[GUEST POST] Daryl Gregory on How to Write a Completely Inadequate Horror Movie


Daryl Gregory‘s latest books are We Are All Completely Fine (Tachyon Publications) and the near-future SF novel Afterparty (Tor Books). The YA Lovecraftian adventure Harrison Squared is forthcoming from Tor. He lives in State College, PA, in a rapidly emptying house, and is looking for a good dog. If you know of one, you can contact him at darylgregory.com.

How to Write a Completely Inadequate Horror Movie

by Daryl Gregory

I grew up during the golden age of slasher flicks. Jason, Freddy, Michael, and Chucky were my teenage companions. I remember being in the theatre for the original Friday the 13th, watching the face of that “final girl” as the credits rolled. She knew the nightmare would never be over. The monster would be coming back, though for a new set of victims and cheaper actors.

It was only years later that I began musing about what happened to those sole survivors after the movie was over. How were they not dysfunctional wrecks for the rest of their lives? Serious therapy-and serious meds-had to be in their future. Even when a hero or heroine returned for a sequel, the years of recovery (or attempted recovery) were barely touched on, or skipped altogether, before the new batch of bodies began piling up. But what was life like for them between the movies?

It’s not the job of movies to answer these questions. In every film (like any work of art) there must be things left unsaid, aspects of those worlds that go unexplained because they would destroy the tone of the movie, dilute its effects, or just plain blow out its running time. But some questions are left unexamined because movies can’t ask them: they’re ill-equipped for certain tasks that prose fiction is built to handle.

So, since no movie on horror-victim therapy was forthcoming, if I wanted to find out what happened to those damaged folks, I’d have to write it myself. We Are All Completely Fine is about a therapy group made up of those last girls and boys, some of them still suffering decades after the trauma. Each member is from a different subgenre of horror: the escapee from the rural cannibal family; a woman who was the last girl after an attack by a supernatural slasher; a guy trapped in a Ringu-style techno horror story; a girl who fled a demonic cult; a guy who went up against Lovecraftian monsters when he was a kid. They gradually realize that their stories are connected, and not quite over.

There are good reasons why nobody will be making a movie of this story any time soon. The first problem is that except for a (literally) fiery climax, most of the exciting bits are over before the story starts. Decades over.

I may have taken this tack before. Karen Burnham, who reviewed The Devil’s Alphabet and Raising Stony Mayhall for SF Signal, points out in her recent review of Afterparty that the title of that last one gives the game away: “In his four novels so far he starts his stories where other people might end theirs-after the party, after the crisis.” I plead guilty, Ms. Burnham.

Fiction has more leeway to take the odd angle of attack, to “tell it slant” as Ms. Dickinson would say. One, the financial stakes are lower, and the oddly told story can still make money with a smaller audience. But it also helps that fiction readers, especially genre readers, have a high tolerance for experimentation and variation. We’ve read Samuel R. Delany, Iain Banks, J.G. Ballard, and Kelly Link. The fact that We Are All Completely Fine plays games with point of view-the story’s told partly in first person plural, then moves among various third-person points of view-is simply not a big deal.

The second problem is that group therapy is not just a gimmick to get the characters in the same room, the equivalent of all those D&D adventures where the players meet in a tavern. Rather, the process of therapy is the main action. The characters spend a lot of time in a room, talking. What they say ends up being less important than how they tell their story. Why are they choosing to reveal some secrets rather than others? What response do they want to get from the rest of the group? And after all these sessions, is change, or the hope of change, even possible?

I’m not sure anyone would watch that movie, except perhaps my wife. She’s a psychologist, whose expertise guided me in the writing of this book. As she’s repeatedly pointed out to me, most movies that feature a psychologist and client either get it wrong, or get it right but fail (in her opinion) to have enough therapy scenes. In her personal director’s cut, Good Will Hunting and Ordinary People would each be twenty hours long.

But that’s why we have novels. They’re built for going deeper. And they’re especially good at going inside the heads of characters, at a level of detail that’s ungainly in films. The pleasures of fiction are different than those of film.

The biggest reason that nobody will make a horror movie out of We Are All Completely Fine, however, is that it’s not really horror. Gary K. Wolfe, in his review of the novella in Locus Magazine, calls the story “post-horror horror.” And I’ve said here on SF Signal that I like to write “anti-horror” novels, books that are more about empathy than revulsion. If John Clute is right, and horror is about revealing the terrible truth of the world and recoiling, then I’m not writing horror at all. I’m interested in moving past the recoil, into understanding.

Just to be clear, if someone offered me good money for the option, I’d take it and wish them luck. Because even with the recent crop of can-you-top-this body horror movies-think Saw and Hostel and The Human Centipede-there does seem like there’s room in the market for post-horror horror. The self-aware Scream movies proved you could have your horror cake and eat it ironically too. The brilliant Cabin in the Woods goes even further down the post-modern path.

So while I think it’s unlikely that investors would back a movie that featured people sitting in a circle, talking about the supernatural horrors that befell them years ago, and depending on the drama of the therapeutic process to drive the plot-I’m willing to be wrong.

One thought on “[GUEST POST] Daryl Gregory on How to Write a Completely Inadequate Horror Movie”

Comments are closed.