Prose Opiate’s first themed contest is all about horror, and it can be an intimidating genre, especially for those who don’t usually dabble in expressing the dark side of the human psyche. We usually begin by asking ourselves ‘What’s scary?” But that’s the wrong question. We should be asking ourselves, “What is horrifying?”
I was still in High School when I first saw The Silence of the Lambs nearly 20 years after its release. I became a little obsessed with it. The movie inspired me in more ways than one. Clarice Starling, as portrayed by Jodie Foster, actually became one of my first crushes, and I wrote a short horror story in the form of a memoir with a protagonist based on her. I didn’t understand, then, what made the movie so good, but it touched me, nonetheless.
What made The Silence of the Lambs so good was how the director conveyed horror—true horror—through cinematography. The real horror of The Silence of the Lambs is having your entire gender seen as no more than objects, or as material, be it genetic…or otherwise. This is the horror of living as a woman in a man’s world. Seriously, go watch the movie again with that in mind. The way the male actors look directly at you through the camera takes on a whole new meaning. Whether it’s for food, clothing, or genetic material, the women in the movie are objectified. While this horror is expressed in a very general way in Hannibal Lecter’s peculiar appetite, it is exaggerated, exemplified, and personified in Buffalo Bill. That horror inspired me to draw on my own fears of being convinced I was crazy to make something (I dare say) special. Twisted Image is still my most popular piece of work.
You can be scared by someone suddenly pulling your shower curtain open and stabbing you to death, you can be scared by a contorted little girl spidering her way down the stairs, and you can be scared by some grinning top-hat wearing fop suddenly leaping at you. These are the tropes of the horror genre as they translate through visual media, and they can certainly make your heart (and probably your whole body) jump, but they aren’t horrifying. Horror is a deeper concept, and one that has changed quite a bit over the years. In the 60’s it was horrifying that abuse could turn someone into a deranged murderer and that you could meet that murderer in any random motel on the highway. In the 70’s, the corruption of Regan symbolized the corruption of our youth that resulted from the loss of our traditional values. What she did while under the influence of the demon scared, but what she became horrified. More recently, we reveled in the horror of how grief can twist us, and what it might make us do if we don’t exercise control of it.
These horror concepts I just touched on resonated with audiences and made stories that are regarded as classics even decades after their original release. Maybe they don’t seem as effective today, but that’s just because of our evolving sensibilities. Norman, Regan, and Buffalo Bill are horror effigies of a bygone age, so, to start your horror writing journey, I want you to ask yourself, “What horrifies me, today?” Disease? Isolation? Persecution? Violence? If you can find an idea that resonates with you, and maybe coalesce that idea into an “It,” a literal manifestation of your fears, you, too, can write a story that leaves people shaking long after they’ve turned the last page.
Thanks for reading. I hope I’ve inspired you, and if you feel at all galvanized to participate in a Prose Opiate contest, you can find them here. Please, don’t be afraid of writing and being read.