copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman
Psst! Here’s a secret: Horror writers should analyze visual images (such as occur both on screen and in movie posters) for ideas as to what is horrible about everyday situations. That’s such a good tip that it bears repetition (and a larger font size):
Horror writers should analyze visual images (such as occur both on screen and in movie posters) for ideas as to what is horrible about everyday situations.Sounds pretty basic, right? A matter of common sense? You’d be surprised, perhaps, at how uncommon common sense is and at how often people forget the basics.
Let’s practice this technique.
Here’s a movie poster advertising Cujo, a movie based upon Stephen King’s novel of the same title.
For the two or three who don’t know the story line, it goes something like this:
A faithful St. Bernard, having been bitten by a rabid bat, bites the hand that feeds him; the hand belongs to Donna Trenton (and her family).(In analyzing images, one should remember to “read” them the same way that one reads text, from left to right and from top to bottom.) Centered at the top of the poster is the text, “From Stephen King’s novel comes a chilling tale of a quiet New England town and a horrible evil in the dead of summer.” The text drops the name of today’s most celebrated horror novelist, Stephen King, citing his novel, Cujo, as the film’s source. It also tells the reader how he or she should feel about the film: it narrates a “chilling tale.” There is the suggestion of a violent intrusion upon the serene, everyday world, and the menace that threatens to assault the film’s characters is heightened by the description of “dead summer”: the “horrible evil” is so “chilling” that it can, as it were, kill even the sunniest part of the year. (Summer is often symbolic of one’s youth, and, of course, one of Cujo’s victims will be Donna Trenton’s young son [sun], Tad).
In short, the poster’s text suggests horror, fear, and a violent assault by “horrible evil.” The poster’s visual images build upon these linguistic images.
Below the text and to the right is a large house. It stands alone in a large expanse of empty, treeless lawn, below a dark, ominous sky rippling with storm clouds. The house seems about to be blown away by the force of the wind that drives the black and gray clouds.
Closer to the poster’s viewer, in the foreground, is a white picket fence. White picket fences have long been associated with suburban domestic bliss, and although the house seems to be more rural than suburban, the psychological associations of domesticity and happiness are retained--at least in part--by this symbol. However, there is something not quite right about the fence. It needs a fresh coat of paint. The slats are weathered and stained. Some bear long scratches. At the base of the fence, just before the image is lost to darkness, tufts of grass suggest that the lawn needs to be trimmed. It is a fence that, although not yet in a state of total disrepair, needs maintenance. It is neglected.
If the fence symbolizes the bliss of domestic and suburban life, it is a happiness that could use a bit more care. In fact, Donna's own life is in an emotional, moral, and spiritual state of disrepair because of the adulterous affair she’s been having, a secret that her husband, Vic, has since learned. The destructiveness of her infidelity is about to destroy her family, Tad included.
But there is more than a little thin paint, stains, and scratches wrong with the white picket fence. Centered upon it is a blood-red, streaming, dripping message to the viewer: “Now there’s a new name for terror. Cujo.” As Vic’s wife, Donna should have been his best friend. Instead, seized by a rabid lust for an itinerant furniture repairman and poet, she has betrayed her husband’s trust and her son’s welfare. In a way, she is Cujo. At the same time, Cujo represents the effects of her infidelity, which trap her, indirectly kill her son (Tad dies of heatstroke from being trapped inside his mother’s automobile), and emotionally devastate Vic. The novel and the movie are cautionary tales concerning the madness of adultery and the fatal consequences it may have, both literally and figuratively, upon the members of the betrayed family.
The poster is an effective way of tying the overt action of the rabid dog’s attack upon Donna and Tad (and, indirectly, upon Vic) to the narrative’s covert message regarding the devastating effects of the threat to domestic bliss that the bestial monster, adultery, may have and shows, more than many movie posters, the strong relationship of plot to theme. At the same time, it intrigues potential moviegoers, interesting them in seeing another scary Stephen King story brought to the big screen--this one about a mad dog. (Of course, it’s really about adultery, but what’s scary about marital infidelity? This question is the very one that the story answers: infidelity is destructive to the family relationship and to the members of the family themselves.)
Horror movie posters, when they are well executed, as the Cujo poster is, can show writers how to tie plot and theme together on a symbolic and metaphorical level while, at the same time, appealing to readers’ fears or other emotions, which is another reason that (psst!) horror writers should analyze visual images (such as occur both on screen and in movie posters) for ideas as to what is horrible about everyday situations.