Nightmare Royale #3: And Now The Screaming Laughter Starts! (When Your Horror Goes Horribly Wrong)Books/Art/Culture,Columns,John Skipp's Nightmare Royale (On Making Horror Better),News John Skipp
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery – and it is – then mockery is the sincerest form of saying fuck you.
These are flip sides of the same coin. That coin is known as caring.
If you love something – like, for example, the horror genre – then you want it to be great. You’re pumped for it. You want it to deliver on its promise, give you its version of the experience you signed up for when you bought the book, showed up at the theater, or popped it on the screen at home.
I personally like to walk in with great enthusiasm, but as few expectations as possible, cuz I find that expectations are counter-productive. As in all human interaction: if I’m thinking of what I wanna say next, or what I wish you were saying – instead of listening to what you actually say – then I’m not really hearing you. I’m not giving you a fair shot. And that’s my bad.
I think a lot of us come in with great expectations. Which is the surest path to disappointment there is. So I try to shut my critical mind off in advance. Hope for the best. Prepare for the worst. Give ’em the benefit of the doubt, and just let them show me what they’ve got.
I find I have more fun that way. I’m more open to being blown away. Or to at least appreciate the effort of the people behind it.
But if you’re like me, you always know the point – in your reading or screening experience – when you realize you’ve walked in on a stinker, and can no longer take it seriously.
At which point, you are free to relax behind mocking it to death.
This is a natural human response, and often the only way to salvage the evening. As the late, great MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATRE 3000 – and its latter-day offshoots, RIFFTRAX and CINEMATIC TITANIC – clearly show, there’s something about dancing on the grave of somebody’s else’s crappy art that’s enormously satisfying .
It’s a joyous celebration of your own ability to recognize bullshit when you see it. It’s liberating to know that you don’t have to just sit there and take it, either. You can dish it right back, till the tears of laughter stream.
And in the company of other people who also ain’t buyin’ the bullshit?
HALLELUYAH! It’s a lot like church.
But also like church, it’s a celebration that is largely contingent on the nailing of sinners. We sing and dance because they suck, and we don’t, and our non-sucking brings us together as one.
Which is great, right up to the point that YOU step up out of the flock and try to create something of your own. Make your own mark on this horror field we love, and feel so much a part of.
Odds are good, at first, that you’ll attempt to imitate the people who inspired you. Hopefully, you’ll use them as a leaping-off point for the things that you’re personally dying to say.
But even more hopefully, you’ve listened and absorbed and understood how they did what they did – and WHY they did what they did, made the choices they made – so that the tools and inspiration they gave you are the weapons you’ll use to carve your own way into horror legend, one book or movie or short story at a time.
Bottom line: you have to make it your own, or you’re just a shameless flatterer, making pale imitations of the things you love.
And that’s where the horrible jeering laughter begins.
So let’s suppose that you put your ass on the line, and actually create a book or story or film or script or something. And then you go the extra mile, and actually put it out for the world to see.
Guess what’s going to happen?
1) If people think it’s good, they’re gonna like it.
2) If people think it’s great, they’re gonna love it.
3) If people think it sucks, they’re going to mock the living shit out of it.
And that’s just the way it goes.
Your only defense lies in not sucking. Which, in tactical terms, comes down to figuring how not to suck.
How not to make the same mistakes you’ve seen made a million times.
How to tell a story you care about, in ways that will engage your audience. (Also known as “us”).
How to find your own way to express those ideas, get across that love, passion, and pain..
So that we can all feel it, too, through the power of your work.
Obviously, this can be done, because other people before you have done it. Other people are doing it right now. And in the future, new people will be born, who will figure it out, and do it up like crazy for that next generation.
But you’re here now. And if you take this task upon you, you have officially entered the fray.
You are now up against everything that’s ever been written or shot on the subject. You will be compared, fairly or not, to everything else that has ever been done. You will stand or fall on the basis of other people’s experience or expectations.
In short, my friend: you are on your own.
But you know what? GOOD! Cuz that’s exactly where you need to be. On your own, or with your team of fellow pilgrims. Trying to do something cool, meaningful, or fun. And hopefully getting paid what you’re worth for it.
Doing something that other people will respond to, and find worth paying for.
If you find yourself mocked – and you will, if anyone notices at all, believe me – my advice is to listen carefully for any and all words of wisdom. Personal takedowns and generalized bile are cheap shots, aimed at nothing but hurt, and often motivated by pettiness and jealousy, not love. You can’t take that ugly nonsense personally if you want to survive.
But remember, we mostly mock out of love.
Which is to say: we call bullshit because – in our heart of hearts – we just want it to be good. It doesn’t seem like too much to ask. And if you’re not delivering the goods, you need to look into it. Learn your lessons. Improve. Keep playing until you’re as good as the game.
That’s how your heroes did it.
That is, quite simply, how it’s done.
And remember that even the best horror ever made got pissed on by someone. There’s just no pleasing some people. And as I suggested in the last column, we’ve all got different tastes.
In conclusion, I want to salute everyone with the balls and/or ovaries to take a shot at making nightmare greatness. You’re the future. Without you, it all dries up. And nobody wants an old, dried-up genre.
Now GO KICK ASS! We’re all rootin’ for ya!
And if it sucks, I’m sure someone will be more than happy to let you know.
Yer pal in the trenches,
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P.S. – Last call on “The Choreography of Violence”, my rigorous two-week online workshop for writers, which starts this Thursday, May 9th. We’ve still got a couple slots left. So if you want to hone your action chops for razor-sharp, bullet-fast, wrecking ball impact, BETTER SIGN UP FAST!
Otherwise, see ya next month!
And may all your horrors be worthy.