Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Ouija: Origin of Evil and Explaining Horror

I went to see Ouija: Origin of Evil the other night (there was nothing else at that time and we couldn't be bothered waiting).

It was rubbish. An enjoyable and fairly tight set-up in the first two Acts (interesting 1960s backdrop, likable leads, vague hints at having something meaningful to say about death and grieving) was completely ruined by a very silly final Act which came out all guns blazing, complete with naff CGI and Exorcist rip-offs - the only rule appearing to be that if the possibility presents itself to try to make the girls in the audience scream then you should definitely do it.

I am going to spoil the film very slightly, but only very slightly, now, in the interests of making a wider point. If you are going to see it, skip the next paragraph. 

The film's major failing (apart from losing its nerve towards the end and basically abandoning all sense of narrative coherence and consistency in order to set things up for a sequel) seemed to me to be that the whole thing was explained: the reason for the haunting, the nature of the spirits doing it, their back story, and so forth. (As is so often the case, it was blah blah Nazism-related - wasn't that already old when Carrion Comfort came out?) Everything was made clear and mystery shattered.

This happens a lot in horror - the need to provide reasons. Probably the most egregious example for me is the way Thomas Harris was forced into developing a backstory for Hannibal Lecter (Nazism again), who was so effective a villain in Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs because he was simply inscrutably evil - almost like the devil in human form. There was no reason for it except that he was evil for evil's sake. There seemed something especially compelling about that - somebody who was perfectly sane and yet chose to be bad - so the explanatory backstory was particularly ill-judged.

It goes without saying that part of the reason why Lovecraft is so important is that he (sometimes - this gets overblown) eschewed explanations. Explanations render horror knowable and as soon as one gains knowledge of something the fear of it diminishes.

Put another way - the last thing a horror writer should be telling you about is the "origin of evil". No: what is of interest is the END PRODUCT OF EVIL. Cthulhu being traumatized by Nazis so that he becomes evil is not scary. Cthulhu coming to get you and you don't even know why: that is scary.


  1. Interesting. I agree, but I have the same feeling about Fantasy.

    Far too often, especially in RPGs, all the fantastic elements of Fantasy, from the source of a wizard's power to the existence of monsters, is explained. Often in detail. Sometimes in near pseudo-science detail. 'The Ecology of The Thing That Couldn't Possibly Exist' kind of detail.

    All that does is rob Fantasy of its wonder.

    I am not sure if you're following the new Dirk Gently BBC series, but [NOT REALLY SPOILERS BUT WARNING YOU ANYWAY] they set up a maddeningly intriguing and quirky world, then in the second episode - the second one - get dangerously close to telling you the secret origin of everything. In the second episode! What the hell man?

    Most people, it would seem to me, are deathly afraid of not knowing. So afraid they need to look it up instantly on Google with their phone, read the adventure ahead of time, and explain the fun out of everything.

    Sadly, this includes the creators as much as their audience.

    1. It's a lot best if the authors don't explain stuff but it's maddening when it's really obvious they're making it up as they go along. Much better for them to know and not tell you, keeps things more consistent.

    2. "Most people, it would seem to me, are deathly afraid of not knowing."

      this matches my own experience as well. sometimes i am "most people", too. ;)

  2. Interestingly, I saw Kurt Vonnegut speak at my university, and he said pretty much the same thing when giving advise to young writers.

    DON'T spend your first chapter telling us why your bad-guy is bad (troubled childhood, etc.), just make him bad and everyone will be thrilled that he is.