Dark Obsessions: Finding Inspiration in My Favorite (Unwatched) Horror Films
Sometimes the idea for book is born out of a newspaper article I skim in an airport. Sometimes it comes from witnessing a friend’s nasty divorce. And sometimes it lurches to life when I ask a friend too many questions about an article in Fangoria magazine he’s just read that describes the plot of a movie we’re both too chicken to see. That’s how my new novel, Bone Music, was born.
I can’t bring myself to watch gory fright flicks. If a movie’s just two hours of characters getting tortured continuously, forget it. I’m out!
That is, until I end up on Wikipedia reading detailed plot synopses of said film while gooseflesh coats my body and my heart races like I’ve downed a glass of Red Bull with an adrenaline chaser. I’m not alone. Apparently, this compulsion has become so common that a journalist recently profiled a bunch of folks who have it. We’re a special class of pop culture consumers. We can’t bring ourselves to look when the bones start to snap because we’re too busy rushing home to read about it.
What motivates us? I’m not exactly sure. Maybe it’s just the adrenaline rush of fear.
Maybe it’s an endurance test.
Or maybe we’re hypocrites who cloak our obsession with “torture porn” in performative anguish.
Gosh, I hope not.
Whatever the answer, the end result usually leaves us worse off than if we’d just watched the damn movie. For anyone with a shred of imagination, a written description of a terrifying moment is far more upsetting than any scene on film. Our minds don’t fill in the blanks with cherry-red fake blood, for one, and there’s no hope of spotting the ragged rubber edge of a fake limb so you can whisper to yourself calmly, “It’s all fake, see?” Brains don’t need special effects to make nightmares. Making nightmares is a big part of what brains do.
The Internet isn’t the only source of my addiction. As soon as someone in my life admits to having seen one of the dreaded films on my Oh Hell No, Never Watching That list, I interrogate them relentlessly. I once spent most of a romantic, candle-lit date encouraging my dinner companion to describe every harrowing, gruesome plot twist at the end of Hostel II. (spoiler alert: they’re really gross.) When I got the opportunity to interview one of the stars of the aforementioned gore-fest, my friend Heather Matarazzo, on my podcast The Dinner Party Show with Christopher Rice & Eric Shaw Quinn, I grilled her for a good twenty minutes about what it took to film her blood-soaked death scene. The answer? Courage. She had to be suspended fifteen feet above a concrete floor, upside down inside a harness, and without a mat.
Yes, she was really scared. And it showed.
Apparently. I wouldn’t know.
I won’t watch the film, you see.
And so, over ten years ago, my friend started telling me about this terrifying new movie he’d been reading about in Fangoria magazine, and I found myself absorbing every word with an intoxicating blend of fascination and alarm: an addict catching the scent of his favorite poison. I knew if I asked him for more details, one of the more disturbing ones might get stuck in my head for weeks. But my heart was racing, and I could feel a familiar tingle in my neck.
I have to know, I thought. I’ll never watch, but I still have to know!
Temptation won out in the end.
And that’s how I first heard about the reverse bear trap in Saw.
If you don’t know what the reverse bear trap in Saw is, I’m going to spare you that information. Instead, I’ll tell you that for the following year—all right, three years!—my every other thought was about the reverse bear trap from Saw.
- I’ll tell you this, too. It’s a horrifying device that visits a terrible fate upon its victim unless that victim does something equally terrible to get free of it. (This is essentially the premise of the entire Saw franchise, according to the Wikipedia entries.)
After a few months of my discussing the reverse bear trap from Saw as if it were something I might actually run into if I rounded a corner too fast, my dark obsession had stretched the patience of just about everyone in my life to the limit. My best friend, Eric Shaw Quinn, finally said, “Just go and see the film because whatever’s in it can’t be half as bad as what you’re imagining!”
I didn’t take his advice. Instead, during a solo drive from Los Angeles to Palm Springs, I remembered something my aunt Karen had told me years ago. After she’d watched a disturbing TV movie with a particularly dark ending, she comforted herself by imagining a sequel in which the most victimized character returned to get revenge.
That was it. That was my solution.
That’s what my mind needed, a woman who could kick the crap out of the reverse bear trap from Saw, causing the evil man who sprung it on her to wet his drawers in the process.
In that moment, Charlotte Rowe started to come to life.
She didn’t have a name yet, of course, and the book that would one day tell her story didn’t have a title. Also, it took me a hell of a long time to figure out just how she was going to acquire the physical strength necessary to tear herself free from a torture device with her bare hands. (Repeated wrong turns with aliens and spaceships led me to a series of creative dead ends. But all that’s fodder for another essay.) But for me, the vibrant, pulsing heart of Bone Music began to beat in that moment, the moment when my darkly obsessed mind developed an unquenchable thirst for a heroine who could swiftly reverse the power dynamics between deranged killer and victim right at the very moment when the reader thought the heroine was about meet a prolonged, grisly end.
For me, the ideas that stick around have this kind of resonant heartbeat to them. They might change shape over the years. Some set pieces might get switched with others. But at their core is a vibrant, almost primal need that arises out of my own obsessive and sometimes emotionally fraught navigation of pop culture. That’s how I invented a woman strong enough to horsewhip the fictional baddies I read about on Wikipedia. A woman strong enough to face down the worst of the worst. Not the terrorists—although she might go after them someday, too—but the pure sadists, the ones who delight in the screams of their victims, the ones whose real-life counterparts make us all afraid to drive alone at night.
A warning to them all.
Charlotte Rowe’s coming for you.
And she’s strong.
Author bio: Christopher Rice is the New York Times bestselling author of A Density of Souls, a recipient of the Lambda Literary Award, and a Bram Stoker Award finalist for his novels The Heavens Rise and The Vines. He is the head writer and an executive producer of The Vampire Chronicles, a television show based on the bestselling novels by his mother, Anne Rice. His newest book, Bone Music, is being published by Thomas & Mercer in March 2018.