This affinity for simple, straight-forward narrative has helped me throughout my professional and personal life.
When I served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, I prosecuted many jury trials, including cases involving murder and rape. Unlike TV versions, real trials don’t proceed in time sequence like frames on a movie film. At best, they can be a confusing mish-mash of competing facts, scattered bits of evidence and conflicting testimony. My job was to distill that hodgepodge into a simple narrative a jury could understand—my job was to tell the story.
I also am privileged to have served as a public school teacher in Washington’s inner-city. In addition to normal problems associated with childhood development, my students were forced to deal with outside the influences of poverty, drugs, broken families and racism. Keeping their attention and motivating them to succeed was a challenge. To the extent I achieved any success in these efforts, it was in large part due to my practice of reducing every lesson to a story with a beginning, middle and end.
Many believe imagination cannot be learned, it is only something with which one is born. Bullfeathers!
I would play a game with my students to “teach” them to use their imagination. We’d dim the lights and I’d produce a flashlight. I’d start out the game with “Once upon a time, there was a ” then point the flashlight at a student. The student could say anything he or she wanted.—a boy a dog a house, a bear, a snake, a pencil, a can of Coke. “And the snake’s name was ” Point the flashlight at someone else—Tyrone. “And Tyrone the snake lived in” —a tree, car, hole, cloud, lake, TV. And so we’d go, building a story, each child getting to contribute and knowing his or her contribution moved the story forward, until the end where everyone would say together, “And they all lived happily ever after.” I played this game with my own children (we called ‘Campfire” at home) and they still talk about it. (I later learned there was a book series called Mad-Libs which used a similar concept.)
I believe the story-telling skill is particularly important today where not only children but adults have been conditioned, through the internet and social media, to expect instant answers with a tap of a screen. A story takes a time, it draws us in so we don’t want to tap to the end. This “experience and enjoy the journey” element in our lives is something we need to safeguard lest it slips away forever, and keeping alive the art of story-telling is a fun way to do it.
Future social historians will look back at the 20th and early 21st Centuries and identify three socially transforming events in America: Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy Assassination, and 9/11. The day after Pearl Harbor, Americans realized they were no longer protected by two oceans and the Nation’s collective sense of security was transformed. The day after 9/11, Americans realized they were destined to be involved for the foreseeable future in a new kind of war, not based on territory, but on ideology and hatred for our freedoms, a war without boundaries fought by religious fanatics who had no reservation killing innocents and themselves. Every facet of our everyday lives was changed.
Today we remember the middle event, when 50 years ago, we lost our innocence. The assassination of a young President was itself a thunderous blow, but the aftermath, lingering questions as to the “why” and, still in some people’s minds, the “who,” left American’s confidence in their government and it’s institutions badly shaken. Thus was born the age of protest, and not only of a health skepticism, but an unhealthy cynicism that remains as current as today’s Obamacare headlines.
Oh, yeah, and the music. The top songs for 1962 — Johnny Angel, Roses are Red and Stranger on the Shore — shortly gave way to the Stones, the Doors and the late, darker, Beatles. Rock and Roll had transformed to just, Rock.
People over the age of 60 tell me they can’t remember the grocery list, but they remember in vivid detail what they were doing when the heard Kennedy was shot. I feel the same way about 9/11.
“Truth is stranger than fiction because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn’t.”
Enter Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, easily the biggest train wreck of a politician today – a man who makes the shamed Anthony Weiner, the former New York Congressman repeatedly caught sexting his genitals to young women, seem like a choir boy.
Ford—round, ruddy, shifty-eyed— looks like Santa Claus’s evil twin. After repeated denials, he finally admitted to smoking crack, blaming a black-out from one of his many drunken stupors. He has shown up plastered at a cozy community festival in Toronto, and issued a cavalcade of memorable quotes on television, including his love for oral sex with his wife (while denying sexual harassment charges).
A recent article in the New York Times recounts his unlikely rise to power. His fellow city council members in Toronto wanted to get rid of Ford, so they bet him he wouldn’t have the gumption to run for mayor. Their goal, of course, was to encourage Ford to vacate his council seat in an impossible quest for higher office. After upping the ante from $20 to $1,000, Ford foolishly agreed. Except due to an unusual shift of political winds, somehow he got elected.
As fiction writers we’re often told to “keep it real.” No one is going to believe crazy, larger than life characters. Except standing before you, the dribbling smile on his huge, pink bucket head stretching from ear to ear, is Mayor Rob Ford—Exhibit A offered as proof we need to trust our intuition and sometimes “go big” when designing our characters. Because they really do exist.
Julian Santana Barrera was a hermit living alone on the Xochimilico canal, 17 miles south of Mexico City. One day, sadly, he discovered the body of a young girl had washed up onto his shore. A few days later, a doll washed up on shore at the same location and Barrera was certain the doll manifested the spirit of the dead girl. He hung the doll from a tree overlooking the swampy canal as a memorial to the child.
