What We Can Learn From A Nightmare I Had Last Night

Normally most of us try to forget our nightmares, especially the more distressing ones, and I’m no different. But after a particularly vivid nightmare last night, I decided to instead remember it and see what nuggets of writing wisdom could be unearthed.

In the nightmare, I was in a future where poverty, suffering, and desperation was out of control in the United States (in other words, the present-day). But in this nightmare future, kidnapping is a frighteningly common occurrence, and I was only the latest victim. I was kept inside this grungy, run down house by a group of young 20 somethings who didn’t see me as a person but as a product to be used, sold, or traded. Thankfully, I managed to sneak out of the house and tried to run to freedom, including going through the backyard of a house owned by a bear and asking her for help. However, when I was being pursued and realized there was no way to escape, I used the back button on an internet browser to go back in time so I was back at the house to try and figure out a smarter way to escape.

Then, to make matters worse, I was shown why all this suffering was so commonplace: the kidnappings were done in such a way that if you resisted your captors or tried to escape, they responded by digging out your eyes, cutting off your limbs, then digging out your ears, ripping out your teeth, then your tongue, and finally tearing off your nose so you would become little more than a living sex toy to be used however rich people wanted to use you. It was no wonder so many people just meekly went along with whatever their captors wanted.

But it wasn’t just what happened to individuals: the kidnappings were all being orchestrated by an unspeakably powerful gang that was making headroads into the United States, and threatened all members of law enforcement that the fate of being turned into a blind, deaf, mute, and crippled sex toy was what would happen to their loved ones if they tried to stop the gang in each city they went into, and the gang had the power and ability to do so, meaning it was not an idle threat. Against such malevolence, police and federal law enforcement were all but powerless… and that’s when I woke up, thank God.

What did the nightmare do well?

It used the ‘If you try anything we will harm your loved ones’ trope to devastating effect

It may be used time and time again in countless stories, but there is no faster way to make a good character capitulate to evil than by having evil threaten his or her loved ones with horrific suffering. That taps into our deep-rooted desire for our loved ones to be safe, and the terror of something awful happening to them. While simple, it’s always a devastatingly effective storytelling tool (and an excellent way to make your audience eager to see the villains get their equally horrific comeuppance).

It showed evil as cold and indifferent

It’s easy to imagine evil as smug, cruel, and enjoying tormenting people. But the other side of flashy, smug evil can be equally frightening, if not more so: The kidnappers I faced in the story didn’t care about me or my feelings. They were unaffected by screams, pleas for mercy, threats, and begging. To them, captives were just products, and using torture didn’t bother them at all. They were indifferent to human suffering.

That kind of evil is, in my opinion, more frightening because we expect people to be swayed by emotions, even if it’s only to be more cruel and to laugh at our pain and suffering. But people who aren’t moved are like aliens or robots in human flesh: they may look normal, but we realize that something about them is wrong, and we instinctively fear them because they’re unpredictable and could do anything to us without any warning. They are like spiders, always watching you, never betraying any emotions, waiting to strike when you least expect it, and when they do, it’s unexpected and overpowering. At least with people who relish watching you suffer, you know what to expect and can try to prepare. But with these people? You can’t.

Cold and impersonal is the opposite of smug and selfish. Both work in different circumstances, but in my opinion the former is more frightening.

It threatened the protagonist with a fate worse than death

While death is often seen as the ultimate bad ending, there are fates far, far worse: Does spending decades as a limbless, blind, deaf, mute, and helpless living sex toy sound like fun to you? In any case, threatening a character with such a fate is a quick way to show that the antagonists aren’t messing around.

What could be done to improve the nightmare?

The bear could have had more characterization

The bear I encountered was a fascinating individual, as it was a single mother, had a house, and dressed in human clothes. Clearly, it was an intelligent being who was able to hold down a job and afford a house, but when it saw me and heard my pleas for help, it did nothing but stare at me with its stupid bear-face. The nightmare missed out on the chance to show what it would be like to interact with an intelligent, talking animal, but instead chose to do nothing. How lazy.

There was no explanation how time travel worked

In an otherwise rational, logical, and cruel world, there was no dwelling on the fact that time travel was real, or how it worked. There wasn’t even an attempt to explain how pressing the back button on an internet browser allowed me to reverse time and only have me be the one to realize it. What a disappointment.

