Danse MacabreStephen King
"A labor of love . . . King knows what things scare people and he has a pretty good idea of why. He connects the content of horror stories with the real terrors of everyday life . . . . Those who have never seen a horror film or read one of the books he discusses can still come away from Danse Macabre with a sense of pleasure and enlightenment."
"Highly entertaining . . . King knows what he's talking about when the subject is horror . . . considered by many to be our best current horror writer."
--Dallas Times Herald
"Sent me off to the libraries and book stores searching for the books under discussion that I hadn't read; it made me re-read the ones I was familiar with. (The irritating thing about Stephen King is that he can't discuss anything without offering new insights that force you to re-think your opinions.) There's plenty in Danse Macabre to keep any horror fan satisfied."
--Jackson, Miss. Sun
"One of the best books on American popular culture in the late 20th century."
--Philadelphia Inquirer "[Danse Macabre] succeeds on any number of levels, as pure horror memorabilia for longtime ghoulie groupies; as a bibliography for younger addicts weaned on King; and as an insightful non-credit course for would-be writers of the genre."
"King is a real pro, guiding us through the fright factory as only an insider can . . ."
"Danse Macabre is a conversation with Stephen King. . . . It's comfortable and easygoing. At the same time it's perceptive and knowledgeable, a visit with a craftsman who has honed his skills to an edge that cuts clean and sparkles with brilliance."
"King knows the horror genre--from film monsters with zipper suits to book monsters with seamlessly haunting presences. . . . King opens up the best of the horror world . . . he conducts a lively tour of the deadly inhabitants of the obscure byways of horror."
--Des Moines Register
"A search for the place where we live at our most primitive level."
--Chelsea, Mich. Standard "King has taken time off from weaving ghoulish yarns--at which he is this decade's master--to present us with a textbook of the macabre."
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What's Scary: A Forenote to the 2010 Edition
Forenote to the Original Edition
Forenote to the 1983 Edition
I: October 4, 1957, and an Invitation to Dance
II: Tales of the Hook
III: Tales of the Tarot
IV: An Annoying Autobiographical Pause
V: Radio and the Set of Reality
VI: The Modern American Horror Movie--Text and Subtext
VII: The Horror Movie as Junk Food
VIII: The Glass Teat, or, This Monster Was Brought to You by Gainesburgers
IX: Horror Fiction
X: The Last Waltz--Horror and Morality, Horror and Magic
Appendix 1: The Films
Appendix 2: The Books
About Stephen King
It's easy enough--perhaps too easy--to memorialize the dead. This book is for six great writers of the macabre.
JORGE LUIS BORGES
FRANK BELKNAP LONG
MANLY WADE WELLMAN
Enter, Stranger, at your Riske: Here there be Tygers.
"What was the worst thing you've ever done?" "I won't tell you that, but I'll tell you the worst thing that ever happened to me . . . the most dreadful thing . . ."
--PETER STRAUB, Ghost Story "Well we'll really have a party but we gotta post a guard outside . . ."
--EDDIE COCHRAN, "Come On Everybody"
A Forenote to the 2010 Edition
All my life I've been going to see scary movies, beginning with 1950s black-and-white monsterfests like The Black Scorpion and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (where the alien invaders look very much like the prawns in District 9), and although much has changed in my life since the days when it cost a quarter to get in and the butter on the popcorn was real, I find myself asking the same three questions.
First, why do so many so-called horror movies, even those with big budgets (maybe especially those with big budgets) not work? Second, why do genre fans such as myself so often go in with high hopes and come out feeling unsatisfied . . . and, worse, unscared? Third, and most important, why is it that others--sometimes those most unheralded others, with teensy budgets and unknown, untried actors--do work, surprising us with terror and amazement?
Oh, and here's a bonus question: Why do I care? What part of me feels driven to see another remake of The Hills Have Eyes (not very good) or The Last House on the Left (brilliant)? I'm sixty-three and my hair is graying. Shouldn't I have left all this childish crap behind?
Apparently not. Hell, I don't even want to.
In Danse Macabre, a book I wrote almost thirty years ago, I argued that people attracted to stories about monsters and mayhem are essentially pretty healthy (if sometimes morbid). Critics of the book--and there were quite a few--responded predictably: "Yeah, sure, what else are you gonna say? That you're all a bunch of sick canines?"
Well, we probably are, but we also have an overload of imagination (sometimes a blessing; sometimes--especially when it's late at night and you still can't sleep--a curse). One of the accessories you get when the Bureau of Genetics supersizes you in the imagination department is more worries than the average Joe or Jill has to deal with. So while Ma and Pa are downstairs, watching American Idol, chowing on Doritos and worrying that their favorite warbler may get voted off the show, their overimaginative little sonny boy (or baby girl) is upstairs, listening to Slipknot and wondering if Doritos give you cancer.
