In the 1960’s, the X-Men trained in the Danger Room. A spacious chamber in their mansion, it was full of hidden traps, launchers, catapults, collapsing floors, and various other mechanical threats. From the control booth, an individual observed the exercise while ensuring the participants’ safety. Improvements replaced some of the mechanical effects with computerized and holographic hazards. Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse, also writes for Marvel Comics on occasion, and, during a stint for The Amazing X-Men, he made the danger room self-conscious. Unfortunately, he also personified it as a female character known as Danger. The room has since been replaced with the Danger Cave, a cavern beneath the mutants’ mansion, which uses holograms to review the X-Men’s battles with enemy mutants, rather after the fashion of professional football teams’ use of taped games to identify areas in which players can improve their play.
Horror movies often employ a sort of metaphorical danger room by confining characters in a close, often locked, sometimes remote area into which the monster or other threat, natural, paranormal, or supernatural, is introduced. The characters are thus forced to fight the monster at close quarters without being able to escape. Beowulf, Alien, The Thing From Another World, 1408, Jurassic Park (Michael Creighton), The Island of Dr. Moreau (H. G. Wells), The Funhouse (Dean Koontz), Storm of the Century (Stephen King), Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, Ghost Ship, The Descent, Saw, The Mummy, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and many other novels and movies, both science fiction, horror, and otherwise, employ such a “danger room.” Perhaps the greatest use of the concept appears in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Premature Burial,” in which the danger room is a coffin, inside which the buried person, still alive, must confront the monster of his own terror.
Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome specifies one of the rules, as it were, for the sort of danger room that appears in horror fiction: “Two men enter; one man leaves,” except that the numbers may differ, both with regard to those who enter the setting and those who survive the monster’s attacks. In other words, there are going to be one (or many) victims and one (or more) survivors before the monster is killed, if it is killed. Unlike the X-Men’s danger room, this chamber of horrors is, in a horror story, full of real and terrible dangers, even when they are mental, rather than physical, in nature, and they will be, for some, at least, lethal.
There is no escape or, at least, no easy way out. (As the protagonist of 1408 is told, the only way out of the danger room is “feet first.”)
Another rule seems to be that the dangers, although predetermined, must be, to the characters they threaten, both unknown and varied. If the narrative has only one monster, as most horror stories do, its terror must be multiplied in some way, whether by its ability to reproduce quickly, sexually or asexually; its ability to transform itself into other entities or forces; its use of different deathtraps and devices of torture; or some other technique or combination of techniques. The protagonist and the other characters must be kept constantly off balance. Therefore, if they figure out how or why the monster attacks, the monster must then attack in a completely unexpected way as a result of an unknown or unforeseen impulse, motive, or cause, or the intervention of another character.
There must also be a reason for the danger room’s existence--in other words, a plausible and believable cause for the existence of the story’s setting. Alien takes place aboard a derelict spaceship; the extraterrestrial in The Thing From Another World is the frozen body of an alien pilot whose spaceship crashed in the arctic, where a team of scientists set up a research station; Jurassic Park is built on an island as a future tourist attraction that is half-zoo, half amusement park; Dr. Moreau has come to an uncharted island to conduct his unethical research; and so it goes, each story providing a reason for the existence of its particular version of the figurative danger room.
Poe gives a great early example of a danger room as literal as that of the one that appears in the 1960’s X-Men comics: a dungeon wherein there is both a pit and a razor-sharp pendulum as well as red-hot walls that close upon prisoners in the same manner as the walls of the giant trash compactor close in upon Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, and Chewbacca in the original Star Wars movie. Likewise, in “The Masque of the Red Death,” the danger room is also an actual, physical place: the palace of Prince Prospero. However, the danger room can be, as Poe shows, the mind itself, as it is in not only “The Premature Burial,” but also several of his other stories, including “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “The Black Cat.” Madness can be a place, as it were, in which traps and missiles and collapsing floors appear as thoughts, feelings, attitudes, delusions, fears, and assorted other inner demons from which escape is truly impossible and in which survival may or may not occur for the poor soul that is beset by these monstrous dangers.
In constructing a danger room of one’s own, a writer should remember these principles:
- There must be victims and at least one survivor before the monster is killed, if it is killed.
- The dangers must be unknown to the characters and varied.
- There must be a plausible reason for the danger room.
- Escape is difficult, if not impossible.
- The danger room may be actual and physical or figurative and psychological.