“[Horror fiction] shows us that the control we believe we have is purely illusory, and that every moment we teeter on chaos and oblivion.”
― Clive Barker
I was three years old, it was midnight and I was missing. My mother shot to the living room where my father was having his nightly wine and watching a film, on this night it was the 1954 film The Creature from the Black Lagoon. She frantically informed my father that I was missing and asked him to help find me. My father smirked, put a finger to his lips and whispered "Wait." Just then, my bald head slowly rose from behind the couch. Eyes wide, I stared at the screen—ready to duck down at any moment should the Creature get too intimidating. My mother objected, of course, but my father assured her that all was fine; it was just a black and white film after all. I believe this early moment begat my adoration for the horror genre and cemented my love for the thrill of the scare.
One image from the film stuck with me: an otherworldly creature, eyes bulging, mouth agape, swimming below an unsuspecting woman—aping her strokes, able to reach up, grab her and drag her to the depths at any moment without warning. As a gay child with intense anxiety from a very young age, horror was a way to externalize fears and dreads that I could not yet comprehend. I identified with both the antagonist and the threat—both the fear of being persecuted by an unknowable force, as well as disrupting social norms: BEING the threat. Externalized tension can act as a balm for the perpetually tense; horror media is a safe way to explore our fears, both personally and societally.
Fear is full of information. There is much to be learned when we sit with fear, let it wash over us, allow the fight or flight mode to calm itself, and ask ourselves what it means to be scared or to fear the 'other'. One theory to explain arachnophobia posits that the movements of spiders are so foreign and quick that we have no option but to label it a threat. When I think about that scene, I think of the knee-jerk fears that arise: the alien appearance of the creature, the threat of drowning, that gush of horror as something grabs your ankle. After those waves of panic ebb, I wonder: what is the Creature really doing? What does it want? Connection! He is lonely down in the weedy depths! The only one of his kind: forced to watch others swim, frolic and trespass upon his home. When he appears, he is met with repulsion, shrieks, gunshots, even fire. Within horror, you can have your cake and eat it too. You can have the thrill of the chase, the cattleprod effect of a jump scare to remind you that you’re alive. Past that, there is an opportunity to enact, and build, a healthy empathy for the othered. It’s ok to freak out when a creature grabs your ankle, but next time, offer them a White Claw—sometimes they just need someone to lay on the beach with and talk about their day.
You can only know a film so well, repeat viewing might offer up a morsel you missed before, but nothing beats following a trail back to the source (or inspiration, in some cases). When you are thirsty enough, you will follow the stream back to its source. But you may find a body in the well. Here are 8 excellent stories that have been turned into 8 excellent horror movies.
When I discovered that Frankenstein was based on a book I was quite surprised. What could be said about this moaning flat headed abominable golem of stitched together corpses? So much. If you only know the Universal version of Dr Frankenstein's monster (He goes unnamed in the book) you are missing out. Once bolted awake, the creature is abandoned, hated and maligned by his creator, forced to flee and quite literally ponder while he is here, all the while fending off the hostility of a fearful society. It’s tragic, it’s romantic, it’s morbid, it’s philosophical, it’s everything. A true tour de force by a 19 year old Mary Shelley. Please read it.
The 1975 film Jaws was a slasher set in the ocean, straight and simple. Instead of a masked man with a knife, the killer was a beast of the water with a mouthful of knives picking victims off one by one. The Peter Benchley book of the same name, published just a year before the films release, has much different intentions. Benchley was an avid fan of ichthyology and fleshed out the shark with accurate anatomy and behaviors, putting us in awe of this massive predator. In the novel, the predatory nature of the shark was surpassed by the nefarious human characters that populate the small town setting in multiple subplots completely left out of the film. Benchley was heartbroken by the spike in shark killings that occurred after the film's release—the exact opposite of the book's intent.
Arguably my favorite film, and in my humble opinion, the best film adaptation of a book to date. This tale of a housewife whose husband and nosey neighbors take control of her pregnancy is an eerie call and response to the lives and restrictions of the wives of the 1960's (as well as today). What we are able to get from the book that we lack in the film, as is usually the case, is the internal dialogue of our main protagonist. Everything is from her perspective and we empathize with her every step of the way. We learn about her background and we understand each thought and action she takes, or doesn't take. With a more fully fleshed out lead character, the book gives the film much more meat.
The infamy of this film has not dated well. I remember watching it as a teen and thinking "This?? This made people vomit and pass out in the theatre aisles". Masterfully done but overly sensationalized. The film AND its original source with the same title was written by William Peter Blatty. Blatty was first and foremost a comedic writer, and it shows in the book. It's a 'theological noir': a detective story that asks questions of belief with hints of the supernatural. The infamous exorcism scenes are written as comedy. Blatty thought the idea of these horribly things coming from this little girl were funny, and in the book they are! At its core it is a meditation on faith. What it means to have it and where to put it.
If I could suggest one pairing of film and source material it would be the film Annihilation along with Jeff Vandermeer's book of the same title. A truly unnerving and lucious story about an all female task force team sent into a mysterious 'bubble' that has appeared and is slowly growing, enveloping everything within its dome with an unknown effect. The facet that carried over so well from the book is the tone—a sublime example of changes made appropriate for to fit the medium. Much of the unease in the book is from events and creatures deemed indescribable. In the film, those creatures and occurrences are conjured visually, offering a fascinating reimagining of these previously unimaginable things.
The Forbidden (story from Books of Blood)
Clive Barker’s short story within his Books of Blood anthology (one of my favorite anthologies ever) The Forbidden lightly explores class, poverty and race relations as we follow a white University student as she enters a run down ghetto to fulfill her thesis on 'graffiti culture'. It's a pretty straight forward urban legend tale with a satisfying ending, though its film incarnation, entitled The Candyman, takes the subtext of its basis to full text. Until Jordan Peele came along, not many were willing to overtly tackle the subject of race relations in such a frank manner and this work does it beautifully. It's a case of the visual medium being utilized to its as well as appropriate liberties taken with the source material to build a more holistic and relevant tale—even 20 years after its release.
I had always found vampires kinda boring. So they are charming, look young forever and drink blood?? Me too but who cares? Turns out that the titular character can do far more, as you would know if you picked up Bram Stoker's seminal novel: he can turn into a mist, wolf, bugs and bats, control the weather, and can indeed move about in the sunlight! Makes him a bit more threatening huh? The narrative is told through a series of diary entries, logs and newspaper articles, a modern approach which took me by surprise! Well worth checking out.
Oh, poor Carrie. Stephen King's first published novel tells the story of Carrie, a young girl with the gift of telekinesis, tormented by her classmates and her overzealous mother as she is pushed to her breaking point. King's novel offers so much more in regards to character background as well as the internal dialogue of the titular character, helping us to understand her power and the tepid fear that comes with it, making her story all the more tragic. Also, the destruction Carrie inflicts within the book far exceeds that shown in the film, making her vengeful rampage all the more satisfying. This tale is iconic for a reason: mal-alignment touches us all at one point or another.