There are two kinds of scary; Jump scary, and Fruit Cellar scary. Allow me to explain. The Jump is pretty self explanatory and limited to movies. Think about the hapless blonde wearing very little while walking backwards away from a weird noise, usually one emanating in a woods. The camera is composed in such a way the hapless blonde is positioned right of the camera frame, allowing for, yes, you guessed it, the axe-wielding manic to fill camera screen left. As she backs into him we get the Jump. See also American Werewolf in London when David sees himself in the bed in the woods (or the false wake up after his family is slaughtered); Exorcist III and the nurse on the corridor scene; Carrie and the hand emerging from the grave… you get the picture. These scenes, if done right can cause the Jump, but most are formulaic and rely heavily on the introduction of loud music as an auditory poke in the ribs. The second kind of scary is the better of the two, in my humble opinion.
I’ve seen lots of scary movies and many merge into one. But there is only one that sticks out and created a visceral reaction in me. That sensation began as a brief shiver followed by an overwhelming churning in my stomach that made me feel a little sick, not because the scene was so gruesome, but that the scene was so well executed that as it unfolded in my mind I struggled to accept the horror before me. That movie was Psycho. I was about fifteen at the time. It was already an old movie and I was reticent to watch it because the only cool movie in black and white was Night of the Living Dead. In truth, It felt drawn out, dated, and more a Sunday afternoon flick, not a Friday night movie. By the time Norman Bates was introduced, I was close to going to upstairs to re-watch Dawn of Dead or Scanners for the billionth time. Then came the shower scene. Sure, it wasn’t as graphic as some scenes I was used to, but the shadowed lady behind the shower curtain whetted my curiosity enough to continue watching.
I figured out long ago that modern audiences are conditioned to the twist. Even if a twist isn’t mentioned, there is the assumption one is on the horizon, lurking like a…erm, twister? So when Lila Crane and her sister’s boyfriend Sam are informed by Sheriff Chambers that Norman’s mother died many years ago, that part of my brain kicked in. By then I’d seen (or assumed I’d seen) her hacking up people at the Bate’s Motel, so my mind rearranged this information as quick as a Rubik’s cube champion until all the pieces fitted nicely together. My mind was telling me that Norman must be the killer. The mind was happy with this, and as a result I sat there with bloated chest and wide grin that the fifteen year old me had discovered the horrible truth. But what Bloch/Hitchcock did next confused my brain. The Sheriff created a contradiction to the fact, an opposing problem. I forget how the line goes, but it went something like, “If you’ve seen Mrs Bates, then who’s that buried in the cemetery?” Now my brain has a dilemma; does it settle on the simpler and more viable explanation that Norma Bates is the killer, or does it embrace the possibility there’s another killer and therefore a better twist? It went with the latter. It wanted to be smarter than the writer and the director, and certainly wanted to pageant this Sherlockian deduction to my family with much aplomb. Norma Bates is alive. She and Norman killed another woman and put her in the coffin to allow Norma to kill freely and without ever being culpable for the murders because hey, she’s dead. There, my brain was happy again. Then everything changed in that goddamn fruit cellar.
Spoiler alert! If you’ve never reached the end of Psycho and want to know what the hell happens in the fruit cellar then I suggest you don’t read any further but instead go watch the movie.
Still with me? Okay.
At the point Lila Crane sees the back of Norma Bates’s head in that fruit cellar, to the point where she reels back in horror at seeing the withered and shrunken features of a corpse, and Norman comes rushing in with the kitchen knife dressed like his mother, well, it must be less than ten seconds, but in that ten seconds my brain had to process the horror and the realisation that I was wrong. In those ten seconds, my brain played back that whole movie. It recalled the conversations Norman had with his mother. It remembered the scene where Norman lifted his mother out of her bed and took her downstairs under duress. It recalled the shower scene, the stabbing of the private detective, the woman in the window. It did all that in ten seconds and caused a sensation in my stomach that has never left me. All the Jump moments, they are short-lived experiences. They are as fleeting as an immunisation jab, but the Fruit Cellar moment was the vice crushing pain of a heart attack. Bloch/Hitchcock tricked me.
That fruit cellar technique is the benchmark, the bar set high. The Jump is not possible in writing. The reader is in control on the moment. There is no music. No clever camera composition. The reader can chose to slow down and re-read a sentence if they wish, thus losing momentum. Writing will never solicit the same response you get from a Jump moment in a movie. But the Fruit Cellar moment, that can be done. An author can offer subterfuge, deception, or as in Bloch’s case, the answer before the reveal. That’s clever writing. And readers want this. They want to be tricked. They want to be Sherlock. But more important, they want to be thrilled too, and if that means they get the ending wrong, then so be it, because it makes for a better experience. I have written several shorts employing this method, and a novel (I won’t say which one), and in each attempt there was always something missing, something I could have done a little better. More slight of hand perhaps, more smoke and less mirror. This is what pushes me to the next novel, and the next, and until I get my Fruit Cellar moment, I’ll never rest.