Where Nightmares Come From, A Must Read for Horror Buffs

Where Nightmares Come FromWhere Nightmares Come From

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a must-read collection of essays for anyone who:
• wants to write horror literature or scripts (or entertainment in various forms)
• wants industry insights that would otherwise take decades of trial/error to learn
• is a connoisseur of horror who wants richer perspective on how creators work

All the essays are well-done. There is plenty to learn from the ones focused on script-writing, even if you’re more interested in horror fiction like me. So do read them. However, based on my tastes and biases as an aspiring horror writer I’ve selected three standout essays from Where Nightmares Come From.

Pixelated Shadows: Urban Lore and the Rise of Creepypasta by Michael Paul Gonzalez

A brilliant, original exploration of how the Internet has paradoxically taken humans back to primal methods of storytelling. By osmosis, it’s also a useful guide on crafting creepy shorts for marketing purposes!

Bringing An Idea To Life Through Language by Mercedes M. Yardley

As a person who has read volumes on crafting characters and finding your writer’s voice, this is by far the most beautiful and effervescent essay I’ve read on the topic. Yardley’s personality is a bonus, though, not a gimmick–this short essay about word choice/character/voice deserves to be taught in Fiction 101s and MFAs.

The Process of a Tale by Ramsey Campbell

If you’re a fiction writer, at some point you’ve no doubt read a story and thought, I wish the author could take me step-by-step through how they pulled this sorcery off! Good news, kids! Ramsey Campbell, horror fiction icon, uses his story “The End of a Summer’s Day” to take us from idea germination to draft-by-draft processes and rewritten passages to final product. The lessons are conveyed with remarkable accessibility and humility.

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Netflix’s The Push, Derren Brown’s Expose on Human Groupthink

It’s Friday, so I know you’re in need of some Netflix viewing materials. Derren Brown’s The Push made me cringe, forced me to laugh uncomfortably, terrified me, and left me a little sad.

I can’t recommend it enough.

I hesitated to pull the trigger on watching this one because Netflix and IMDB reviewers labeled Derren Brown as an exploitative manipulator. He has a past in British TV doing these sorts of social experiments, so he’s known.

He certainly is manipulative. The people in the film are lab rats in the incredible illusion he’s created. But willing ones.

Having watched The Push, I can’t help but think that the people who dislike him do so because he forces us hoomans to ask ourselves some cringe-inducing questions about our nature and behavior. That’s exactly what The Push will make you do.

This is riveting stuff from Netflix, folks.

Candyman Can-Wild Clive Barker Adaptation

I remembered this outstanding urban horror/fantasy flick today.

If you didn’t know, it’s based on the horror god Clive Barker’s short story, “The Forbidden.” Director and screenwriter Bernard Rose adapted the story’s setting from England to Chicago, with production oversight from Barker.

Throwback to ’92.

Have you seen it?

The Ritual, A Netflix Horror Gem

Main characters of The Ritual, Netflix film.

The Netflix original film The Ritual, based on Adam Nevill’s 2011 namesake novel, is a must-watch for connoisseurs of horror. Especially my breed of horror fan, trolling the depths of Netflix like a starving bottom-feeder for quality horror films.

I decided to illustrate how amazing The Ritual is by way of contrast. I will tell you the common folks-lost-in-woods horror tropes that David Bruckner’s film does not resort to. And in fact, breathes new life into.

No spoilers, either.

Meeting Characters Without Cheeseball Grabass

Bruckner establishes his use of economy, seriousness, and respect for his audience’s intelligence within the first five minutes. We get our main character Luke, and his three mates, Phil, Hutch, and Dom, talking about this year’s guys-getaway over a pint. Further, the traumatic event that serves as Luke’s backstory, also occurs at act one’s starting gate.

No corny-ass young couples! What a relief.

In my opinion, more horror script writers should have either all male or all female casts, or to put it in an LGBQT+-friendly way, an all platonic ensemble. This lends films a more serious atmosphere since sex is off the table. More fruitful soil for real terror.

Directors almost always rely on exploiting women with raunchy jokes and having the couples play grab-ass for the first half hour. The cheap characterization makes my unintentional B-movie radar ding.

The Ritual does not.

There Is Not One Single Forced Jump Scare

Thanks to the cinematography, the tension is real.

Shots of stark trees linger, causing the mind to start conjuring things moving between them. They also portray the vastness of the landscapes in an emotionally resonant way. The long frames are refreshing in the found-footage and shaky-first-person saturated sub-genre of lost-in-woods/witchcraft horror.

