Tag Archives: haunting

How Bad Movies Help Us Write Good Stories


by Lillian Csernica on July 29, 2017

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The Blair Witch Project and the first Paranormal Activity movies launched a new sub-genre of horror: found footage. Sometimes the people who find the footage know its original purpose. Sometimes the footage is simply discovered and viewing it can provide answers, deepen the mystery, drive you insane, and/or get you killed.

The problem with the success of these two movies is how often and how badly other filmmakers keep trying to imitate them.

This happens in the world of books as well. Charlaine HarrisSookie Stackhouse series began appearing close to the start of the vampire craze. Their popularity and the subsequent HBO series True Blood did a lot to prompt the already growing industry of vampire-based novels. Some of these are quite good. Others are not. (cough cough Twilight cough.)

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Really bad books and movies can serve as practical guides for What Not to Do. This brings me back to those found footage movies. I love a good ghost story. Now and then I go trawling through Netflix and Amazon, hoping to find a movie that doesn’t just shuffle together the same tiresome people, camera equipment, Ouija boards, and insane asylums. I have found a few gems, but it’s appalling how many mediocre wannabes clutter up the genre.

Let’s have a look at how such a movie provides a check list for What Not To Do.

PLOT — Familiar, contrived, predictable, unrealistic, and not all that scary. What is the opposite of all that? Strange, natural, unexpected, realistic, and terrifying. Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak is all that and more.

CHARACTER — Shallow, annoying, not sympathetic, and their motivations are often forced. They do really stupid things that anybody with a shred of survival instinct wouldn’t even consider. We want characters who are complex, endearing, sympathetic, and genuine. Above all, make your characters intelligent with at least some common sense.

SETTING — Not realistic. Never mind the question of whether or not ghosts actually exist. Let’s think about the fact that laws about private property, trespassing, and public health are very real and rigorously enforced. Abandoned medical facilities with a history of death, disease, torture, horrible medical experiments, and abuse of the patients by the staff were often built back when asbestos and other toxins were a regular part of the construction business. Professional paranormal investigators know about contacting property managers, getting the appropriate permits, and avoiding lawsuits.

TONE — They’re going for creepy and atmospheric, but when the filmmakers abide by the trite formula of dead cell phones, flickering lights, poltergeist antics, etc. etc., there’s no suspense. Instead, it all becomes laughable. Remember how Professor Lupin taught Harry Potter and the gang how to get the upper hand with the Boggart, the creature that would take on the appearance of a person’s worst fear? Just find a way to make it funny, and that takes all the fear out of it.

THEME — This depends on the particular variations present in a specific movie. Most of the time, it boils down to “People who refuse to listen to multiple warnings about the Haunted Madhouse deserve whatever happens to them.” That brazen band of party animal college students is so annoying I’ve ended up cheering on the monsters.

PACE — Such movies usually kick off with an info dump about the setting, the main characters, or both. This is the movie version of a Prologue, and it contains every reason why smart people don’t go near the setting even in broad daylight. Too Much Information ruins the movie because now we have a good idea about what horrible fates will befall the characters. Place your bets, because once the Ouija board is out and the candles are lit, the bodies are going to start piling up.

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In the spirit of fairness, I will mention a few of those gems I’ve found:

Grave Encounters

Session 9

Cabin in the Woods

Boo

Find Me

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H is for Hotel


by Lillian Csernica on April 9, 2016

An important part of any travel is where you’re going to stay for the night.  If you aren’t fortunate enough to have friends or family in the area, then you will probably end up getting a room in an hotel.  I have quite a few hotel stories.

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When I was 10, 13, and 16, my father and I drove from Southern California to Toledo, OH to visit my grandmother.  It took us about 3 days to get there.  We stopped for the night at cheap local motels.  On the inside, they all looked pretty much the same.  Knotty pine walls, thrift store furniture, ugly paintings, and sagging mattresses.  Until I was old enough for a driver’s license, I had to invent various games to keep myself entertained during the long hours on the road. On one particular trip  I recall sitting up late in the bathroom with the door shut so the light wouldn’t keep Daddy awake.  I wrote postcards to a friend of mine from my debate team days.  I’d drop them in the mail at post offices along the way so the postcards arrived one after the other like those old Burma Shave signs!

