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.