Over the years, Barrera found broken dolls in trash piles and hung them from trees. Many he nailed to the sides of his house. In the 90s, the local council came to clean up the canal and discovred the dolls. Word spread and tourists came to visit the spooky place where lifeless, mud splattered dolls with severed limbs stared down at them through empty eyes behind the veil of gray Spanish moss, as if sentenced to an eternal purgatory. Many brought their own broken dolls. Soon the site became known as Isla de las Munecas, the Island of the Dolls.
By the time of Barrera’s death in 2001, hundreds of dolls and pieces of dolls hung from the trees along the shore.
The opening to a horror story almost writes itself:
Jen and Bill paddled upstream through the dirty, fetid water through a tunnel formed by heavy oak limbs arching over the canal from each shore. Despite the late hour, Jen’s skin was slick with sweat from the tropical heat. She opened another button on her yellow blouse, then pulled a band from the pocket of her cut-offs and bound her bright red hair into a pony tail to get it off her neck.
“It’s getting dark,” she said. “Maybe we should turn back.”
“Should be close,” Bill replied. “There! Up ahead on the left.”
She’d met him at the hotel bar only three days earlier. One thing had led to another and, well, here they were, paddling a rental canoe toward the island.
She was the first to spot the dolls. “Oh my God.” She’d seen pictures, of course, on the flyer in the hotel lobby, but witnessing the sight in person was still a shock. Broken dolls, most missing limbs and eyes, hung from every limb of every tree fronting the shoreline.
Bill stopped paddling. “Wow! Must be what? 300 of them?” He focussed his cell camera and snapped picture after picture. “let’s go to shore. I want to get some close-ups.”
“Maybe we better head back. We’re gonna run out of light.”
“Just take a minute.” He guided the canoe to the muddy shore and they both jumped out. She didn’t appreciate his quick dismissal of her concern, like her opinion didn’t count for anything. Felt very familiar. She paddled hard. The sooner they got on and off the island, the better.
When they tied up the canoe, she saw a dilapidated structure behind the trees. “Look at the shack over there. The walls are covered with dolls.”
“So cool.” Bill snapped a few photos using the flash, then showed them to Jen. The flash illumination gave the dolls and even more sinister appearance.
“We gotta go. Now.”
He slipped his arm around her shoulders and kissed her. She stiffened. No time for this. “Not now.” He ignored her and his hands wandered to familiar places. For the first time in the last three days she felt guilty. And homesick. What the hell was she doing?
“Bet no one has ever done it here. C’mon.”
“Bill, I need to get back.”
He jerked her to a mossy spot, then tugged at her Jeans. She tried to pull away, but he was very strong. Through the trees she could make out a thin ribbon of gray on the horizon, the last wisp of daylight. They had to move. Okay, okay, she told herself. Give him what he wants, get it over with.
Fortunately, he was quick. The moment he rolled over onto his back, she saw it and froze.
“That doll, the one right above us with the torn blue dress. It just smiled at me.”
“Just the breeze playing tricks. Come on, lets get back to the canoe. Once we get about a half mile downstream, we should see lights from—”
“Oh, my God …”
All of the dolls were smiling at them.
She screamed, grabbed up her shorts and underwear and ran toward the canoe with Bill close behind.
She turned to see Bill had slipped in he mud. Above him the dolls swayed back and forth. The breeze picked up and as it rustled through the hanging moss she was certain she heard:
She dropped her clothes, helped Bill to his feet. Looked like he’d sprained his ankle. He wrapped his arm around her shoulder and they struggled to the shore.
The canoe was gone. Bill stopped, then stepped away. What was he doing? They had to find—
Bill was standing straight. And smiling at her. His hair fell away, his skin hardened to a dirty pink plastic. His eyes disappeared.
Welcome, Jen …
Her shriek was interrupted by a creaking sound. The Bill thing gestured toward the shack with his arm, only it wasn’t an arm, more like a plastic stub.
She turned to see the door of the shack slowly open. At first the structure appeared empty inside. Then she looked down.
Hundreds of dolls, all missing eyes and limbs, floated out the door, riding the mist carpeting the ground.
Her raw scream pierced, then reverberated the warm night air. But no one heard.
The sun shone down on the tourists paddling by the island in a canoe flotilla. Excited by the sight, all snapped photos of the hanging dolls. One took a close-up of a doll with no eyes, missing an arm.
The doll had red hair and wore a dirty yellow blouse.
