Everyone has had uncanny experiences in life, right? These are the situations or occurrences that leave you shivering with dread or talking about how creeped out you are even if there’s a rational explanation for what happened. For some people, it’s watching medical shows on TV. For others, it’s laying on the grass of the front lawn one summer evening and seeing something in the night sky that shouldn’t have been possible. Yes. A hasty retreat was beat into the confines of the house. It’s possible the blankets were also pulled waaaaay up over this person’s head for the night, too.
It seems that fear is universal among the human species, something I learned after reading one science book too many. Apparently, scientists showed pictures of faces displaying fear (eyes wide, eye brows up, etc) to people across cultures. No one was confused about what emotion they were seeing. Even infants as young as four months (possibly earlier, but I guess that’s tough to prove) can recognize and respond to these fear cues in the faces they see. From an evolutionary standpoint, and in the interests of not becoming some cheetah’s chew toy, fear makes all kinds of sense. Meaning there’s some really rich ground for story tellers to exploit.
Look at the first Alien movie. I hold this one up for your horror genre consideration because it’s the only ‘horror’ movie I’ve ever managed to watch and enjoy. This analysis will contain spoilers. So if you’ve been living under a rock and didn’t already know everything there is to know about the movie from pop culture references, go get the movie from Netflix or something. Make spaghetti for dinner that night. Turn off all the lights. Watch the movie. We’ll wait. You’re welcome. Never eat pasta again? You didn’t really need the carbs anyway.
What makes Alien work? After all, you don't really see anything bad happen to anyone but Kane (the guy with the face hugger and the subsequently fatal case of alien indigestion). Here's a partial break it down.
1. Something unusual happens – these people are awakened from hibernation when they shouldn’t have been. They expected to wake up and be home. Instead, they wake up to realize they’re in the freaking middle of nowhere, nearly a year’s flight time from earth. And it’s all because of a signal the ship’s computer picked up – a signal that indicates someone’s been here before them.
2. Isolation – while the crew of the Nostromo have one another, the seven of them are completely cut off from the rest of humanity. They can phone home all they like; help is at least a year away. That sense of being utterly cut off is intensified, first by the fact that this crew isn’t united, and second, by the fact that they’re picked off one by one.
3. Hostile environment – deep space doesn’t like humans much. Vacuum is damned unforgiving. While the crew and the ship seem rock solid and reliable, in watching these people suit up in space suits, or detach the tug for a trip away from the rest of the ship, most of us are very aware that the crew are one minor accident away from disaster. (Not to mention that in horror movies, whenever you split the party, you know it’s bad news.)
4. Dark, the inexplicable, dead bodies, foreboding – the entire scene sequence of investigating the crash site, the discovery of the fossilized body, and the egg chamber touch on several primal fears: solitude (Kane is alone when he drops into the egg chamber), darkness, the dead body in the cockpit, and the things that go bump in the night – namely the alien in the egg that moves when Kane shines his light through the egg and the fact that the landing party cannot possibly identify any of what they’re looking at. Add into that the fact that Ripley decodes the signal that brought them to investigate only to find it *wasn’t* an SOS – it was a warning and she can’t get through to the team inside the wreck to tell them to get the heck out.
5. Unfulfilled expectations – Alien did this brilliantly. At every juncture, you know something bad could happen. You brace. Nothing bad happens. You relax. But you don’t relax back down to your starting point. You brace again for the next possible bad thing. Rinse, repeat in a rising cycle of tension. Alien puts you through the rinse, repeat cycle an amazing number of times before an alien breaks out of an egg, melts Kane’s faceplate and melds to his face. You’re all ‘something bad happened, I can relax now’, except Kane’s not dead. And he’s being carried back to the ship where he’ll get medical treatment. Uh oh. It wasn’t a bad enough bad thing, was it?
6. Precious little blood shed – in this movie, there aren’t buckets of blood. There’s one scene of bloodshed. Poor Kane. After the face hugger drops way, dead and Kane is revived, everyone finds out he’s merely a host for an alien baby that hatches by exploding out of his chest. If I remember correctly, this is the only time you watch someone die in this movie – sketchy on this point, though, so feel free to correct me. From a story telling and psychological standpoint, you don’t need to see anyone else die because you know the stakes and they are messy. Most people I know say the worst part of the movie is near the end, when the only other female crew member is under attack and screaming. Her shrieks stop in mid-scream. Chilling.
7. You never get a clear view of the threat – admittedly, you never get a clear view of the alien because the director didn’t want to give away seven foot guy in a mask – but this bit of cinematic trickery works on a psychological level because you’re never allowed to face your fear head on and come to terms with it. And what the human brain isn’t allowed to study and catalog, it approximates, filling in all kinds of possible details, in this case, each worse than the last.
Granted, you’re not setting out to rewrite Alien, but the techniques the movie used translate into any kind of story that requires a bit of scary. So go wandering through the Doomwood Horror forest, armed with the knowledge that you're all alone out there in the dark. Good luck. Hope your flashlight battery holds.