Bruckner doesn’t rely on quick cuts to disorient the audience. Nor does he rely on background music. The first time we partially see the creature stalking the four gents, the shot lasts around a minute, the tension roiling around in the viewer’s guts.

A sidelong glance into the thin trees, a loud bout of silence. Fingers wrap around one of the trees, and your mind screams “THERE, I SEE SOMETHING–WAIT, WHY AREN’T THE FINGERS MOVING, DID THE FILM FREEZE? DOES THE CREATURE KNOW I ALMOST SEE HIM?” More silence. More stillness. Then the body the fingers belong to sweeps across your view, takings its time.

You feel almost like a voyeur getting caught on its territory, a sensation of terror only the best cosmic horror can illicit.

I was left as unsettled as Luke, the scene’s POV character.

Questions Answered/Monster Seen

Many creature-features and witchcraft films struggle with a balancing act of these three things:

  1. The audience wants to know the monster’s 5 Ws
  2. We want everything that gets set up to pay off
  3.  Viewers want to see the monster–we don’t want to dance with shadows, but we also don’t want overexposure

The Blair Witch Project worked because of its originality. People granted them leeway with this balancing act because the tropes and cliches hadn’t been bludgeoned to death yet, necessitating the balance.

You boil Blair Witch down to its essence and you get: vague witchcraft happenings and kids scared about it.

The Ritual begins its third act with a well-executed explanation of all the things, as the kids say.

The witchcraft has been substantive throughout the film. Now you understand the 5 Ws of the creature. The time with it on the screen is also meaningful for Luke’s character arc, which elevates the creature’s visual presence above mere scare-bait.

Other films simply rely on vague creeps. Explaining this without describing the plot is tough, but trust me. The 3-point balance is achieved, leaving the audience satisfied.

Go Watch The Ritual & Perhaps Read The Novel

This isn’t your average horror film. A number of the overused tropes seen in so many movies in the genre-at-large, as well as the sub-genres The Ritual falls into, are reinvigorated here. The result is a damn good movie, and an emotionally wrought experience.

The Novel

The Trailer

Recommended Netflix Original Movie: Before I Wake (No Spoilers)

image of Before I wake

Netflix produces some strong original content in the horror genre, both for television and film. I watch so many horror movies on Netflix, they tend to bleed together. The tropes, the characters and their motivations, and even the settings, for example, don’t always stick out in the crowd.

I think atmosphere is another area–maybe the most common, in fact–where horror directors, albeit due to genre conventions, are going for the same effects. Claustrophobia, terror, the unnatural… In Before I Wake, director Mike Flanagan sets his film apart by introducing true human sadness, portrayed effortlessly by Kate Bosworth and Thomas Jane and the uber-talented child actor Jacob Tremblay.

The word literary comes to mind when I consider this movie. The film works much like some of the best horror literature does: things start off normal and rather beautiful, and then descend into chaos and terror. I rarely even stream movies with a PG-13 rating because I assume it’ll be a typical made-for-theaters-and-teens thriller that Hollywood pumps out.

The PG-13 rating works in Before I Wake. 

Maybe the perceived lack of profanity and violence the rating implies softened me up for genuinely lovable characters and their story. Flanagan sets up the characters and the delightful supernatural/magical realist elements with grace. The more expected horror elements are also deep-seated in character, and are genuinely disturbing as opposed to cheap jump scares. The juxtaposition of beauty and horror (which I assure you is terrifying for parents) dazzles here.

I’ll say that the premise and “twist” at the end are magnificent and emotionally resonant. The idea of dreams and nightmares come to life isn’t original in the literal sense, but Before I Wake makes it feel fresh and executes it sublimely. This movie put me into a pretty passive, trusting state, so I can’t say that I tried to figure out what the IMDB reviewers meant by “amazing twist” as I watched, but I promise it’s breath-taking. It isn’t the mind-blowing, world-overturning twist that people tend to imagine. Instead, it’s a tear-jerker and a perfect illustration of the innocence of children. That’s coming from a cynical, crappy horror film-jaded person.

I saw some reviewers complain about certain plot points not making sense or nitpicking on some of the film’s minutiae. But I encourage you to watch Before I Wake with the mindset of a child. Or at least the warm amber simplicity of the childhood lens you think back to when “adulting” really sucks. Allow yourself to spend some time in a place where things can be magical and terrifying.