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Truly Frightening

[whitespace] Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child on the psychology of terror, evil real estate, and why 'The Haunting' isn't scary

By David Templeton


Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This column is not a review; rather, it's a freewheeling, tangential discussion of life, alternative ideas, and popular culture.

True. Psychological. Terror.

It is a phrase--spoken just like that, three distinct words: true; psychological; terror--that is used often by writers Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child.

As the authors of the best-selling books The Relic, Riptide, and the brand-new, very scary Thunderhead--all prime examples of modern edge-of-your-seat Scare-Lit--Lincoln and Child have always held true psychological terror in the highest regard. It's given them a nice legitimate profession. True psychological terror is the gift that these long-collaborating gentlemen so gleefully bestow upon a legion of white-knuckled fans. Not surprisingly, they now expect nothing less than true psychological terror from the movies and books they turn to for diversion and entertainment.

Which is why Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child were so damn disappointed by The Haunting.

Based on Shirley Jackson's 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House--filmed once already in 1963--this new version, directed by Jan De Bont (Speed, Twister), is jam-packed full of eerie noises and leaping skeletons and weird, floating ghosties, and yet, to quote Mr. Preston, "it's just not that scary."

Not. That. Scary.

The Haunting is the story of a scientist (Liam Neeson) and three jumpy insomniacs (Lili Taylor, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Owen Wilson) trapped in a big old house that was, as the advertisements say, "born evil." The 1963 version had audiences leaving their night-lights on for weeks. The script was tight and subtle. There were no special effects to speak of.

"Hollywood special effects," says Preston, "are ruining scary movies, because special effects are incompatible with true psychological terror. The more you show us--with state-of-the-art computer graphics and animatronics--the less frightening it is.

"For true psychological terror," he explains, "you need to see less rather than more."

"Absolutely," Child agrees. "Maybe it's just endemic of modern moviemaking, but it seems, in The Haunting, that the filmmakers tried to solve all their plot problems by throwing on the FX. If you're trying to elicit true psychological terror from your audience, that just doesn't work. You're showing too much."

For an example of this "less is more frightening" approach, check out Thunderhead (Warner Books; $25.95), a supernatural adventure about a team of archaeologists who uncover the lost Anasazi city of Quivira, a place of ancient evil (of course) that is guarded by, well--something you don't get a good glimpse at for a long, long time.

"What you don't see can definitely hurt you," says Preston, laughing. For further examples, the author tosses out a few of his favorite movies: Psycho. The Conversation. And especially, The Exorcist. "I was a basket case for six months after that one," he admits.

As for Child, the scariest movie he's seen is 1967's Wait until Dark.

"I was young when I went to see it," he tells. "I was with my mother. Near the end, there's this scene where the blind woman (Audrey Hepburn) is trying to get to the refrigerator, to turn it off so the light won't betray her presence to the killer--and suddenly this shadow comes leaping out nowhere with a knife. The whole audience screamed. And my mother suddenly thrusts me down to the floor of the theater and practically sits on me. I could hear Hepburn screaming and I could hear the music and the reactions of the audience--and I gotta tell you, from the floor it was a whole lot scarier."

Talk about true psychological terror.

Maybe The Haunting would have been better had somebody's mother come in and thrown us all to the floor once or twice. Now that would be scary.

"The movie wasn't all bad," Child interjects. "The house was great."

Yes it was. Inside and out, it looked evil. Which brings us to that notion of a house being "born bad."

"Is there any truth to the idea of evil geography? Can a piece of real estate really be intrinsically bad?" I ask.

"Well, for us, that idea--that geography can be evil--is a literary necessity," answers Child. "If the city of Quivira wasn't evil, it wouldn't be a Preston-Child story. But I do believe that certain places on the planet, places that have seen a lot of evil, can become imbued with a sense of that evil."

"I agree," says Preston. "I remember, last year, visiting the city of Chichen Itza, down in the Yucatan, and climbing the Pyramid of the Sun. The stairs of those Mayan temples are very steep, and the reason they're so steep is so that, after the priests have cut the limbs off their victims, they wanted the pieces to tumble all the way to the ground. So, I climbed up to the top of this temple, the place where all the human sacrifices were performed, and I have to say, it's a place where you can still feel the evil that went on there, you can sense the horror of what took place."

"I got the same feeling when I visited Dachau," says Child. "There's hardly anything left of it. Most of the buildings are gone. But the very sparseness of the spot, and the knowledge of what went on there, made that feeling of horror, that feeling of evil, very vivid.

"I didn't sleep well for a week," he adds.

"In Thunderhead," elaborates Preston, "a lot of the witchcraft describes is based on Navaho beliefs. The Navahos believe that the place where a person dies--if that person did not die gently as a respected, old person; if they suffered from an illness and died early, or died a violent death--then the 'Chindi' of the person, the evil essence of that person, remains in that spot. All the goodness of the person goes off to a better world, but the evil remains behind.

"That's why, when a person dies badly in a Navaho hogan, the family abandons the house. Sometimes, they even burn it to the ground."

"Evil, then, to speak the obvious, is a bad thing," I say. "We are upset and disturbed by the feelings of true terror that you described sensing in those real-life places. So why do we turn to scary books and movies for entertainment?"

No one answers for a moment.

"I think the theory is," says Child, "that if you can handle being frightened by some movie or book, then maybe you can handle being frightened by that lump under your skin or that mortgage bill at the end of the month."

"It's true. Book and movies allow us to practice being scared," Preston concludes, "so we're better equipped for the true psychological terrors of everyday life."

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Web extra to the August 5-11, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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