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I Can See Your House From Here, V 2.13
© Kenn McCracken

The cold snap hit this weekend, and it was wonderful.

Well, I say the cold snap; I'm half there, at least. By the end of the week, the highs will be edging back towards 80 degrees, but at least we have to work back to it. If you've ever lived in the southeast, you know what I'm talking about; the weather patterns are similar to those in the southwest, only more humid. Basically what this means is that you spend the summer baking in temperatures that hover around the century mark, only there's really no need to sweat, since time spent here is as good as a Russian bathhouse. Most people recognize the end of summer as coinciding with mid-September, at worst; here in Birmingham, we're glad to have flame-retardant costumes for our kids at Halloween because of the ambient warmth.

Though it rarely lasts, the beginning of October usually brings a weekend or so of autumn. It begins with a good night of rain, followed by a rapid drop of twenty to thirty degrees in temperature. It's an odd scene, to feel the brisk wind and see trees and flowers in full bloom, as the sun sets around 6:30 PM; but damn, it's worth it, just to feel a little bit of fall.

It's really unfortunate that we don't get enough autumn here (or perhaps the unfortunate part is that I haven't moved yet), because fall is the season for horror. No, not the opening of Bones -- the really scary stuff. Horror is the release of Silent Hill 2 for PlayStation2.

What scares you? It's a honest question from me; everyone answers it differently. Some grown, perfectly rational people are still to this day afraid of the dark, of unidentified noises at night, of looking out of the third-floor window and seeing a strange face peering back in at them. Some people are afraid of terrorist attacks, or airplanes, or illness. Still others face no greater terror than the knowledge that Rick Berman is in control of the Star Trek franchise.

I, coincidentally, am a card-carrying member of the first group. If I can see it, touch it, or explain it away, odds are pretty good that it doesn't faze me. My imagination takes on a life of its own, though, and it's really easy for me to work myself up into an honest-to-goodness panic by wondering if I'll see someone else looking back at me from the mirror, or thinking about how dark the stairway in my hall is.

Last spring, I wrote a screenplay about fear. I wanted to write a movie that would scare the crap out of me, because so few movies have done that. In fact, I can list them on one hand, and tell you why:

  1. The Exorcist (1973) This movie is, to this day, one of two movies I adamantly refuse to watch by myself. It's even worse now that I own "The Version You've Never Seen" (which is a horrible title, by the way; why not simply, "The Extended Version"?). From the noises in the attic, to the voices hidden in the audio tape, to the newly restored subliminals and spider-walk scene, this film is guaranteed to give me waking nightmares for a week after viewing, even in broad daylight.
  2. The Shining (1980) I've written before about my dislike of Kubrick's reworking of King's story, but the film has some positively creepy moments -- some are in the book and some are not. The two little girls, the lady in the bathtub, and the party scene can ruin a night of work for me.
  3. The Exorcist III (1990) This one was panned badly, but man, if you paid attention to the critics, you missed some brilliant filmwork. Two scenes that make this worth renting (or in my case, owning): the hospital corridor cross-shot, and the moving statues in the church. You'll know which ones I'm talking about immediately.
  4. The Sixth Sense (2000) Ghost stories don't usually get to me, but Shyamalan did one thing right -- the ghosts in this movie look damned dead. The kitchen scene towards the beginning of the film is one thing; the scene in the school caps it off. Take a look at the faces and the eyes of the ghosts in the background of the scene and tell me you don't feel it; then watch the bathroom scene repeatedly until your brain snaps and you run screaming into the sunlight.

So I sat down at my keyboard, and constructed a story, based on an idea that had been brewing for a few years. The basic plot is nothing that would surprise anyone who has been to a cinema in the past ten years: a man finds himself haunted by a vengeful ghost and must figure out how to stop it. I like the twists I put in, of course -- I wouldn't have continued the writing past page five if there weren't a few red herrings available. The main point, though, was to work in everything that scares me, without making the script seem like a vehicle for such; I feel like I did a fair job doing so.

It occurred to me that not everything in the script will be as effective in a theater as it is in my head, nor will it get to other people the same way it did for me. As I said, not everyone is scared by the same things. But, the overriding thought that carried me through the first draft was that the only way to invoke fear in other people is to feel it yourself. Beyond cheap, manipulative jumps, a totally, coldly rational person could never write a fear-inspiring story (I would bet that this explains the spate of teen-thriller knockoffs that come out every ten years or so).

If all that were needed to scare others was invoking fear in oneself, I would be guaranteed a script that would traumatize audiences. Most full-length screenplays take me about four days for a rough draft; the idea usually is either full developed in my head immediately, or the story writes itself as I go, so there's not a lot of time spent overcoming writer's block for the initial drafting. This script, though, took fifteen days, even with a mostly developed idea (I had a two day period of coming up with an ending that was suitable). Why so long? Because about every ten pages, I got scared enough that I had to stop writing (it didn't help that most of my writing occurs at two AM), and distract myself with a videotape of something stupid, like a Friends rerun.

The good (and probably obvious) question coming out of this: why? Why did I spent the better part of two weeks writing the first draft of a script specifically designed to scare me sleepless? Why do I own DVDs of four films that I know will put me in fear for days? Why do I own a huge library of King, McCammon, Straub, and numerous others?

I don't know. I honestly don't have a clue. I know that my wife won't watch a lot of movies with me, because she gets very scared (scared enough to scream out loud in a crowded theater), and she doesn't enjoy it. I have friends that make fun of me for getting scared at the things that I do. But I still can't get enough.

Fear isn't for everybody, just like slapstick, cheap romance, and Zima. But for those of us that enjoy it, this is the time of year that suits us best.

It looks like I have one more night of cold weather; I suppose I should probably grab my guitar, step out onto my balcony, and write a new song or two. Instead, though, I have a feeling that this may be the perfect time to finish a revised draft of the horror movie.

Hey, it can't scare anyone if it never gets made, right?


Kenn McCracken is afraid of an Anthrax epidemic -- the band, not the disease...

 
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