Copyrigh 2010 by Gary L. Pullman
Many horror stories take place in total institutions. A total institution is a self-contained world that exists to fulfill a particular, specialized function. Examples of total institutions (and horror stories that take place in them) are boarding schools or military academies (Harold Becker's Taps), summer camps (William Butler’s Butterfly Revolution), colleges or universities (Bentley Little’s The Academy and The University), forts or military installations (Antonia Bird’s Ravenous), hospitals (Anthony Balch’s Horror Hospital), hotels or motels (Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and Stephen King’s The Shining), monasteries and convents (Dominic Sena’s Season of the Witch), museums (Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s Relic), nursing homes (James J. Murphy III’s The Nursing Home), orphanages (Guillermo Del Toro’s The Orphanage), prisons (Renny Harlin’s Prison), research facilities (H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau), resorts (Bentley Little’s The Resort), ships (Steve Beck’s Ghost Ship), spaceships (Alien), and summer camps (Robert Hiltzik’s Sleepaway Camp).
Such stories’ settings tend already to be isolated or are relatively easy to cut off from larger society. In addition, as Wikipedia suggests, they may sometimes be appropriate for plots that involve “rites of passage and indoctrination” (“Total institution”).
In some cases, simply by setting a story in a total institution, the narrative or drama virtually writes itself.
To gain a better appreciation of the types of stories that are set in such places, let’s briefly review the plots of the novels and movies that I identified, parenthetically, as examples of stories that take place in the respective total institutions in my list.
Taps (1981): Military cadets take over Bunker Hill Academy when its owners decide to close the school, fending off the National Guard (for a while, at least).
The Butterfly Revolution (1961): Kids at a summer camp revolt against their adult counselors, killing one and taking over the camp, instituting a totalitarian government among themselves.
The Academy (2008): Bizarre changes to a school’s curriculum and day-to-day operation occur after the academy becomes a charter school.
The University (1994): Odd doings take place at an institution of higher learning.
Ravenous (1999): Survival at Fort Spencer depends upon cannibalism.
Horror Hospital (1973): A scientist at a supposed health farm lobotomizes guests in an effort to transform them into zombies.
Psycho (1960): Norman Bates, who sometimes confuses himself with his mother, whom he has killed, dresses in her garb to commit murders so that she can keep Norman all to herself.
The Shining (1977): Jack Torrance comes under the influence of his own inner demons and the ghosts of the Overlook Hotel after he becomes its caretaker.
Season of the Witch (2010): During the Black plague, knights transport a suspected witch to a monastery so the monks can stop the pestilence.
Relic (1995): A monster roams New York City’s American Museum of Natural History, committing brutal murders.
The Orphanage (2007): When a woman returns to her childhood home, an orphanage that has become a home for disabled children, she discovers that a social worker who was employed there when she was a resident murdered several children, who appear to her as ghosts.
Prison (1988): The ghost of an innocent man, executed by electrocution, returns to avenge himself upon the prison’s warden.
The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896): A scientist on a remote island uses vivisection to transform animals into hybrid Beast Folk.
The Resort (2004): A family, vacationing at a desert resort in Arizona, is subjected to the bizarre behavior of employees and other guests and to horrific events that occur for no apparent reason.
Ghost Ship (2001): A demon disguised as a captain lures mariners and their passengers aboard his ghost ship, ferrying their souls to his masters.
Alien (1979): Responding to a distress call from a derelict spaceship, the crew of the commercial mining ship Nostromo encounters horrific extraterrestrial creatures.
Sleepaway Camp (1983): Violence and death ensue the arrival of shy Angela Baker at Camp Arawak.
Another way to generate horror story plots is to be inspired by possible themes rather than by possible settings. Several metaphors compare life to some other sphere of human activity:
- Life is an adventure
- Life is a dream
- Life is a gamble
- Life is a game
- Life is a journey
- Life is a puzzle
- Life is a test
These metaphors suggest ways to develop horror plots. Simply substitute “horror” for life and see what this substitution suggests. Existing novels or movies provide examples. Many of James Rollins’ horror novels involve clandestine government or secret scientific adventures: Subterranean (1999), Excavation (2000), Deep Fathom (2001), Amazonia (2002), Ice Hunt (2003), Altar of Eden (2009). Horror as adventure suggests that there are fabulous places still to be found in the remote corners of the earth and that human beings are not in as much control of their environment as they may believe, and they involve slam-bam action from beginning to end, much of which, of course, includes horror. Likewise, such movies as Anaconda (1997), Arachnophobia (1990), and The Descent (2005), to name but a few, qualify as adventure-horror movies.