Twenty-five hundred miles away, Jack Masters was worried about his wife. Jen had gone off the Mexico City with her best friend for a long girls weekend. She’d called every night. Sounded like they were having a great time. But two nights ago she hadn’t call. He wasn’t overly concerned. Probably a little too much wine at dinner. When he hadn’t heard from her last night, he began to worry. A call to Cindy wasn’t helpful. Seemed like she was hiding something. If he didn’t hear from her by noon, he was going to catch a plane and …
Here’s what the Canadian director recently told The Toronto Star when asked about how his film adaptation of Stephen King’s “Dead Ringers” compared with Kubrick’s adaptation of King’s “The Shining”:
“I think I’m a more intimate and personal filmmaker than Kubrick ever was. That’s why I find ‘The Shining’ not to be a great film. I don’t think he understood the (horror) genre. I don’t think he understood what he was doing. There were some striking images in the book and he got that, but I don’t think he really felt it.
“In a weird way, although he’s revered as a high-level cinematic artist, I think he was much more commercial-minded and was looking for stuff that would click and that he could get financed. I think he was very obsessed with that, to an extent that I’m not. Or that Bergman or Fellini were.”
There are at least a few potential takeaways from this quote, but perhaps the most overwhelming is that Cronenberg is trying to understand his place in film history — and his ego is making a strong argument. (Gasp! A movie director with an ego?!)
Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini will be remembered in film history as two of the perennial greats – right next to Kubrick. One hundred years from now, Cronenberg will be better remembered in Canada; he seems like an artist that will go in and out of fashion for future film geeks.
Cronenberg was understandably reflective of his career; he was being interviewed at an exhibit in his honor. “Cronenberg: Evolutions” features all manner of the weird gadgets and characters that have done so much to distinguish his films. That includes his remake of “The Fly,” “Videodrome” and his adaptation of the William S. Burroughs novel, “Naked Lunch.” The exhibit features his vision of Burroughs’ boozing Mugwump character – a reminder of what makes his films such creepy, inspired good fun.
It’s great tension, and story thrives on tension. But there’s also underlying tension for the Halloween experience, which is usually underutilized because it is, perhaps, just a bit too complicated and psychological.
While looking through my library recently, I came across my Kurt Vonnegut section and saw his “Mother Night.” Anyone who has read the book probably remembers its most important quote, which is the moral of the novel: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
While that line is spoken in the context of Nazi Germany, I think it universally applies. Arguably the primary feature distinguishing humans from the animal kingdom is our extraordinary social skill, which is facilitated by language. Many academics believe language ability is innate as a necessary, evolutionary survival mechanism for social capability and empowerment.
Given that, what does it mean to be somebody or something else for a holiday? Are we breaking the fourth wall of our social existence by saying, “You may normally know me as ‘Mike,’ a character in my community, but today I am wearing a Mike Myers mask (from the Halloween movie series) giving me social permission to act out of character?”
In this instance, I am acknowledging that I have a usual character that I present to the world — and other characters, too. What does it mean for Mike Pace to act like Mike Myers, and how genuine is it?
Like breaking the fourth wall, metafiction is that strange acknowledgment that we are reading/writing/performing in a fictional setting; by acknowledging the line between fiction and reality, artists blur that line. Halloween blurs that line between your normal character and your holiday character – both of which are not you in total, but in part.
Perhaps the spookiest aspect to Halloween is the question: Who are you supposed to be?]]>
A basic Wikipedia search tells it pretty well: Halloween was originally a Celtic holiday to celebrate the harvest season, possibly including pagan rituals to recognize the dead, and later was repurposed for Western Christians as a time to remember dead saints … etc.
I suppose any holiday is essentially a Rorschach test for any given culture, and if the most significant part of the holiday boils down to selling candy, watching movies and wearing fake beards and fangs, then so be it. But like any good horror/thriller novel or film, a good fright during Halloween can remind us of our existence; that we are alive and not dead, although someday we will be.
Having gone to several Halloween parties, I can tell you Oct. 31 is quite often a scary holiday. No, I haven’t been to the world’s best “haunted” house – no visions of dead relatives slaughtering house pets, and no elaborate pranks.
I remember at a party a few years back meeting a fellow named John who dressed as a character from a cartoon I didn’t recognize. After a brief conversation, I learned he was an undertaker. When I asked why he didn’t just dress as a ghoulish undertaker, he responded, “That’s me every day.”
After a few adult beverages, John told me story after story about bodies in various states of decay (because I asked); the worst were those who had no friends or family. No one knew they were dead, not until the smell alerted neighbors who called the authorities.
He told me about the bone-crusher machine – what happens to bones after the rest of the body is cremated. Fun fact: you can’t breathe bone dust. You will die if you do because particles from the dust, once inside one’s lungs, hooks onto tissue. From there, simply breathing drags the particles across the tissue, tearing it apart.
I asked, “Why would you want to do this?”