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At BayCon one year Pat and I didn’t make our hotel reservation in time, so we ended up at the Motel 6 down the street.  The room was clean, with a bed and a shower, which is pretty much all I really need.  We did discover one very strange feature.  The light switch for the bathroom was on the wall outside the actual bathroom itself.  Do I need to tell you what happened next?  Pat and I would sneak up on each other and flip the switch at some very inconvenient moments!

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My husband and I met at the Northern Renaissance Faire and even worked there together for a few years.  When I became pregnant with our first son, I wasn’t working Faire anymore, but Chris and I did decide to go visit for a weekend.  We booked a  cheap motel near the Faire site and woke up Sunday morning to the sounds of the people in the next room having a very good time.  So good they were slamming their headboard against the wall just on the other side next to our heads.  I got up and took a shower.  Now I was at that stage of pregnancy where your balance starts to change.  The shower/bathtub unit was brand sparkling new, no mat or traction pads on the bottom, and no safety rail.  My husband told me later what happened next.

There I was, in the shower, washing my long hair.  I got soap in my eyes, leaned back to wash it away, and lost my balance.  Our neighbors reached the Big Moment in their good time.  He screamed, she screamed, and then I screamed.  My husband told me there was a moment of stunned silence, a sudden thumping as of running feet, then the door to their room opened and shut.  Car doors slammed, the engine revved, and they took off.  I stepped out of the bathroom minutes later to find my husband still whooping with laughter.

 

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On a side street just off of Beverly Hills boulevard, quite close to some of the big, glitzy hotels, there is a small family-run hotel that was built in the 1930s.  Pat and I stayed there about 12 years ago when we were working on some screenplays for an actor who was also a world champion martial artist.  One night, quite late, we heard sounds in the room above us like somebody was bowling or moving heavy furniture.  In the morning we asked the manager about it.  He insisted the room was unoccupied.  This was an old building, under partial renovation.  OK fine.  The next night,  after midnight, we had a plugged toilet some plumbing problems.  We knew the manager and his wife were already asleep, so I went downstairs looking for a supply closet.

This was a bad idea.  No, I was not in the basement.  I did have to walk down a hallway I’d never seen before.  The light was on, the doors were shut, and I couldn’t find what I was looking for.  When I turned around to walk back, some of the doors were slightly ajar.  I had that horrible feeling of being watched.  And then I heard three or four little kids whispering and giggling.  There were no children in the hotel.  At all.  I bolted upstairs like I had hellhounds chasing me.  Between my panic and the resulting asthma attack it took me at least ten minutes to tell Pat what happened.  She went downstairs and came back with the plunger we needed.

We never stayed in that hotel again.

 

 

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The Family Spirit — Back in Print!


by Lillian Csernica on February 26, 2017

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Thanks to the wonderful folks at Digital Fiction Publishing, my ghost story The Family Spirit is back in print.  This story originally appeared in Weird Tales.  If you know what it’s like to endure the company of the really strange members of your family during the holidays, then you will feel for Ben Harper as he meets his girlfriend’s family for the first time.  Here’s the opening paragraph:

Ben sat in the armchair, rattling the ice in his scotch. Five of Janice’s weird relatives sat around him, smiling and watching him like they were waiting for him to do his trick. It was Christmas Eve. His folks were on the far side of the country, busy with his sister’s latest crisis. That left him without any real plans, so he’d accepted Janice’s invitation to spend the holiday with her family. Now he wondered which was worse, the silent tension of old grudges between people he knew and supposedly loved, or the crawling anxiety of finding himself trapped with a boring version of the Addams Family.

Of all the short stories I’ve written, this is one of my three favorites.  I hope you’ll have as much fun reading it as I had writing it.  Enjoy!

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