Horror stories call for horrific scenes. In literary works, description is the chief (usually, the only) means of delivering the goods (although some novels and short stories are illustrated--Stephen King’s The Silver Bullet, illustrated by Bernie Wrightson, comes to mind). In movies, photographs, usually, nowadays, enhanced by special effects, illustrate the plot.
“I paint what I see,” Charles Addams once said, tongue in cheek, concerning his cartoons of the bizarre antics of The Addams Family, which, appearing in The New Yorker and elsewhere, launched a television series and several movies. One of Norman Rockwell’s own tongue-in-cheek paintings shows him at his easel, painting a self-portrait from his likeness in a mirror, with photographs for reference pinned to the edge of his canvas. The horror writer has only to toggle from his or her word processor screen to an open Internet browser or consult a book beside the computer to accomplish the same feat.
In fact, most artists, if not all, do sketch or paint from live models or props, and, especially with the availability of cameras, digital and otherwise, stock photographs, and millions of Internet image galleries, there’s no reason that the writer cannot create descriptions the same way, basing them upon what he or she sees in such photographs.
Consulting a visual image in creating a written description won’t worsen one’s verbal imagery; doing so will enhance the result. Likewise, since no two people are the same, even in what they perceive or how they convey their perceptions, no two descriptions will be identical, either. Originality remains intact.
Let’s try our hand at this approach. Here’s an example of a description that’s based upon a photograph:
The young woman would have been pretty, even beautiful, except for one thing. Her full head of luxuriant, curly black hair framed her face like a halo, and, although her eyebrows were thicker than the current fashion dictated, they seemed appropriate, arching her eyes. Her face, roughly an oval, was smooth, the skin flawless and pale as marble, except for the deep dimple that ran the length of each cheek. Her neck was long and graceful. The upside-down crosses she wore as earrings were disconcerting, but one didn’t notice them immediately. The focal point was her mouth. Her rather thin red lips were stretched wide, showing gums as well as teeth-- and the blood that overflowed her mouth, streaming over her chin.
Here’s the photograph, which appears as part of the film Night of the Demons:
Here’s another example:
The blonde could have been pretty. Perhaps she was once. She was not pretty now, though, not with the disheveled hair, not with the deep frown lines in her brow and around her mouth, not with the yellow eyes and the elliptical pupils, and, most of all, not with the impossibly large, open mouth in which appeared a ring of jagged fangs instead of teeth.
Here is the image upon which the description is based, which appears as part of the same film, Night of the Demons:
Even when a photograph doesn’t shock with blood and gore or bizarre imagery, it is more immediate and dramatic than words. For example, this description does the job; it’s interesting, and it sets the mood:
Her head was back, looking as if she’d retracted it, turtle-like, and the reason for her abrupt retreat was clear: her arched eyebrows, wide, staring eyes, and gaping, yet down-turned mouth and compressed chin signaled her terror.
And, now, the image, again from Night of the Demons:
For filmmakers, the reverse process can, and does, work, too. They often create visual images from verbal descriptions. We don’t have a picture of the blood and gore that Shakespeare puts into words in Titus Andronicus, his ghastliest and goriest play, but we can imagine how such a description would translate to the screen, helped along with special effects and, possibly, computer-generated imagery. There’s this, for example:
Away with him, and make a fire straight,
And with our swords upon a pile of wood
Let's hew his limbs till they be clean consumed.
See, lord and father, how we have performed
Our Roman rites, Alarbus' limbs are lopped,
And entrails feed the sacrificing fire,
Whose smoke like incense doth perfume the sky.
Ours is a multimedia world, and there’s no reason that we shouldn’t make the most of it. Models and props have enhanced painters’ and illustrators’ work for centuries, and many writers have long based their descriptions on landscapes and people they’ve seen and heard in person. There’s no reason that authors shouldn’t use the work of artists and photographers, in all their media, electronic and otherwise, to enhance their descriptions. The result will be a richer, more realistic, and detailed representation of the life about which they are writing and the horrors that they are recounting.