Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman
Horror posters can be very instructive for writers. Take the one for Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. It shows the movie’s protagonist, Nancy Thompson, a teenage girl, lying in bed, presumably naked (the blanket is pulled up over her breasts, but her shoulders and upper arms, like her neck, are bare), staring wide-eyed; her wild hair is fanned out behind her, upon the pillow. Superimposed upon the headboard (the slats of which resemble prison bars) is a skull with bulging eyes and a bloody metallic hand, the fingers of which are knife- or razor-like blades. The caption reads, “If Nancy doesn’t wake up screaming, she won’t wake up at all.”
Normally, one would suppose that to wake up screaming implies an unpleasant and undesirable experience--a nightmare--so the assertion that “she won’t wake up at all” unless she “wakes up screaming” is intriguing, just as the advertisers no doubt mean it to be. The poster is instructive for writers because it suggests a way by which irony can suggest a storyline in which it is, indeed, better to awaken than not to awaken at all. What’s worse than a nightmare? One from which the dreamer doesn’t awaken--one that kills.
A poster for Alien warns, “In space, no one can hear you scream.” A poster for the movie Anaconda bears a similar caution: “When you can’t breathe, you can’t scream.” Below this caption are a pair of yellow reptilian eyes and a suggestion of scales lost in surrounding darkness, followed by the film’s title and the promise, “It will take your breath away.” You won’t, therefore, be able to scream; your terror will squeeze the breath--and very possibly, it is implied--the life out of you, just as the gigantic snake of the film’s title will squeeze its onscreen victims to death.
The inability to get one’s breath is terrifying (as anyone who has ever choked, for example, certainly is aware), rendering one helpless, frantic, and unable to call for help. A story about such hopelessness is, like Anaconda, likely to be terrifying, and, of course, there are many ways to render a victim helpless besides having them squeezed by an anaconda.
“What do I see,” the Beatles once asked, “when I turn out the light?” Answer: darkness, and darkness is symbolic of the unknown, of evil, of death, and a slew of other unpleasant conditions and states of mind. What if the night were not just the result of an absence of light? What if it were alive? What if it had claws and fangs and could fly? What if it were a vampire ands sucked blood?
This is the premise suggested by the poster for Bats (the title is suspended, from the top edge of the poster, suggesting bats clinging to the ceiling of a cave or other sanctuary). Two luminous eyes appear in the night sky, above the suggestion of a head and leathery wings. Below the outstretched wings is a cluster of other dark, similar shapes and the silhouette of a leafless tree. To the right is a house, black but for the illuminated square of a window in its side. The roof seems to be lifting into sunset that stretches beneath the darkening sky above the red and gold clouds, as if into an invisible whirlwind. A closer look shows that what first appeared to roof tiles are, in fact, part of a flurry of bats. The congregation of bats represent the night itself and all that darkness symbolizes, as the poster’s caption makes clear: “Where do you hide when the dark is alive?”
This poster reinforces the importance of the use of symbolism and metaphor in fiction. Such figures of speech communicate with readers on an unconscious, almost subliminal, level. Writers are well aware of the unconscious mind’s perception of such implied associations, and they use this tendency to good effect. Stephen King, for example, uses Cujo, his rabid St. Bernard, to symbolize the unfaithfulness of his novel’s protagonist, Donna Trenton, and the destructive effect her adultery has upon her son, her husband, and her marriage.
By picturing one’s story as a poster, complete with defining image and caption, a writer can clarify his or her theme and highlight the source of the story’s horror. Alternatively, by studying the posters that promote existing horror movies, an author can discover emotional links between image and text or between the “this” and the “that” of a metaphor, an antithesis, hyperbolic statement, metonymy, simile, and similar figures of speech.
We think by drawing relationships between perceptions and thoughts (or feelings), and by drawing such relationships indirectly and nonverbally, through associations of color, shape, direction, image, figures of speech, and rhetorical and visual devices, we can suggest the “this” of the ordinary may be associated with the “that” of the extraordinary, the “that” of the monstrous, the “that” of the supernatural, or the “that” of the horrific. The unconscious mind isn’t disturbed by incongruity or logical non-sequiturs. It operates on instinct and emotion, not reason, after all, and the suggestion that “this” is “that” is all the cue it needs to react with fear and trembling.