Conclusion

Though there were some missed opportunities with regards to the bear’s characterization, and being able to time travel using the back button on an internet explorer was out of place in such an otherwise consistent and grim world, the nightmare did an amazing job showing how indifference can be terrifying, and how threatening ourselves and our loved ones with a fate worse than death is evil’s greatest and most powerful tool. That being said, I wouldn’t recommend revising this nightmare, as it really wasn’t fun to watch or experience. I’d recommend something like this instead.

What we can learn from ‘The Thing’ (the 2011 prequel)

TheThing2011Cover

How do you create a follow-up to a classic film? Do you remake it? Do a sequel? A prequel? Or do you do the sensible thing and leave it alone, not daring to possibly negate or tarnish its reputation with a dud that fails to take off? If there’s money to be made at the box office, you can bet it’s not going to be the latter.

John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ is a horror classic, it’s simple, but effective story of isolation, paranoia, and one of the most terrifying (and disgusting) monsters from beyond the stars ensuring its cinematic immortality. Unfortunately, the 2011 prequel, ‘The Thing’ didn’t have the impact its predecessor did. Like many others, I was looking forward to seeing how almost thirty years of development and advances would affect the mechanical creatures on screen, only to be crushed at seeing all the practical effects be painted over with CGI ‘enhancements’. Eight years on, and the film has slipped into obscurity, seemingly fated to be seen only during series marathons, remembered as a noble but failed effort to live up to its predecessor.

However, while the film does have its share of problems, its clear that the filmmakers were great fans of the Carpenter original, and poured their hearts into creating a worthy side story to the ‘82 film. With that in mind, let’s see what we can learn from this chilly tale of Antarctic horror.

When doing a prequel, avoid making it a remake of a previous film

Writer Eric Heisserer had a daunting task when it came time to write ‘The Thing’: While a prequel was the most logical way to go (so as to avoid spoiling the original film’s ambiguous ending), the 2011 ‘Thing’ feels almost like a remake instead of a standalone story: it follows most of the same beats and ideas as the original movie, complete with figuring out that testing blood will reveal who’s a Thing and who isn’t (though the film cleverly subverts this by having the title creature destroy the testing equipment shortly after the realization is made). While there are substantial differences between the two films – such as heading inside the UFO – I couldn’t help but feel like I was watching a modern-day version of the ‘82 film.

When doing our own prequels, consider mixing things up to avoid feeling like we’re watching a disguised copy of what’s come before: If you’re doing a slasher prequel, consider having only a few victims instead of many. Instead of having one villain, consider having two (found one creature in the ice? Perhaps there was a second one nearby that thawed out after the Norwegians recorded themselves excavating the first). The more you mix things up, the easier it is to avoid the feeling of ‘been there, seen that’.

When doing a prequel, ask if it’s a story that really needs to be told

As noted above, a prequel was logically the only way to add to the ‘Thing’ mythos that didn’t touch the previous film, but the cost of making a prequel is that there’s no longer any mystery of wondering what happened at the Norwegian base. As Youtube user LittleJimmy points out in his excellent analysis of the film, when we originally watch the 82 film, our imaginations race into overdrive wondering what happened when MacReady walks through the building’s burnt husk. Mine did when I first saw the film, wondering what on earth caused such carnage, death, and mystery, but the 2011 film removes that mystery, and what we get in return, as noted above, doesn’t feel all that different or substantial.

When writing a prequel to a story, ask yourself if it adds additional depth to the mythology of your series. Is it a story that manages to be standalone from the original? And, more importantly, would knowing what happens in your prequel enhance or take away from what happened in the original story? Would it add to mysteries, or take them away, leaving nothing to keep our curiosity engaged?

Consider revealing some new aspects about a monster (but not everything)

One thing the 2011 Thing does well is add more layers to the title creature by revealing that it cannot duplicate inorganic matter when assimilating someone, which makes for a reliable way to tell if someone is human or not, and even helps settle the ambiguous ending of the original film (if Childs still has an earring, then he’s definitely human… unless he’s a Thing that remembered to put an earring in).

The second reveal is a bit more subtle: in the original film, the Thing preferred stealth and staying out of sight unless it was attacked, while in the prequel, it’s much more aggressive and attacks others frequently. While this may seem like a contradiction, many Thing fans like myself theorize that the creature learns from its experiences in this film and is more quiet and subtle in the original after learning that running around and giving inhuman shrieks is not the best idea.

