In my last post, I started talking about some of the kinds of conflict that frequently pop up in horror or in stories with horror themes, and I focused on the kind I’m calling external conflict (man vs. man): violence against a person and violence or oppression against a group of people. I also lumped man vs. machine in, since the fear of technology closely relates to the fear of science and to the fear of the other.
Now I’m going to talk about another kind of conflict: the Internal (man vs. self), or the struggles of an individual with his or her own psyche, soul, mind, sanity, emotions, conscience, and body.
We perceive everything in our lives through our senses. Losing or being unable to trust even one of them is deeply terrifying. A common way to take advantage of this is to have a character be unable to see something that the audience knows is there, by obscuring the POV character’s vision or hearing, or by having a child or an animal perceive the thing – animals can sense stuff we can’t, right? Of course they can see that ghost. The Bad Thing could also be reflected in a mirror, or visible everywhere except in a mirror.
Conversely, the character might perceive things that aren’t there, that other people can’t sense, or that are actually different from how the character’s perceiving them (Black Mirror, A Stir of Echoes, Donnie Darko, The Machinist).
On the screen, vision and hearing are used the most, because the audience can only directly interact with the story via those two senses. We passively watch movies and TV shows. We can see the air frosting over and the character shivering, but we can’t feel the cold the way we can hear a creepy sound or see the character’s hallucination, so it doesn’t affect us the same way. On the page there’s more freedom—you can write about the taste of a werewolf’s kill, or what a vampire’s bathroom smells like. (They would pee blood, right?) Your readers are creating it all from scratch, so they will fill in the sensory details themselves.
What if, instead of losing our ability or faith in our senses, we had more senses than the usual? What if we could read thoughts, flip cars, see the future, talk mind to mind? I think this kind of story is so common for two reasons: 1) a universal desire for stronger connections to and better communication with other people, and 2) because it would be awesome.
Psychic phenomena ties in with the supernatural, but it’s often viewed through a (pseudo)scientific lens as being a body/mind-based talent rather than resulting from a paranormal outside influence. There are malevolent forces that can use this power for evil, of course, or who can force the powerful down a bad road, by persuasion, possession, or mind control (The Bone Clocks, Jessica Jones, Carrion Comfort). The idea of loss of trust in our mind taps into an even deeper fear than the loss of trust in our physical senses, because our mind is our essential self.
The Cell isn’t a great movie, but it inventively treats the mind as a landscape (and it’s got beautiful surrealistic imagery).
Antagonists of the mind aren’t always psychic or superhuman. Usually, a character’s grip on sanity is loosened via drugs, torture, trauma, or psychological abuse. The end of Carrie’s story works so well because of the realistically horrible ways the people in her life treat her. In Hannibal, Dr. Lecter gaslights Will into believing he’s gone mad, making him unable to trust his own thoughts and judgment. In Jacob’s Ladder, the horror of war makes the protagonist snap.
Dreams can also be manipulated by malevolent forces, drugs, technology, or psychic people or creatures (Perdido Street Station, Vurt, Infinite Rooms). You can show anything and make anything happen in a dream, and all of it can tie into deeper themes and reveal things about your character.
It seems like mental illness is almost never portrayed realistically. Maybe that’s because exaggerating and fictionalizing an illness like schizophrenia makes for a great story, or because a straight-up unrelatably crazy person makes for a good antagonist. (Identity, for example, is a bad portrayal and a really entertaining movie.) Part of the problem might be a lack of research and personal knowledge of the subject, because Insane = Killer is easy. But like with most things, a story depicted somewhat more faithfully to reality is usually going to be better all around (A Wolf at the Table, The Yellow Wallpaper, A Head Full of Ghosts, The Drowning Girl, House of Leaves).
Psychological problems straddle the line between mind and body, and between the self and others. Addiction also does this, and like mental illness, it is challenging to write about without personal knowledge or research (The Shining, Trainspotting).
Then there’s the body. Just as the mind can rebel, so can the body, and from that idea we get stuff like Ash’s rogue hand. Also, we seem to have an infinite capacity for gross-out imagery: blood, unwanted or unnatural birth, parasites, viscera, slime, vomit, sex gone wrong. There’s an exhaustive treatment of this here. That list is all about movies, but I would also add Haunted, which contains one scene in particular that you’ll never, ever be able to forget, no matter how hard you try. Please don’t read it. You’ll despise me for mentioning it.
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