Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Adventure Wednesday... Texts From (Last) Horror Night

This Adventure Wednesday post is rated H, for fans of Halloween, Horror, and Heidi's writing.

So... here's the thing.  We haven't really told many people, but Tom and I have slowly been developing a screenplay for a horror film.  Horror scripts can be a good toe-in-the-door for screenwriters writing on spec (or, for free/as writing samples) like ourselves.  We also needed a little break from the TV spec writing, and I'm close-but-not-quite-ready to finish my Yoga For Fat Girls spec screenplay.  Plus, both of us dig a really clever horror flick.  So horror it is.

Tom and I first thought about collaborating on a horror script four years ago this Monday - Halloween 2007.  I'd gotten out of work on time (for a change) and Tom came to pick me up for a date.  We had planned to head down to Disneyland to see what festivities were happening, but this was before Disney realized what a goldmine Halloween can be... and the park was closing at 8 PM.  One of us suggested we check out Universal Studios.  We'd both heard they did something called "Halloween Horror Nights," but we didn't know much about it.

When we arrived, the crowds were thick at the gate, so we sprang for a "Front-of-the-Line" ticket, like a Disney Fastpass, but for purchase (and without waiting.)  We walked through the gates... and our lives were never the same.

No, really.  We had so much fun during that first trip that we've gone back to Universal's Halloween Horror nights every year since.  And it inspired Tom - who, in turn, inspired me - to write a horror script.  Tom describes the experience as feeling like you're actually in a horror movie.  The mazes are so well-designed and executed (much like the characters, heh) that you end up feeling like a scream queen, heart pounding, eyes darting from this dark corner to that door ajar, nerves crackling with the fear of knowing that any second, something is going to burst through and scare the living dead daylights out of you.

Plus, I had a photo opportunity with Norman Bates, in front of the really-for-real Psycho house.
What could be more life-changing? He told me I looked like someone he could "bring home to mother."

This year, since we're working on the horror script, we decided to focus on our annual trip to Horror Nights for inspiration and discussion.  We had so many ideas and observations from the mazes that we started to forget some of them, so halfway through the evening, we sat down to text each other our shorthand thoughts.  Here are our Texts from (Last) Horror Night, in bold - with a bit of explanation for each.


Things that are inherently creepy: photos, children, churches, dolls, illness.
One of the new mazes this year, La Llorona, is based on a Mexican legend about a woman who drowns her children.  It includes so many inherently creepy visuals and concepts that I bet I'd even be spooked by it without any scare-acters.   It might be my favorite maze ever.  (It might even beat the Halloween maze from 2009, a lovingly faithful tribute to my favorite horror film.)

It's the key to surprise.  The Alice Cooper maze made great use of it, placing one gruesome duo at the end of the hallway.  I couldn't help but stare at them - after all, they were gross, and they were going to turn and scream at me or something, right?  But partway down the hall, two other scares popped out at me from either side.  All the scarier because my attention was focused elsewhere.

Big and small spaces.
Opposite use of space can be scary. Very big spaces have all kinds of nooks and crannies from which spooks can emerge... and you can't focus on all of them at once.  On the other hand, in very small spaces... if something comes at you, you have nowhere else to go.  And you're very, very aware of this.

Variation - keep 'em off balance.
For a long-form scare, there must be lots of different kinds of surprises.  For instance, silence or darkness punctuated by noise or light is most effective.  If you repeat the same kind of gag - say, guy jumps out from a door - people will start to suspect the scare and disengage.  You want to keep them engaged - and to do so, you gotta keep them on their toes.

Know your audience.
You need to calculate their fears... what they will be thinking, and how they will be reacting.  Some people might be scared by someone jumping out at them.  Some people might not... so how do you scare them?  One brilliant scare-acter realized that Tom and I were smiling at him, not scared by him.  So instead of moving on to someone else, he changed his tactic.  He walked straight up to us and stopped inches away from our noses.  We stepped to the right, and he mirrored us.  We stepped to the left, and he mirrored us without stopping.  This was actually far more unsettling than any jack-in-the-box startling.  And a good horror film should have as much "unsettling" as "startling."

A single, iconic villain.
One very creepy main antagonist will always be scarier than a variety of less-compelling ones.  The "torture porn" mazes are hardly scary at all.  Sure, bloody bodies and crazy trap-like contraptions aren't exactly Hello Kitty, but those depictions can verge on comical, and aren't scary, just gross.  Gore has its place, but it will be most effective when it follows deep emotional connection, tension, and terror.

A safe place.
The characters and the audience are always looking for a "safe place."   A spot where they know that nothing is coming to get them.  Denying them that is deeply unsettling.  Movie characters, like maze-goers, would try to move quickly from one safe space to the next, rather than at one pace.

The first scene.
What we see at the beginning of a maze (or a movie) shapes how we see the scenes that follow it.  For the very effective La Llorona maze, this starts before you even enter.  Three signs are placed within the maze line, which tell the story of La Llorona.  Then, when you step into the maze, you're in a Mexican church - a funeral, all flickering votives and memorial photos.  You're immediately drawn into the maze - and surrounded with several of the "inherently creepy" items listed above.

Emotional connection is what drives everything.
For effective horror, there needs to be some sort of emotional connection - fear of the antagonist, identification with a protagonist, witnessing things with inherent emotional content, etc - for it to really work.  In a film, it makes people a part of what's happening, not just an audience member.


Our night at Univeral was very well-filling, so to speak.  We've since been flush with ideas, and meeting for daily writing sessions before Tom leaves for work.  I'm having a lot of fun.  I really need to remember that I'm at my happiest - and the days that follow are most productive - when I start the day writing.

One other fun thing I noticed that night is that... I'm stronger!  I suppose it should have been obvious to me, since I work out so regularly (and so hard!) but I was still surprised when I hiked up the hill next to the Psycho house, and, for the first time ever, I made it up without stopping, and reached the top without panting.  I guess that's what comes of taking care of me!  And I hope you'll take care of you today.

If you're local, and a horror fan, definitely check out Universal Horror Nights, which runs through Halloween night.


  1. Sorry we didn't get to join you this year, but it sounds like you had a great time :)

    La Llarona is definitely my favorite this year, but I'm a big fan of the Alice Cooper and Thing mazes- big scary puppets and Norway FTW!

  2. La Llona was the moodiest, creepiest of the bunch, for sure. But since it was my 2nd year after a long absence, most of the mazes seemed so similar to last year's, even though they purportedly changed themes. I'm gonna wait a few years B4 going back. (Oh, and I was sad to learn, or be reminded, that the Psycho house is not the "real" one - which burned to the ground decades ago - but a recreation built on the same spot as the real one. Le sigh.)

    But I LOVE how you use the lessons learned from the scary mazes for your horror movie writing. I can't wait to be scared by the finished product!

  3. I am such a scaredy cat when it comes to any kind of haunted house/horror maze action, I tend to stay away from them. I had a traumatic experience at a local haunted house that was put on by college students in my hometown when I was in 6th grade, and I've never been able to face down another one since. Over the years, I've mastered my fear of Disney's Haunted Mansion and now have an enjoyable time on the ride. But that's about as scary as I can handle without needing a cadre of seriously stalwart friends to go with me, and even then I might chicken out. I'm immensely jealous that you met and were photographed with Norman Bates/Anthony Perkins. I've long held a candle for him. Suspenseful - not overtly gory - horror films I can handle, and Psycho is one of my faves. Looking forward to seeing what you and the hubs create.