The imaginative person has a clearer fix on the fact of his/her fragility; the imaginative person realizes that anything can go disastrously wrong, at any time. The imaginative person doesn't believe that serial killers only happen to other people; he or she understands that guys like Henry are actually out there, and running into one is a lot more likely than winning $350 million in the Powerball lottery. And there are a lot of other serial killers out there. They have names like cancer, stroke, or meeting a vodka-fueled alcoholic traveling southbound in the northbound lane of the turnpike--your lane--at 110 miles an hour, fantasizing that his crappy little Honda Accord is the Millennium Falcon. In a case like that, decapitation and instant death might be the best-case scenario. Worst case? You wind up a quadriplegic pissing into a bag on your hip for twenty-five years or so. And the person with the supersize-me imagination knows it.
I'd argue that people whose entertainment needs can be satisfied with American Idol on the old tube-ola, or a wild and crazy night out to watch the Cornpatch Players put on The Sound of Music, are afflicted with imaginative myopia. Those of us who feel more (and see in darker spectrums) may be sick puppies, but we're also lively puppies. Brave puppies, too, because we keep on trucking in the face of everything we know can go wrong. For us, horror movies are a safety valve. They are a kind of dreaming awake, and when a movie about ordinary people living ordinary lives skews off into some blood-soaked nightmare, we're able to let off the pressure that might otherwise build up until it blo
ws us sky-high like the boiler that explodes and tears apart the Overlook Hotel in The Shining (the book, I mean; in the movie everything freezes solid--how dorky is that?).
We take refuge in make-believe terrors so the real ones don't overwhelm us, freezing us in place and making it impossible for us to function in our day-to-day lives. We go into the darkness of a movie theater hoping to dream badly, because the world of our normal lives looks ever so much better when the bad dream ends. If we keep this in mind, it becomes easier to understand why the good horror movies work (even if they do so, as is often the case, completely by accident) and why the hundreds of bad ones just don't.
Expensive CGI FX, elaborate makeup jobs, and exploding blood bags won't scare anybody over the age of fourteen (three years younger than you have to be to get into an R-rated movie). The kids have seen it all before. It's borrr-ing. If a horror movie is going to work, there has to be something in it beyond splatter. Either by pure chance (Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) or by pure genius (Sam Raimi, Steven Spielberg), some filmmakers are able to reach that something; they grope into our subconscious minds, find the things so terrible we can't even articulate them (unless you've got the money and the inclination to spend twenty years or so on a psychiatrist's couch, that is) and allow us to confront them. Not directly, though; few of us are able to look straight into the eyes of the gorgon. Humans deal better with symbols--the cross equals Christianity, the swastika equals Nazism (or "Nawzi-ism," if you're Brad Pitt in Inglourious Basterds), a # 3 decal on the back window of your pickup says you still miss Dale Earnhardt.
That being the case, the central thesis of Danse Macabre, written all those years ago, still holds true: A good horror story is one that functions on a symbolic level, using fictional (and sometimes supernatural) events to help us understand our own deepest real fears. And notice I said "understand" and not "face." I think a person who needs help facing his/her fears is a person who isn't strictly sane. If I assume most horror readers are like me--and I do--then we're as sane or saner as those who read People, their daily newspapers, and a few blogs, and then call themselves good to go. My friends, a vicarious obsession with celebrities and a few dearly held political opinions is not a useful life of the imagination; that's the life of a beetle that just happens to have opposable thumbs and the ability to count to ten.
I'm sure a lot of the so-called realists who run the world think we're cracked, pervo, and possibly ready to shoot up the local high school when they see us paying for a magazine with a decomposing monster on the cover . . . but that's their problem. I don't know about you, but as far as I'm concerned, everything's cool with the kid. I'm all for make love, not war . . . as long as I can have Jason and Freddy. The American Idol folks can collect all the Care Bears they want; I like my Fear Bears.
Besides, how can you not love a genre where a movie (The Blair Witch Project) made for under $100,000 can scare the bejabbers out of the whole world and gross a mind-boggling $250 million? That's either pure democracy or pure anarchy. Pick the term you like best; I think they're both beautiful. Here is a case where the low budget and unknown acting troupe became integral parts of the film's success. There's nothing hyped up and phony about Blair Witch (the way all the Saw movies after the original and Saw II are hyped up and phony--the cinematic equivalent of Thanksgiving Day Parade floats). One thing about Blair Witch: the damn thing looks real. Another thing about Blair Witch: the damn thing feels real. And because it does, it's like the worst nightmare you ever had, the one you woke from gasping and crying with relief because you thought you were buried alive and it turned out the cat jumped up on your bed and went to sleep on your chest.
Horror, like comedy, looks easy. In one, you throw a pie in someone's face and roll the camera. In the other, you throw blood in the person's face and roll it. Gotta work, right?
Actually, wrong. Horror's not a delicate genre--there's nothing delicate or refined about movies where people turn into bubbling goo when some extraterrestrial plague starts eating them alive--but it's mysterious. What works one time (that final hand-from-the-grave scare in Carrie, for instance) often won't work again . . . at least until it does. What worked in a super-low-budget flick like Blair Witch may not work on a higher budget (the sequel, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, for instance--I loved it, but I was pretty much alone on that one).