“Horror is a dream” could well have inspired A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and its sequels, and H. P. Lovecraft’s short story, “The Dreams in the Witch House” (1933) is based upon the nightmares that a university student has while he rooms at the Witch House in Arkham, Massachusetts. An episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Nightmares” (1997), is also based upon a character’s bad dreams of an abusive Little League coach which spill over into the lives of others, including Buffy and her friends.
“Horror is a gamble” might well have suggested Edgar Allan Poe’s short satirical story, “Never Bet the Devil Your Head,” in which a character does just this, and, as a result, meets with “what might be termed a serious injury.” Although the story is a satire, it obviously contains an element of horror. Thirteen Ghosts (2001) also involves gambling. One of the ghosts, known as The Torso, is of a gambler who tried to renege on a bet and was dismembered, decapitated, and tossed into the ocean.
The Saw series (2004-2010 and counting) of horror movies is based on the metaphor that “horror is a game.” The captive characters will live or die according to whether the follow what their captor refers to as the “rules” of the “game” that the prisoners, like it or not, must play. The prototype for this storyline, it seems, is Richard Connell’s “The Hounds of Zaroff,” which was also published as “The Most Dangerous Game” (1924): a jaded Russian aristocrat hunts a big game hunter on a Caribbean island. Several film adaptations of this story have been made, including The Most Dangerous Game (1932), Bloodlust! ( 1961), Predator (1987), Deadly Prey (1988), Hard Target (1993), Naked Fear (2005), Battle Royale (2000), and others.
Horror stories in which a journey or an expedition underlies the plot can be thought of as examples of the “horror is a journey” metaphor. To some extent, this type of plot may overlap the “horror is an adventure” storyline. Examples include The Thing from Another World (1951, a film by Howard Hawkes, based upon John W. Campbell, Jr.‘s short story, “Who Goes There?“ (1938); Dan Simmons’ The Terror (2007); and Dean Koontz’s Icebound (1995).
Horror stories that confront readers or audiences with clues to puzzles that must be solved if the characters are to survive are based upon the idea that “horror is a puzzle.” In a sense, most horror stories tends to be puzzles or mysteries that the protagonists must solve if they are to avert catastrophe and survive the menace that threatens them and their communities, nations, or worlds. In horror-as-a-puzzle storylines, however, the puzzle or the mystery is explicitly stated and the object (to solve the puzzle or the mystery) is paramount to the plot. According to this definition, Hellraiser (1987) is only ostensibly a horror-as-a-puzzle film, because, although its Rubik’s Cube-type puzzle box is intrinsic to the plot, it isn’t solved by discovering and interpreting clues but by physical manipulation of its surfaces. The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971): Inspector Trout, of Scotland Yard, seeks to discover the method behind the madness of Dr. Phibes, an organist who employs modern versions of the ten plagues against Egypt chronicled in the book of Exodus to dispatch the surgeons who (Dr. Phibes believes) botched an operation that caused the death of his wife. Theatre of Blood (1973) uses a similar plot device: Edward Kendall Sheridan Lionheart, a celebrated Shakespearean actor avenges himself upon his critics my murdering them according to the ways in which the characters in the plays in which he had roles during the last season of his career died. Each of these characters represents one of the seven deadly sins and is dispatched in a manner fitting to the vice that he or she represents. Like the police who investigate the murders, the members of the audience are invited, if only implicitly, to discover and interpret clues, based upon Shakespeare’s plays, as to whom Lionheart will kill next and in what manner he will do so.
The metaphor that compares life (or, in my reformulation, horror) to a test suggests that the protagonist will be in some way examined and, to successfully complete the test to which he or she is put (and thereby continue to live), he or she must provide the correct answers to the questions to be asked. He or she may or may not be given the questions in advance. An early example of this type of storyline is The Canterbury Tales’ “Wife of Bath’s Tale,” in which a knight, having ravished an innocent maiden, is given the opportunity to redeem himself from the death sentence that the queen passes upon him for this dastardly deed by returning from a year-long quest to find the correct answer to the question of what women want most. If he succeeds, he lives; if he fails, he dies. Unwittingly, George Bernard Shaw suggests a storyline for a more contemporary horror novel or movie based upon the metaphor of “horror is a test”: he suggests that, periodically, citizens should be compelled to justify their existence by recounting to a council the deeds that they have done of late to benefit society; those unable to do so would be euthanized. To my knowledge, no one has written this story, but it is a possibility. The Beast Must Die (1974) is an interesting takeoff on this metaphor, in which the protagonist is a hunter who tests the efficacy of a security center. The center passes the test, when the hunter is unable to find any security weaknesses to exploit, and then the true trouble gets underway when one of the party who attends the test transforms into a werewolf. The party must submit to various tests to determine which of them is the werewolf. Toward the end of the movie, during a short break, the audience is invited to identify the werewolf, based upon the clues and tests that have been provided during the film.