Friday, August 12, 2011

What is "Creepy"?

What makes something creepy? When we get the feeling that something is creepy, it’s generally a warning sign. We’re always looking for small subtle changes in our environment that could lead to danger. We’ll get the creeping feeling that something isn’t quite right. We might not be able to put it into words, but subconsciously we know something’s wrong. This is the essence of “creepy”.

Something is creepy if it’s not quite normal. People can be creepy. Places can be creepy. Just about anything can be creepy as long as it’s just a little off.

People who exhibit one emotional state are creepy. If you look at someone for 5 seconds you might see 10 different emotional states flash across their face. People are constantly changing their emotions and degrees in which they feel those emotions. Even if someone is happy all the time, they’re not the same level of happy all the time.

People who have no self awareness are creepy. We all have some level of self awareness. A lack of it is itself creepy but it also makes other behaviors creepy as well.

For instance: Inappropriate touching. If I touch you inappropriately and I know that it was inappropriate and telegraph that I know that by apologizing, joking, being embarrassed, or making it clear that I was trying to provoke a reaction from you, it’s not creepy. But if I touch you inappropriately and have no awareness that it was inappropriate, it’s creepy.

Another example of this is obsession and “really liking” something. We all “really like” certain things more than the average person. We’ve all been obsessed with things from time to time. But, we are aware of it. We know we like this thing too much. We know we’re obsessed with something. We have perspective on it. We know it’s not normal, so it’s ok. If we don’t show that awareness, if we think our obsession is normal, that’s creepy.

In short, a person is creepy if they exhibit an abnormal behavior or trait while showing no awareness that it is abnormal.

Children often come across as creepy. They’re sort of in a no-win situation. For one thing, they are inherently different than adults. They act differently. They’re proportioned differently and look different. They generally have no self-awareness. If they act like children, we find them creepy because they’re not acting like adults. If they act like adults, we find them creepy because they’re not acting like children.

Locations can also be creepy, if they’re abnormal for no discernible reason, or if they’re abnormal in a dangerous way. Kubrik made the Overlook Hotel in The Shining creepy by deliberately making it spatially impossible. The set was rife with impossible doorways, hallways, and windows. Dark places are creepy because they might contain hidden threats. A room full of cobwebs is creepy, but not for the reasons you might think. Walking through a spider web is scary because you didn’t see it and there’s probably a spider on you now. Cobwebs become cobwebs when a spider abandons the web (by either leaving or dying). A room full of cobwebs is creepy because it implies a lack of living things. For one thing, the spiders are all gone. “Why have all living things left this place?” It must be dangerous. For another thing, nothing has moved through this room recently to knock down any of the cobwebs. “Why has this place been so abandoned?” It must be dangerous.

Objects can be creepy too, especially ones that are meant to look like living things. Dolls almost look human but are always just a little off. Masks can look creepy on their own or can make someone wearing them look creepy because they distort features or hide them. Any object can be creepy if something about it isn’t quite right.

Making the show creepy will do more than just help set the mood. It will put the audience on alert and make them easier to scare.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

What is "Fear"?

What is “fear”? Why do we fear things? Simply put: we fear things that might kill us. Change, the unknown, and anything we don’t understand might kill us, so we fear them. Then why do we fear things like public speaking? People don’t generally die from that.

We like to think of ourselves as highly evolved, intelligent beings, but the fact is that we’re not nearly as far removed from the wild as we like to think. Of the 200,000 years or so of human history, we lived about 185,000 of those in the wild. Before we were human, we spent about 3.8 billion years evolving out of the first single celled organisms. Civilization is a very recent development (and even today there are people living in the wild).

So we aren’t hard-wired to instinctually fear things that would kill us today in a modern world. We fear things that would kill us in the wild. We don’t fear public speaking because we fear speaking. We fear standing up in front of a group of people who are all looking at us. That’s a very exposed and dangerous position in the wild. You don’t know what this group of people is going to do, and as far as your instincts are concerned, that group of people might as well be a pack of wolves.

