Sunday, January 20, 2008

Of Indian Burial Grounds and Killer Satellites

Ace makes this point in his review of Cloverfield:
Any explanation they could have provided would have been trite or stupid or both anyway, so what's the point?

You'd think Stephen King could figure this out after 35--no 45!--years.

The Overlook Hotel in The Shining? Indian burial ground. Pet Sematary? Indian burial ground. Tommyknockers? Haven't read it or seen the movie (did they make a movie out of it yet?) but I'm told it's that old Indian black magic yet again.

The ancient indian burial ground was such a cliché back in 1979 when Kubrick's movie version of The Shining came out, that grade schoolers were mocking it. King keeps trucking along, though, happily trotting that out as the "explanation" for whatever horror is being visited on his poor characters.

Speaking of trucking along: Maximum Overdrive? Army experiment gone wrong. The Mist? Army Experiment Gone Wrong. There are probably more but I haven't read much King since the early '80s.

And, of course, "the government" is the villain of other King novels, whether it be the army or a CIA type group or what-have-you. Who could forget Firestarter's evil "The Company"...or "The Business"...or maybe it was..."The Co-Op"..."The Shop"! That's what it was! ("The Shop" had a super-secret hideout with horse stables! That's right: The guys cleaning out the stalls had to be thoroughly vetted for mucking! But I digress.)

Explanations aren't always bad. In horror fiction, they can create atmosphere. Lovecraft formed a very suggestive background out of the snippets he put into his Cthulhu story. For horror movies (which are really quite separate from horror fiction in tradition and style) the explanation can serve as a plot hook.

In Nightmare on Elm Street, Freddy's roots as a pedophile provide a satisfying base for the attacks, and a hook for the heroine to ultimately escape him. (Said hook thoroughly trashed by the tacked-on ending designed to facilitate sequels. But that's another subject for another day.)

The horror movie Unearthed tries for meaningful explanation, both to sort-of explain the why and provide a hook for the heroine to kill the monster. It's not well handled but it's not tacked on.

There's a reference to satellite-caused radiation in Night of the Living Dead but it's never verified and comes as part of what would be inevitable discussion about causes on TV or radio. By contrast, Maximum Overdrive, which used the exact same explanation (killer satellites), does so as a groan-inducing tacked on post-script to an already groan-worthy film.

Someone (presumably King) had to sit down and say that, "Yes, this post-script makes the movie better. This will make sense of the previous 90 minutes of abuse we've inflicted on the audience." The audience will say "Oh! That wasn't as bad as we thought while we were watching it!"

The rule should be very simple to follow: If the explanation wouldn't matter to your characters in the course of the story, it won't matter to the audience either. Just skip it.


  1. I believe Tommyknockers was "alien threat" if I remember correctly (and yes, there's a movie or mini-series with Jimmy Smits as the main guy).

    Also, Maximum Overdrive wasn't a government experiment gone wrong, it was that the Earth passed through some sort of comet trail or something that brought machines to life.

    Still, I agree with the crux of your article about wrapping up the explanation in a trite, cliche'd package... But I think most folks are in it for the "quick fix"... they WANT that explanation... They need resolution (and answers).

    I think the best stories are those that stimulate one's own imagination.

  2. The movie version had a different ending which I have misremembered:

    At the end of the movie, a perfunctory title card strongly implies extraterrestrials were behind the homicidal machines as part of a preliminary invasion. The machines are stopped and the invasion ends with the destruction of a UFO by a Soviet "weather satellite" equipped with nuclear missiles and laser cannons.

    The quotes around "weather satellite" crack me up every time.

    He was so sincere, too. He did his own commercials, "I'm going to scare you to death!"


    That's just setting yourself up for a big pratfall, I'm afraid.


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