It goes without saying that books have profoundly influenced my writing career. From Nancy Drew to Nancy Pickard, mystery novels have given me tips about plot, characters, and settings. I’ve studied openers with hooks and endings with twists, armchair traveled to Agatha Christie’s Egypt, Sue Grafton’s California, and Stephen King’s Maine — all thanks to the written word.
Books are compelling, but movies? Even more powerful stuff. Give me a good suspenseful flick and I’m educated, inspired, and… scared silly.
I can vividly remember one of the earliest suspense movies I saw as a child. It was The Spiral Staircase, a 1945 drama in which a young mute woman must evade a serial killer. I was ten or eleven, it was a school night, and my mother left the house for some sort of meeting. The door closed behind her and my father promptly suggested watching a movie. Minutes later (or so it seemed) the black-and-white thriller flickered on our set.
I found the film terrifying, even though I’d been a Dark Shadows groupie since kindergarten. The murderer targeted handicapped, or as they said in the film, “afflicted,” young women. He was a predator in the most evil sense of the word. Rather than showing his face, the camera revealed his eyes, menacing and dark, stalking his hapless victim. To top it all off, his profession was one that encouraged the poor girl’s trust.
When it was over and the villan was dead, I remember wondering whether The Spiral Staircase would give me nightmares. I can’t recall that it ever did. The film did impart a sense of true terror, mingled with something like awe. I’d been scared, yes, but in the relief following the movie’s white-knuckle conclusion, I was more alive than ever. Energized.
Which movies have scared you silly? Have they also influenced your writing?
The Shining! Still makes me shudder to think of it. I have largely avoided scary movies since. Hitchcock’s The Birds is pretty bad, too.
No kidding, the Shining is terrifying! My daughter and I watched The Birds not too long ago. She found it funny. It’s one of the few Hitchcocks that hasn’t aged too well.
I can read anything in a book and not be “hide in the closet” scared. But movies? Not so much. I remember being perhaps 5 years old and hiding on the stairs in my grandmother’s house in Boston after my bedtime and watching part of a TV drama (there were several in those olden times — Playhouse 90 perhaps?) In any case, this one was petrifying to me. It had something to do with children, and I can still hear the spooky way they played an old song I actually knew .. “Long, long ago ….” I’ve never forgotten how that music made me feel that night.. I ran back to bed and hid under the covers. And, no, I do not watch horror movies or scary movies of any kind today. Even if I’ve already read the book. This time of year I even avoid listening to the promos for all the Halloween movies. But writing a really horrible scene … hmmm .. some day just might do that …
Great blog — some of those older thrillers are great examples of how suspense is built, and often because they weren’t allowed to show too much gore. As for movies that scared me, the original Omen (with Gregory Peck and Lee Remick) really spooked me and so did Silence of the Lambs.
I remember being 5 or 6 and engaging in the time honored tradition of caging extra time staying up out of the babysitter. We watched a Perry Mason about a little girl who comes to Perry and asks him to find out who she is. Going into the mid-program commercial break, Perry receives a doll with a broken neck and a note that says, “This can happen to little girls, too,”–and then the stupid sitter sent me to bed! I had nightmares about it for years.
Years and years later I saw the whole thing and of course Perry solves the issue of the girl’s identity and her rich grandfather welcomes her with open arms.
So with our kids we tried to have a policy that when we found ourselves in the middle of something that turned out to be too scaring, the best thing to do was to try to hang on until the resolution, whatever it was.
Lea, your avoidance of scary movies isn’t unusual among our fellow mystery writers. I have to say, I’m so surprised by that — I thought we all loved frightening flicks as much as I do!
Barb — I learned that same lesson — you have to watch the whole thing or you’ll suffer nightmares.
Which leads me to The Silence of the Lambs, Vinnie! My daughter wanted to see it and I kept putting it off, having been truly terrified the first time. Finally we watched it, but it was totally one of those films where I’m repeating “this is only a movie… only a movie..” to get myself through it!