In our own stories, consider using a prequel to a monster story as a chance to add more depth and history to your monster. However, be cautious not to give away too much about the beast: the prequel smartly doesn’t tell us if the form found in the ice was the Thing’s original form, or just another creature it had assimilated. Nor does it tell us if it’s the pilot of the spacecraft, a passenger, or something else, leaving its origins and motives a mystery.

Consider having your victims be awake, aware, and helpless during a scene of body horror

While the original film is rightfully seen as a masterpiece of body horror, the prequel does surpass it one way: it shows how horrifying and painful being assimilated can be. The first death in the film is nasty because it looks like Henrik is being sucked on like a lollipop while still alive; Adam is worse because he’s being physically fused with a Thing and can’t do anything about it, but it’s Jonas who has the worst death in the series: a tiny but impossibly strong Thing latches onto his mouth and seemingly chews away at his own, eventually causing him to merge with it, culminating with a shot of the poor man silently begging Kate to kill him. Yikes.

In our own stories, there’s arguably no quicker way to make your reader’s blood curdle by giving characters a horrible, slow death where they’re overpowered by something stronger than themselves and physically violated, all while being helpless to stop it, and suffering horribly throughout the process. However, it might be a good idea to limit these deaths, as while they’re powerful, they’re also too emotionally taxing to bear one after another.

Consider having your protagonist discover an antagonist’s last minute disguise and triumph over it

In horror stories, it’s common to have protagonists think they’ve triumphed over the monster or killer, only to realize at the very last second that they’ve actually failed, and that the evil force of the story has won. 2011’s ‘Thing’ comes very close to such an ending, but Kate, proving that she has an unparalleled knack for catching tiny details, realizes that ‘Sam’ is actually a Thing, and kills it, saving herself from being attacked and assimilated by it in the middle of nowhere.

In our own stories, a fourth-act reversal can feel like a tease or a cop-out (or, if your story is long, leave the audience saying, ‘Oh come on! It’s not over yet?!’), but if it’s a reversal where the villain wins, it can leave your audience feeling crushed, and knowing that everything the heroes went through was for nothing. 2011’s ‘Thing’ smartly subverts that trend and lets the audience realize both how close an antagonist was to succeeding at its goals, and that Kate is far more resourceful and observant than we thought before. Best of all, a reversal where the hero triumphs makes for a refreshing and satisfying ending.

Consider leaving your character’s fate up in the air

The original ‘Thing’’s legendary ending leaves the viewer wondering if Childs is a Thing, or human. While the prequel doesn’t have the ambiguity of wondering if the Thing is truly defeated or just badly hurt, it does leave the viewer wondering if Kate is going to survive. Considering that we last see her staring out the window of her snowcat, miles from help in the middle of the Antarctic night, her odds aren’t good as the film fades to black and the credits roll.

In our own stories, there are advantages of leaving a character’s fate open-ended. The biggest is leaving the audience free to decide for themselves what happens next, instead of a clear-cut downer or uplifting ending. I like to imagine that Kate decided to at least try to get to the Russian station, if only to warn them about what was found in the ice (which would explain why there’s no sign of her snowcat when MacReady and Copper find the UFO in the original).

Either way, leaving thing up in the air and letting your audience imagine what happens next is a great way to keep them engaged with the power of mystery and the unknown.

Consider ending your prequel with a direct tie-in to the original

One of the biggest pleasures of any prequel is the opportunity to do an ending that ties in with the opening moments from an original, classic story. ‘The Thing’ ends with Lars and the last surviving Norwegian get into a helicopter to chase the husky-Thing that arrives at outpost 31, seamlessly leading into the opening of the 1982 film, complete with Ennio Morricone’s classic theme playing in the background for the first time in the movie.

In our own stories, the biggest advantage to doing an ending that directly ties in to an original story is that your audience’s nostalgia for the original story will skyrocket to 11: They know what’s coming next, and being able to see the events that lead into those moments are a thrill.

The Takeaway

When doing a prequel to a story, avoid making it a disguised copy of what came before, and consider if it’s a story that will add to your mythology, or take away from the mystery and wonder of the original. If that story is worth telling, add new layers and information to the characters or world of the original, and if its a horror story you’re writing, try grossing and terrifying your readers by having a victim suffer a fate worse than death by having the be awake, aware, and helpless to do anything about it. And when your antagonist tries a last-minute escape or execution of his/her/its plan, have the protagonist realize what’s going on and stop them, and then having that protagonist face an uncertain future while your prequel then ratchets up the nostalgia value by directly tying into the beginning of your original story at the very end.