Monday 29 December 2014

The Scabrous Eye of the Beholder

A few days back, I rewatched the 90s anthology-style horror movie Darna Manaa Hai. I'd seen this before during college and had liked the film quite a bit. Like many others, I'd also ranked the stories in it in order of quality and 'horrorness'. I'd come to the conclusion that the first story, with Arbaaz Khan and Antara Mali, was the only true 'horror' story there. The others were just weird stuff that wasn't effective in scaring the audience. People turning into apples? Some guy picking off teenagers with the predictability of a chronograph? Everything was either cliched or just not scary.

I had a different experience when I watched it again. Perhaps the difference was because I was reading some crime fiction beforehand, or maybe because it was my first horror movie in a very long time. But the movie felt a lot more visceral, a lot scarier and gruesome, than the first time around. This in spite of knowing the entire story, down to certain dialogues, beforehand.

Typically you'd expect the reverse to be the case. As you get older, you consume a lot more media of the genres you enjoy, and you get more jaded. Therefore things don't frighten you as easily. You need heightened stakes: similar to the way action movie sequels increase the stakes in every sequel. Part 1 - oh, no, everyone in an office building is in danger! Part 2 - oh, no, everyone in an airport is in danger! Part 3 - oh, no, everyone in an entire city is in danger! (I didn't watch parts 4 and 5, but I expect the entire world is in danger there. Yippee-Ki-yay!)

The same would apply for people who have spent their entire lives immersed in a genre. Joe Hill is an awesome example. His first book, 20th Century Ghosts, features situations that are a step up from anything his father wrote, besides expecting you as the reader to have been reading this sort of horror story for ages.

When you're immersed in a genre, you tend to discount the impact that the genre has on a newcomer. I remember reading one of Janet Evanovich's Kinsey Millhone books. There the story had a serial killer in the past, someone who's buried a bunch of people in cement under a house. The funny thing was, no one, including Kinsey, felt any sort of shock at the whole thing, as if serial killers are par for the course. If there'd been a serial killer in, say, a science fiction or a 'serious lit' novel, it would have overshadowed everything else. Here it's kind of expected since it's a crime fiction novel.

The same thing happened to me with Darna Manaa Hai this time. My mindset was that of a 'normal' fiction/movie consumer, and suddenly I have schoolteachers going nutso, the aforementioned people-to-apples, ordinary teenagers getting cut up. The movie scared me more than expected.

It makes you wonder: as a writer or director, do you focus on the 'normal' audience or the 'tuned-in' audience? It's probably really difficult for write for the normal audience, since how much more 'tuned-in' can you get than actually creating something in the genre?

That's the game, really. Write a book for the 'normal' audience, and make sure your characters are 'normal', i.e. they are affected by the events in the book the way a real person would be. Any other route is basically resorting to cliche.

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