusions into the normal social world in which we all must exist.

But that’s enough for symbolism and social commentary. The frightening moments in Hill House are by now old hat to anyone who’s ever seen a horror film or read a horror novel; but Jackson’s sparkling prose makes any trace of triteness evaporate. I’ve never heard a recording of her voice, but I’d be willing to bet that Shirley Jackson spoke exactly like Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s: that strangely almost-British accent that stylish Americans affected mid-century. That’s the voice I imagine, anyway, when I read her descriptions of scenery, or Eleanor’s running commentary on the shortcomings of her new friends. “Droll” is the word, but with all the nuances that the term should convey but perhaps does not.

How droll. Indeed.

Jackson is also incredibly skilled at creating a compelling sense of place. Hill House, despite its bizarre architecture (described in beautifully Lovecraftian terms) and threatening supernatural phenomena, becomes a kind of homely counterpoint to the ugly little town of Hillsdale, six miles distant, through which Eleanor passes on her way to the mansion. In some ways, the world immediately outside Hill House is worse, more callous and impersonal, than the house itself.

I’ve been a huge fan of the film version, 1963’s The Haunting, since I watched it with Carlea several years ago. Much of the charm of the novel carries over into the film; but what the film does not convey quite as effectively is the quiet but deep insanity of the protagonist, Eleanor. She isn’t a psychopath, but her inner monologue reveals how fundamentally flawed her understanding of reality–specifically, social reality–is. The supernatural events in the novel–if that’s what they are–serve, more than anything, as a kind of literary dancing-partner with Eleanor’s growing insanity. There may be a ghost, or Hill House itself may be somehow sentient, or Eleanor could be causing the supernatural events herself (the other characters experience them as well, so not everything is in Eleanor’s head); but, for once, the ambiguity doesn’t matter. Or rather, it does matter; but it isn’t a smug, self-aware kind of ambiguity. The symbolism is not heavy handed; Jackson doesn’t delight in the open-endedness of the story.

No, I think Jackson mourned for Eleanor. The Haunting of Hill House is an elegy for the character that Jackson created to represent, I think, a kind of quiet, intimate tragedy. Eleanor, thirty-two years old, spent the last eleven years caring for her ailing mother, and as a result she is utterly unable to relate to other human beings. She opts instead for a house, and for the spirits that inhabit it. That’s what’s really scary here: the spooky manifestations, the implied threat (no one is ever killed, but there is an undeniable menace to the phenomena that occur), are bad enough; but this woman, ultimately, prefers them, and what they represent, to living human beings.

Hill House has its flaws. Toward the end of the book, the four main characters are joined by Montague’s wife and her assistant Arthur. Mrs. Montague and Arthur are, simply put, annoying. I understand why the filmmakers opted to change Mrs. Montague’s role so drastically, and drop Arthur completely, from the ’63 movie version.

Minor shortcomings aside, The Haunting of Hill House is brilliant. Whether it’s truly horror or not is, like so many such things, open to interpretation. But it is one of the best ghost stories I’ve ever read.

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[1] Jackson, Shirley. The Haunting of Hill House. Revised. New York; London: Penguin Classics, 2006.