Occupy the seats. These three words summarize the box office imperative of movie theaters across the country. Since motion picture studios are in business to make money and, in their industry, making money is based upon selling tickets, movies, to be, must be perceived. To entice potential audience members, trailers or previews of movies are shown. Another tactic, besides advertising in general and the movie poster in particular, is the use of the movie tagline.
A tagline is a short, sometimes witty, slogan that focuses readers’ attention upon specific features of the film--often its storyline. As we will see, though, a well-written tagline can intimate much more than simply the basic plot of its film. Since Chillers and Thrillers is concerned with the theory and practice of writing horror fiction, we’ll consider the taglines for movies in this genre. Makes sense, right?
Some taglines suggest the identities of the protagonist and the antagonist and intimate the nature of the basic conflict between them. Of course, the antagonist is going to be in some way horrific, as is the struggle that takes place between the two main characters--we’re talking horror, after all, not romance--and, no, they’re not the same thing (not always, or necessarily, at any rate). Here’s an example:
His mind is her prison (The Cell).This tagline suggests that the antagonist is likely to be a stalker. The tagline tells us that he is a male, and his prisoner is a female. His thoughts about the protagonist somehow imprison her. Apparently, he is obsessed with her. He is likely to have stalked her. Whether he has, in fact, kidnapped her is unspecified, but possible--even likely.
This tagline is effective. In only five words, it identifies the type of protagonist (a victim) and antagonist (a stalker or a kidnapper) and the nature of the struggle between them. It also raises a few tantalizing questions.
If she has been adducted, where is she being held captive (other than in his mind)? If “his mind is her prison,” is he a control freak and, perhaps, a sadist? If she is literally a captive, will she escape? If so, how? If not, why not? Does her captor kill her? In what manner, and why? Is torture involved?
The title of the movie, The Cell, constitutes an effective play on words, for a cell can be a compartment in a jail or prison, but it is also the tiny, constituent structure of body organs, including the brain. “Mind” and “brain,” while not necessarily synonymous (depending upon one’s worldview), are often used more or less interchangeably. Therefore, the play on words links the mental state of the antagonist and the physical prison in which the antagonist is likely to be incarcerated, reinforcing the tagline’s message, “His mind is her prison.”
The next tagline lacks a context (until one reads the title of the movie to which the tagline refers):
Bigger. Smarter. Faster. Meaner. (Deep Blue Sea)What’s “bigger, smarter, faster, and meaner”? We aren’t told. Therefore, we’re free to imagine what these adjectives refer to. They could refer to a machine, to a new species resulting from bioengineering or eugenics, or to a robot or cyborg assassin. In fact, it’s a maritime threat, and the comparative forms of the adjectives in the tagline compare it, favorably, against the great white shark that appeared as the monster in Jaws. This tagline, in alluding to a previous movie, appeals to the fans of the Steven Spielberg film, but suggests that the movie to which it refers, Deep Blue Sea, will be even more chilling and thrilling than Jaws was. “If you liked Jaws,” it suggests, “you’ll love Deep Blue Sea.” After all, this movie, like its monster, will be “bigger, smarter, faster, and meaner” than Jaws.
We can get out of most difficulties by using a variety of Freudian defense mechanisms or even simpler techniques such as lying, rationalizing, excusing, and blaming others (not that any of these tactics is justifiable or recommended). In fact, an aphorism suggests that there are but two things that one cannot avoid: death and taxes. This tagline offers a similar observation:
Death doesn’t take “no” for an answer (Final Destination).Death is unavoidable; it “doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.” Therefore, the grave is our “final destination,” as the title of the movie, in the context supplied to it by its tagline, suggests. Of course, the tagline also suggests that we’re in imminent danger: death has asked us to join him (or it), and he (or it) is awaiting our answer--which had better be “yes,” since “Death doesn’t take no for an answer.”
Is there a fate worse than death? Hamlet thought so:
To be, or not to be--that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep--
No more--and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. 'Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep--
To sleep--perchance to dream: ay, there's the
rub, For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th' oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely
The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th' unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprise of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action. . . .
Many others, both fictional and living, believe the same thing, more or less, and are afraid that there may very well be “more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in. . . [their] philosophy,” including, perhaps, hell. The fear of damnation, which still beats within the breasts of many, is the wellspring of terror upon which the following tagline depends for its gush of dread, implying that, as great as it may be to lose one’s life, the loss of one’s eternal soul is unimaginably worse:
You have nothing to lose but your soul (Lost Souls)
The next tagline refers to a game, and a common metaphor compares life to a game:
The game is far from over (Along Came a Spider)Other types of games may spring to mind, too, such as the rather sadistic “game of cat and mouse,” wherein a predator amuses itself by tormenting its prey. If the game in question is life--and life, perhaps, spent in misery, as the victim of a sadist who amuses himself by tormenting his victim--and “the game is far from over,” a sense of horror asserts itself readily enough.