“It’s just sort’ve who I am now,” he said. “My mom worked in the business and I’m not really good at anything else. And it pays fairly well.”
“What about getting dates?” I asked. “The big thing is getting over your first body – after that, it’s a lot easier.”
I told him that I just couldn’t do what he did.
“I didn’t think I could either,” he said. “But it’s kind of like death; it’s my fate.”
The best thing about the conversation was an idea for a future book—breathing bone dust kills!
King has told the story a number of times to captive audiences at speaking engagements – most recently while promoting the novel’s sequel, “Doctor Sleep.”
He’d been drinking the night before and was terribly hung-over; his wife came running to the bathroom, where King was shaving. With the phone in her hands, Tabitha King said, “Some guy claiming to be Stanley Kubrick says he wants to talk with you.” She later mouthed silently, “Stanley. Kubrick.”
With a bit of blood trickling down his half-shaven face, King said hello to Kubrick, who lived in England – five hours ahead of the King clan’s household – and was in no mood for small talk.
“I always think stories about the supernatural are optimistic, don’t you?” Kubrick asked in a forthright voice.
“I don’t understand; what do you mean by that?”
“Well, they posit the basic suggestion that we survive death,” Kubrick asserted. “If we survive death, that’s optimistic!”
“What about Hell?” King asked. After a long pause, Kubrick replied in a very different tone: “I don’t believe in Hell.”
Jokingly, King follows up the story with, “… and that was the only preproduction discussion we had.”
Like Hitchcock before him, Kubrick had a notorious reputation for being a control freak regarding all phases of his movies. It was his way or the highway, and so it went with King’s novel, “The Shining.” It was retooled to fit Kubrick’s vision – at the expense of King’s, which has continued to be a thorn in the writer’s side. In one interview, King called Kubrick’s film misogynistic because of the meek portrayal of Wendy Torrance, Jack’s wife. A great story could be written about the creative differences between these two heavyweights.
In King’s novel, protagonist Jack Torrance starts out as a sympathetic everyman who is slowly pushed to the edge of his sanity, until he finally breaks. In Kubrick’s version, Jack starts out immediately edgy, yielding much less character arc. Also, at the end of King’s novel, Jack and the supernatural Overlook Hotel burn. But in Kubrick’s telling, Jack and the hotel remain frozen.
More importantly, the tone of the story is significantly different in both, and the popular view is that Kubrick got the better of King in terms of popularity and legacy. I disagree, and much prefer the book. Kubrick, now deceased, will never make a sequel to the film, and fortunately the premise of King’s sequel is based on the first novel’s ending, which concluded in fire.
I believe history will treat King with the same reverence with which we now view great American writers from Hemmingway to Twain, (no one other than King has approached Twain’s understanding of the pre-adolescent boy). I cannot wait to read the sequel, and will do so as I always do—limiting myself to a few pages at a time to savor it like a great Bourgogne pinot.
Seriously, save the golds, browns, and evergreens for Thanksgiving, because the fact is that Tim Burton’s “Nightmare Before Christmas,” celebrating its 20-year anniversary, proves that Halloween comes and goes way too fast.
People love to be freaked out. We love to cover our eyes in horror and then peek through our fingers in fascination. It goes beyond the first contemporary Hollywood smash-hit movie, “Halloween;” beyond Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone;” beyond Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” Public executions have been high entertainment throughout history, including the story of Jesus Christ, who was tortured and crucified. Of course, horror themes are consistent throughout the Old Testament and the Koran, too.
Nowadays, more and more people want new horror/thriller content year-round. But writers know that they just can’t spew out the same old stuff – no more “Friday the 13th Part Infinity.” “I Know What You Did Last Summer” circa 1997 addresses the horror formula and utilizes it as much as it puts a twist on it.
While media continues to undergo massive changes in behavior and go-to sources, year-round horror releases reliably draw crowds and are money-makers for studios. And it’s not just blood and guts; the art of fear demands creativity.
Think about the worst neighbor Elm Street has ever known – Freddy. Often, when we dream, we cannot distinguish dream reality from waking reality. “A Nightmare on Elm Street” capitalizes on that moment when you wake up from a nightmare and think someone is still chasing you. It’s a brilliant idea.
The horror/thriller genre has given some of the greatest directors many of their most memorable moments. Stanley Kubrick’s filmography just wouldn’t be the same without “The Shining,” originally a novel by the horror maestro Stephen King*, who has sold more than 350 million books! (*Of course, Kubrick and King didn’t agree on the film adaptation, but more on that in another blog.) Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” which has been described as a movie about fear and anxiety (symbolized by the hordes of birds) may be the greatest film by arguably the best director ever.
Accentuating horror from our plausible experience may be the most genius facet of the greats. That’s why I utilize everyday light as a method to kill in my new horror/thriller book “Dead Light.”