I’ve never been especially squeamish. A trip to an abattoir only made me hungry and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre leaves me cold. In fact, a lot of what’s labelled “horror” just comes across as nasty, brutal and short on much intelligence.
So I recently set myself the challenge of writing something spooky, and in the process tried to understand how spookiness is done. (Whether what I wrote is successful you can judge for yourselves later in the year...)
It’s not the splatter and spray of gore that freaks the audience so much as the spooky idea. The scariest bit in Halloween is not the teenagers being torn limb from limb but the moment Jamie Lee Curtis runs to her neighbours’ and they coolly ignore her plea for help. It’s the easy way they condemn her, the casual, banal meanness...
It’s not horror films and telly that appeal so much as disquieting ones. So I love the old BBC adaptations of MR James stories – and have recently reread a whole bundle of the originals. (It’s weird how varied his style can be. The Rose Garden is a comedy of aspirational manners, like a David Nobbs sitcom with an added angry ghost.) I love the shiversome unsettlingness of the silent, child ghosts in Lost Hearts and the simplicity of the adaptation of Dickens’ The Signalman, where our only cue is the increasing botheredness of Denholm Elliot.
These things often depend on us waiting for weirdness to happen: Don’t Look Now and The Wicker Man are both about the anticipation of something awful (and then the delivery is a surprise). They often rely on performance – good quality actors carrying the lack of budget: Mawdryn Undead terrified me as a kid, all down to how David Collings plays it. And they often hinge on beautifully simple idea: the Buffy episode Hush achieves something like that bit in Halloween when a freshman can’t call for help.
So last night’s Doctor Who was, I thought, spectacular. A simple idea expertly spooled out, where the reaction of ordinary humans is just as spooky as the alien monster. Well done Mr T Davies OBE. I hope Steve Moffat employs you in future.
I even dared to suggest to the Dr that Midnight was Doctor Who as scripted by Dennis Potter.
“Minus,” she said, “an unhealthy obsession with breasts.”
No, but you can’t have everything.