If we instinctually fear things that would kill us in the wild, why do people do stupid things like wade into raging streams above roaring waterfalls? On a certain level, people enjoy being afraid. If they didn’t, no one would come to our show. There’s an evolutionary advantage to that. If we avoided fear at all costs, we never would have left the cave to look for food and would have died out a long time ago. Seeking out the occasional fright helps keep us in practice.

Sudden changes in our environment scare us because they could be threats: a loud noise, a sudden silence, a flash of light, a person in a room you thought was empty. But it goes beyond that. How do we avoid living our lives in fear? We learn how the world works; we develop belief systems; we come to expect certain cause and effect relationships. In a sense, we decide what’s possible and what’s not. When something happens that we have come to believe is impossible, it scares us not only because it is a threat but because it throws into question the rest of our beliefs. “If I’m wrong about this, what else am I wrong about?”

How does this help us scare the audience? We’re going to scare the audience by scaring the characters in the show, but our characters are human and react like humans do. As actors and improviser, we can simply choose to be afraid of whatever is happening. If the audience closely identifies with your character, they won’t care exactly why you’re afraid; they’ll just be afraid for you. This only goes so far (but should not be discounted).

Instead, we now have a few strategies we can employ to scare our characters. We can threaten them with death or physical harm. Instinctually, we fear those things. (A serial killer about to break down your door and hack you to bits = scary.) We can also show them impossible things such as supernatural phenomenon. (Your sibling who just died sitting at the foot of your bed singing you a lullaby = scary.) More subtly, we can set up expectations and then break them. This can be as simple as screaming after a long silence or as complex as having our hero’s lover knock on the door before entering throughout the show only to have the monster knock on the door at the end.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Basics of a Horror Plot

Basic Horror Plot:

Once upon a time... There was a group of characters.

And everyday… Those characters did stuff.

Until one day… Something put those characters in danger.

Because of that… Some of them succumb to the danger.

Because of that… They fight to get out of danger.

Because of that…

A.      They succeed. The danger is defeated forever. At least one of them survives.
B.      The danger is not defeated forever, but at least one of them succeeds in escaping it (for now).
C.      The danger prevails. All of them succumb. (This is Torture Porn: Not what we’re doing.)

The Evil Must Succeed on Some Level
The difference between horror and thriller is that in horror you actually see the effect of the danger. In thriller, the danger threatens an outcome that the hero fights to prevent and succeeds in preventing. The outcome never comes to fruition. In horror, the danger succeeds, at least in part. The outcome and its effects are seen (and horrify the audience). Our hero fights to prevent it from happening AGAIN either to themselves or to others.

Armageddon is a thriller because the asteroid never succeeds at destroying the Earth.

Silence of the Lambs is horror because we see what both Buffalo Bill and Hannibal Lecter are capable of.

The Evil’s Intention is Therefore Important
The intention of the evil determines whether or not it succeeds. If the villain in Cape Fear were simply trying to kill his old defense attorney, it would be a thriller, but he’s not. He’s trying to get revenge by terrorizing the attorney’s family. He succeeds at this, but eventually the attorney stops him. This makes it a horror.

The alien in Alien, Michael Meyers in Halloween, and Jason in Friday the Thirteenth are all trying to kill (for different reasons). They succeed in killing. They just don’t kill Sigourney Weaver, Jamie Lee Curtis, or whoever it is that survives in Friday the Thirteenth.

The demon in The Exorcist isn’t trying to kill. I haven’t seen it in a while, but I imagine the demon is trying to make people question their faith.

The intention of the evil also figures prominently in ghost stories. Ghosts are rarely trying to kill. Often they are trying to help or warn people of other dangers, but a helpful ghost can be just as dangerous as a malicious one.

The Hero Must be in Danger of Succumbing to the Danger
If the hero isn’t in direct danger, it’s thriller. In other words, I can’t be fighting just to save a friend, family member, or loved one. I must also be fighting to save myself. Taken is a thriller because Liam Neeson is in no direct danger of becoming a sex slave himself. He’s just trying to save his daughter.

The Danger Must be Extraordinary
Death is an ordinary danger.  Being shot is an ordinary danger. Movies about snipers, like Phone Booth, are thrillers not horrors. For death to be the danger, the method must be an unpleasant one or involve some mental anguish. “A fate worse than death” is an extraordinary danger. In short, the danger must be horrifying.