(We were much more frightened when we thought that the tagline might refer to Hillary Clinton’s winning the White House! After all, she’s always assuring us--or herself, perhaps--that the Democratic primary, a game if ever there was one, “is far from over.”)
Like most taglines, this one lacks a context--until the title of the movie with which it is associated is read. Along Came a Spider is taken from the “Little Miss Muffet” nursery rhyme:
Therefore, this tagline comprises a literary allusion. After describing a picture of innocence and everyday comfort (a little girl, dining), the tagline introduces a threat--the spider, an unwelcome intruder, which violates the heroine’s personal space, sitting “down beside her,” and frightens her. The tagline also suggests that the nursery rhyme has some bearing upon the movie’s plot, theme or, perhaps, its protagonist or antagonist (or both). If we haven’t yet seen the film, we may not be sure of the exact nature of the significance the nursery rhyme has in regard to the film, but we can be pretty certain that, whatever it is, it will be horrendous, and that it will involve the frightening intrusion of a threat upon an innocent. (In fact, the allusion is a bit more tenuous than we might anticipate; the movie turns out to be more of a thriller than a chiller, the Little Miss Muffet of which is a congressman’s daughter who is abducted from a private school by the kidnapper, or “spider.”)
Little Miss Muffet, sat on a tuffet,
Eating her curds and whey;
Along came a spider, who sat down beside her
And frightened Miss Muffet away.
It seems that, everyday, we seek to impose our wills upon others or others attempt to impose their wills upon us. We seek constantly to make others do our bidding or to take upon themselves our likeness, just as others seek to do the same with regard to us. Sometimes, we acquiesce willingly. Other times, we allow ourselves to be used or changed or manipulated or controlled only under protest and duress. The next tagline suggests that the latter is likely to be the case in regard to those who may now be less than perfect (according to someone else’s standards) but need not worry, for, after all, they are about to undergo a metamorphosis, most likely against their will:
It doesn’t matter if you’re perfect. You will be (Disturbing Behavior).Sure enough, the movie involves a plot by townspeople to transform their rebellious teens into perfect citizens. (Ironically, what’s “disturbing” about the teens’ behavior is that it’s literally too good to be true.)
The night has an appetite (The Forsaken).
Be careful who you trust (The Glass House).Pretty sound advice, even if it’s a tad general--especially in a horror movie. Some people, we learn, are not worthy of our trust. The movie’s title calls to mind another aphorism: “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,” meaning that the pot is ill-advised to call the kettle black, since it takes one to know one or something like that. In this movie, the glass house, however, turns out to be the home of the Glasses, Terrence and Erin, who are the former Malibu neighbors of two siblings whose parents are killed in a car crash. After their parents’ deaths, the children, Ruby and Rhett Baker, are taken in by the Glasses, who treat them well--at first. Ruby then finds some evidence that suggests that the Glasses, motivated by the chance to get their greedy hands on their new wards’ four-million-dollar trust fund, may have been responsible for her parents’ deaths. The Glasses are not as transparent as they seem; they have some dark secrets. Once again, Mom’s Maxims prove to be right on the money. (An alternate tagline for this movie is “It’s time to kick some Glass.”)
What’s eating you? (Jeepers Creepers)
Jeepers Creepers, where’d you get those peepers?
Jeepers Creepers, where’d you get those eyes?
Gosh, all get up! How’d they get so lit up?
Gosh, all get up! How’d they get that size?
Golly gee! When you turn those heaters on, woe is me!
Got to get my cheaters on. Jeepers Creepers,
Where’d you get those peepers? Oh, those weepers!
How they hypnotize! Where’d you get those eyes?
Where’d you get those eyes? Where’d you get those eyes?
Be afraid. Be very afraid (The Fly).
In space, no one can hear you scream (Alien).
- They describe a basic situation that lacks a context, the context being provided by the title of the film for which the tagline is a pitch, making a sort of game out of the two elements (title and tagline).
- They pique our interest by identifying the main characters (protagonist and antagonist) and suggesting the nature of the conflict between them.
- They include plays on words that associate literal with figurative meanings, relating physical actions to emotional states.
- They allude to similar films, suggesting that they are better (read scarier) than their competitors.
- They confront their audience with a powerful, apparently unstoppable foe.
- They personify non-human threats.
- They place characters in nearly impossible situations that are likely to get them dismembered or killed (or both).
An opening paragraph in a short story, the first chapter of a novel, or the first fifteen minutes or so of a movie that accomplishes one of these feats is likely to hook its reader or viewer, too.
The aspiring writer isn’t--or shouldn’t be--too proud to beg, borrow, or steal--well, not steal, maybe--effective techniques wherever he or she may find them, including the lowly motion picture tagline. Nothing succeeds like success, after all, and, yes, sometimes “brevity” certainly is “the soul of wit,” as Shakespeare’s Polonius advised.