Horror, Suspense, and Sloppiness

I haven’t succumbed to memery in quite a while, but there’s one going around Facebook right now that gives me some excellent blog fodder, so here we go. This latest invites us to, in honor of impending Halloween, to name our 10 favorite horror movies.

When I was first tagged I thought, I can’t do this. I don’t like Horror movies.

See, what I was thinking of was the modern horror movie. What Roger Ebert calls the “Dead Teenager Movie”. You know the formula: a handful of horny teenagers go someplace that Appears Safe But Isn’t, and after enough sex and substance abuse to get a preliminary R rating for the film, proceeded to get hacked into chutney, in spite of the fact that they are armed with flashlights, curtain rods, and butter knives.

But then I started to rethink this. Dead Teenager Movies aren’t really scary. They’re stupid. True, they might all have at least one “jump moment”, but let’s face it – it’s easy to scare somebody, startle them, make them jump. Just ask Stephen King, who has made a career of being a mediocre writer with a talent for making people jump (and if he can’t do that, by his own admission, he will go for the gross-out – which is even easier).

And there’s another problem with horror. When you rely on jump moments and the gross out, I think it is easy to get lazy – or perhaps formulaic is the word I’m looking for – with what you are doing. I learned back in the early Eighties that if you had a great ending, people would forgive any literary screw ups you committed in the bulk of the work in question. Say what I will about King – he generally delivers satisfying endings,1 which is really what it’s all about to keep people coming back to that brand.2 As Mickey Spillaine said, “The first sentence sells the book. The last sentence sells the next book.”

What is harder is to make people sit on the edge of their chairs in suspense. THAT is what I like. That is also what I like to do to my readers – on chair’s edge, up all night reading, making them late for work because they are so busy turning pages. I have had a couple of readers tease me about being late for work because they were reading one of my books and kept saying, “Okay, one more chapter” – and then discovering that the end of the chapter left more ends dangling, prompting the reading of the next chapter… and the next… and the next. Let me tell you, of all the different kinds of praise I have received, that is the most satisfying. It means I have done my job as a novelist.

So suspense is where it’s at. But keep in mind a couple of things. First, it’s harder than it looks. While you can be sloppy with outright horror and a tacked-on good ending, good suspense is a well-tuned, ticking clock. You really have to push your writing and plotting abilities to keep things in rhythm. Second, suspense doesn’t necessarily mean that you are writing a horror or crime novel. Note that praise I received – it was for my modest Sci-Fi offerings, with nary a creepy crawly to be seen. In theory a Nicholas Sparks book can be a real page-turner if properly paced, but I have yet to hear that bit of praise associated with one of his books.3

It is with that in mind that I approached my list of favorite horror suspense movies. What keeps me on the edge of my seat? What gives me a satisfying ending? What can I watch over and over again and not get tired of? Some have creepy crawlies, while in others the creepy crawlies are inside of us.4 Watch and learn.

28 Days Later
Alien
Aliens
The Exorcist
Halloween
Jaws
Psycho
Rear Window
Scanners
The Silence of the Lambs
Sisters
Zodiac

Note: In keeping with the suspense theme, I almost put To Live and Die in L.A. on this list, even though there are no horrific elements in it. But it is a brilliant, edge-of-the-seat thriller as a pre-CSI William Peterson gets in way too deep in pursuit of the counterfeiter who murdered his partner. There’s not a bit of horror in it, but there’s incredible suspense as you wonder how in the world Peterson will come out of it all unscathed.

  1. Note here that I said “great” ending and “satisfying” ending, not “happy” ending. It is possible to have a story end badly for the main character and still have it be satisfying. Q.V. the film Blow, in which drug dealer George Jung loses everything, including the love of his daughter, and ends up in prison, a burned out shell of a man. Happy? No. Satisfying? Very.
  2. Yes, I said brand and not author. We’re in this business to sell books, right? And what is our name, but a brand? You know what to expect when you buy Coca Cola. Ditto Stephen King, Tom Clancy, Nicholas Sparks…
  3. I should note here that I have not read any of Mr. Sparks’ books, and therefore cannot attest to whether any of them are indeed page turners. Of course, he is delivering a decidedly different kind of reading experience. Sparks fans, please make your own assessment.
  4. Which is a whole other literary proposition. Subject for a future entry.
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2 responses to “Horror, Suspense, and Sloppiness

  1. Not at all surprised to see “Alien” at the top of your list.

    It’s at the top of mine as well. I found it to be a horrible, frightening movie and I hated it immensely. My reaction proved to me that the movie was not just well made – it was an astounding piece of film work. And that covers everything from the writing, to the acting, to the set design, to the lighting and to the sound engineering.

    I have never had such a frightening movie experience, ever.

    The shadows concealed who-knows-what. You didn’t know from one moment to the next whether the lack of music portended imminent danger, or whether you’d have to wait another twenty minutes for someone else to get disemboweled.

    I vividly remember walking out of the theater, entirely on edge for quite a while afterward. It affected me that much. And I’m a grown man.

    Another movie – not in the horror genre – that was very well done – and satisfying, despite its premise – was a small film called “Treed Murray”. It’s about a businessman who gets chased up a tree by a gang. And he’s up that tree for the entire film.

    Sounds boring but…it really isn’t. Lots of suspense too.

  2. I’ve never been a horror gal, which is strange because many of my short stories tend to have horror elements. That said, the Poltergeist movies gave me nightmares for months.

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