Thoughts on writing terror using Jaws and Alien as reference

I’ve been doing more writing than drawing lately.

Though I thoroughly enjoy writing for children I also have a keen interest in ghost stories and more adult literature. As a reader i’ve loved the works of King, Barker et al. When I was younger I read Koontz and Herbert. All contemporaries and a huge influence on my creative style.

My own writing style leans more toward that of Lovecraft or M.R. James. Writing in the first person is something I find more comfort with. But I also love the idea of building tension around a concept that places the reader firmly in the point of view of the protagonist.

I drew these earlier.

witch3witch1 witch2

There’s a story here. An old woman, accused of witchcraft, burned at the stake. But she had the last laugh and returned to claim her accusers as victims.

A familiar formula for a horror story but something I wanted to add my own spin to.

So I found myself with a simple concept and a ‘monster’. But how to make that monster most effective? How to build terror without actually revealing the monster?

I looked to film and chose Jaws and Alien. Popular films classed not necessarily as horror but unmistakably horrific in their execution.

Both had similarities – victims falling to an attacker that is considerably more comfortable in their environment than their prey. I loved this dynamic.

In order to defeat the shark in Jaws the protagonists had to enter the shark’s domain; the ocean. Worse still the shark is the most adept killer on the planet and the Great White shark the ultimate deep sea predator. There’s an enormous sense of mystery about the shark and the sea provides that perfect barrier between ‘us’ and ‘it’.

Above the waves we stand a chance but once we’re in the water our chances are reduced considerably.

The Xenomorph in Alien presents a similar threat. A perfectly adept predator shrouded in mystery. Not only can it hunt with tremendous efficiency it also has a pretty handy defence mechanism – acid blood.

The alien stalks the cramped corridors of the Nostromo with ease. When it needs to it can also navigate its way through the ventilation chambers. As with the shark it surprises its prey and dispatches them quickly and brutally.

Both films give us clues both visually and audibly.

In Jaws we have the inevitable dorsal fin cutting the waves and, of course, the remarkable soundtrack. In Alien we have the clever dynamic of the motion sensor which gives us both a visual and audible representation of the alien’s location.

Reacting and fleeing from both scenarios seems futile. Rather a case of ‘when’ not ‘if’ you are going to be attacked. But crucially it’s the ‘how’ you’re going to be attacked that presents the biggest chill.

In both cases you’re attacked by teeth. The shark in Jaws is essentially an enormous mouth of teeth that swims. In Alien the attack comes from a ludicrously telescopic maw. Horrendous.

For my own story I’ve taken some of these dynamics and interpreted them. The predator’s environment is a dark place. The predator’s eyes were burned out such that her sense of hearing is perfect. If you make the slightest sound she’ll be onto you. If you’re unfortunate enough to fall into her lair you’ll need something to light your way or tripping, stumbling and making a noise are inevitable.
Of course the predator is blind so shining a light is no problem. But that also allows us to get close to revealing our monster without there being any threat. That in itself is chilling for one wrong move and the protagonist becomes the prey in an instant.

The nature of the attack in my story also involves teeth. But it doesn’t leave the victim fighting for their life. It merely blinds them. This is where I can introduce the potential for a secondary threat – dogs. Rabid ones at that. With no sight the victims are easy prey.

I like the notion of this two-tiered threat. One hunter paralyses you and the other finishes you off.

The former attack I’d likely reveal but the latter may be purely dealt with as suggestion. It is after all far more horrific to the modern audience to be attacked and blinded than to be devoured by animals – a ten-a-penny shock.

So this writing continues. I take myself away for a well earned short break next week where I’ll be putting more work into the story.