Making a successful horror movie is like catching lightning in a bottle, and even the most talented filmmakers may only be able to do it once or twice. When Sam Raimi finally returned to his roots with Drag Me to Hell, he created a movie that's terrific fun . . . but not particularly scary. If you want scary, you have to go back to The Evil Dead (or Curse of the Demon, the British film that inspired Hell), and even that may be a wasted trip by now. A good horror movie is in many ways like a good joke: Revisit the punch line too many times, and it wears out.
When you've been around horror movies awhile, you become aware that the same themes and bogeymen come up again and again (and the bogeymen often wear the same hockey masks). This is partly because we have a tendency to return to what scares us (in real life we call this need obsessive-compulsive disorder), and partly because--hey, let's face it--horror is the home turf of cinematic quick-buck artists and con men. Studios and indie producers have a tendency to green-light the same idea over and over again, running the money-pressing machinery until every last buck has been squeezed out of it.
The squeezing results in clear cycles that fans of the genre have seen again and again: Genius gives birth to genius perfected; genius perfected gives birth to unenlightened imitation (think of any direct-to-video haunted-house flick or made-for-TV demon-kid movie that ever bored you to death); unenlightened imitation gives birth to comedy, after which the basic idea lies still for a time before coming back to life again (like a vampire in his coffin). Here are three specific examples, beginning with The Blair Witch Project.
The first time I saw Blair Witch was in a hospital room about twelve days after a careless driver in a minivan smashed the shit out of me on a country road. I was, in a manner of speaking, the perfect viewer: roaring with pain from top to bottom, high on painkillers, and looking at a poorly copied bootleg videotape on a portable TV. (How did I get the bootleg? Never mind how I got it.) Around the time the three would-be filmmakers (Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael Williams, who, coincidentally, happen to be played by Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael Williams) start discovering strange Lovecraftian symbols hanging from the trees, I asked my son, who was watching with me, to turn the damn thing off. It may be the only time in my life when I quit a horror movie in the middle because I was too scared to go on. Some of it was the jerky quality of the footage (shot with a Hi-8 handheld and 16-millimeter shoulder-mounted camcorders), some of it was the dope, but basically I was just freaked out of my mind. Those didn't look like Hollywood-location woods; they looked like an actual forest in which actual people could actually get lost.
I thought then that Blair Witch was a work of troubling, accidental horror, and subsequent viewings (where I actually finished the film) haven't changed my mind. The situation is simplicity itself: The three kids, who start out making a documentary about a clearly bogus witch legend, get lost while making their movie. We know they are never going to get out; we're told on the title card that opens the movie that, to date, they have never been found. Only the jumpy, disconnected, haunting footage they shot remains.
The idea is complete genius, and a big budget would have wrecked it. Shot on a shoestring (a ragged one), this docu-horror movie gained its punch not in spite of the fact that the "actors" hardly act at all, but because of it. We become increasingly terrified for these people--even the annoying, overcontrolling Heather, who never shuts up and continues to insist everything is totally OK long after her two male companions (and everybody in the audience) knows it's not. Her final scene--an excruciating close-up where she takes responsibility as one tear lingers on the lashes of her right eye--packs a
punch that few Hollywood films, even those made by great directors, can match. The Fearless Girl Director who confidently proclaimed "I know exactly where we're going" has been replaced by a terrified woman on the brink of madness. And, sitting in a darkened tent after six nights in the woods, with the Hi-8 camcorder held up to her own face, we understand that she knows it.
Blair Witch, it seems to me, is about madness--because what is that, really, except getting lost in the woods that exist even inside the sanest heads? The footage becomes increasingly jerky, the cuts weirder, the conversations increasingly disconnected from reality. As the movie nears the end of its short course (at just eighty minutes and change, it's like a jury-rigged surface-to-surface missile loaded with dynamite), the video actually disappears for long stretches, just as rationality disappears from the mind of a man or a woman losing his/her grip on the real world. We are left with a mostly dark screen, panting, elliptical lines of dialogue (some we can understand, some we can only guess at), noises from the woods that might or might not be made by human beings, and occasional blurry flashes of image: a tree trunk, a jutting branch, the side of a tent in a close-up so intense that the cloth looks like green skin.
"Hungry, cold, and hunted," Heather whispers. "I'm scared to close my eyes, and I'm scared to open them." Watching her descent into irrationality, I felt the same way.
The movie climaxes when Heather and Michael find a decaying house deep in the woods. Shot almost completely in 16mm black-and-white at this point, the movie confronts us with a series of images that are simultaneously prosaic and almost too awful to bear--the wreckage inside seems to glare. Still carrying the camera, Heather bolts up the stairs. At this point, her two friends seem to be calling from everywhere, and the camera's randomly shifting eye flows past the handprints of the children who have almost certainly been murdered in this house. There's no dramatic music here or anywhere else; Blair Witch needs no such cinematic steroids. The only sounds are shuffling footsteps, yelling voices (from everywhere!) and Heather's escalating moans of terror.