Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Monsters: They're not under your bed anymore; they're sharing your pillow!

There's a different breed of monsters out there for you to incorporate into your stories. They're not your typical two-headed, six-eyed variety either. This isn't a new concept, but it is a powerful one, and it delivers a knock-out blow when you're trying to scare your reader. Let me explain.

Over the recent holiday season, pretty much from Halloween through New Year's Day, there were marathons galore. The ones I particularly enjoyed were the old Twilight Zone and Outer Limits episodes. There were a couple that had common secondary 'themes' and those were what gave me the idea for this post. What helped to expand on my idea was a couple of books I also read over the holidays; again, with the same type of undercurrent in them. Gems, every one.

There I was, sitting and enjoying the Twilight Zone marathon, when a particular favorite of mine came on. The title is The Monsters are Due on Maple Street. It's a revealing peek into what happens when you deliberately place very normal people into a very abnormal situation. The fact that aliens are behind it is not really important for purposes of this discussion. What is important is what events were set in motion and what resulted. Okay, I'm giving the basis of the plot away here, but that's alright. If you can find this episode somewhere out in cyberland, I highly recommend watching it anyway. It seems this group of aliens decide to take over the earth, but their plan is to do it one neighborhood at a time by letting us basically destroy ourselves. Sadly enough, it was a sound plan and easily carried out. They didn't even have to lift a finger (or whatever they had at the end of their 'hands'). All they had to do was introduce paralyzing fear, and that was easier than you might think.

They did it in steps. First and foremost, communication with anyone outside the area was cut off. Isolation. Very important. When you're unable to seek comfort and assistance from the outside, you are forced to rely on whoever is closest. That's all well and good, but what if you can't trust whoever is closest? That's where the horror begins.

Next, they began to plant the seeds of mistrust. First they cut the power to homes here and there. Everyone began to unite, to bond, to prepare to ride out whatever storm had descended upon them. Then, the power would come back on here and there in specific homes. Uh oh. Why, the people are asking themselves, is so-and-so's power back on and not mine? Now, the people are beginning to split into groups and becoming 'them' and 'us'. A few more parlor tricks and they begin to fight and destroy each other. Didn't take too long and it wasn't hard to accomplish at all. Those 'nice', 'decent', 'caring' people in Happytown, USA, turned into bloodthirsty killers. Monsters. Every one.

The Outer Limits marathon had a delightful tale to offer by the name of Abduction. A group of high school students are suddenly cut off from the rest of the world--again, isolation. No communication with anyone other than the rest of the group. Everyone in the school had disappeared and their movements were restricted to the hallways and one classroom. A creature (this one really was a creature in the true sense of the word) appeared to them and offered a proposal. He/it explained that they were chosen to participate in an experiment and it was a very simple one. All they had to do was to make a choice. In order to survive, they had to pick someone from the group that should die, and the rest would be allowed to live and resume their lives. Simple. Naturally, time was a factor here. He gave them the hour by which the decision would have to be made and disappeared.

Now, this was an interesting one. They, of course, followed the 'normal' course of human behavior--they united and began to bond to try to figure out what was really happening and what they could possibly do to save themselves. None of them had previously associated with each other in the course of their lives, but all of a sudden, here they were. After much soul-searching and discussions--some angry and violent--they discover that one of them had circled their photos in a school publication and had brought a gun with him to school that day. It was the 'you think you're better than me' type of thing, and frankly, some of them did feel that way. They were all caught up in the uncertainty, peer pressure, and prejudices of their daily lives and it all came spilling through. They began to divide and turn against each other and one couldn't help but wonder if the boy had planned to execute those who's photos he had marked. They learned that's why they were chosen; the alien(s) had selected those the boy had marked, knowing how strongly he felt about each of them.

Nice, young kids placed in a desparate situation and asked to make a terrible choice. Well, the ending here isn't really relevant (although, in this case, things did turn out for the best), but it is the process that's fascinating from a writing standpoint. It was very easy to create a sense of horror and fear just using 'regular' people and preying on their fear of the unknown and watching them basically try to destroy each other without any regret or sense of consequence.

If you want to see perfect examples of the art of creating 'monsters' of this type, I have two books to recommend that I read over the holidays. Oddly enough, they are both by Stephen King. The first is The Mist. I would like to say here though, that, while the book is very good and does clearly illustrate the human condition under duress, the film is much stronger and will have a greater effect, especially the ending. A different ending was written for the movie and I will tell you, it is very upsetting, but unfortunately, very necessary. I have the feeling that's the way real life would turn out.

Anyway, for purposes of creating our 'monsters', King does it well in The Mist. He creates a perfect sense of isolation by cutting off communication and power. Factoring in horrifying creatures who rip people to pieces only adds to the fear. No one knows what the things are or where they came from (although, naturally, there is suspicion they're the result of experiments on the army base outside of town), but again, this is secondary for our purposes. Once you take away security and the 'known', there's always someone who begins to stir things up. In this case, you have a woman who decides it's all caused by the wrath of God and she divides the group into a 'them' and 'us' type situation. She preaches hatred and fear and the result is decent, hard-working people--neighbors--become vengeful, cold-blooded killers and little by little, the group begins to destroy itself from within. Monsters? Oh yes.

My last example is King's latest, Under The Dome. This sets the stage immediately since the dome comes down right away and so begins the isolation. They can see those outside the dome, but cannot touch them, so in a way, the sense of isolation is more cruel. There is someone here who takes total advantage of the situation by turning the townspeople against each other for his own purposes. This person probably wasn't going to be nominated for sainthood before all this happened anyway, but the unexplained 'event' really fed his fire for control. He became a 'monster' in the true sense of the word and it wasn't hard to recruit others to his way of thinking. The town split into factions, the 'them' and 'us' thing again, and well, you get the idea. The end? Well, I'll let you read it--it's worth your time, but this is yet another example of the creation of monsters from among us.

If I had to pick my favorite 'monster' movie of all time, it would be an old black and white film called 'Them'. It's about giant ants, believe it or not, and while it doesn't exactly keep me up at night, I always enjoy watching it. I love monster stories and films about giant spiders and the deadites from Evil Dead, but let me tell you, the one movie that scared me into nightmares was Jaws. I had been in the ocean and never before realized what was out there--really out there. T-Rex's and killer gremlins may be creepy, but sharks are real and so is the danger. Scarier? Much.

But, people? Can people be scary? Scarier than poltergeists and zombies? Just regular, normal, God-fearing people that you nod to in the grocer and share your paper with in the diner? You bet they can. If you want to truly scare your readers, feed them some real possibilities about their own behavior and that of their fellow man. Let them see how easily the familiar and the normal can become the unknown and the terrifying in the blink of an eye. Next time their power cuts off, maybe they'll think twice about who to run to. And, maybe they should do just that...