horror’s heritage: where the inspiration came from

Script writers seek inspiration in society to enhance popular storytelling

Adaptation is a cornerstone of horror, whatever the medium. The Shining, The Grudge, Psycho, and even The Exorcist all have their roots in writing. Aspects of these stories can be conduits for modern issues, adapting them to reflect the fears of contemporary audiences. As trying as 2020 has been, we have been brought a myriad of on-screen gems adapted from much-loved literature.

Lovecraft Country (2020)

HP Lovecraft, prolific writer of the weird and renowned creator of an entire subgenre of horror fiction, died in poverty at age 46. Most of his writing was dismissed by his contemporaries as pulp, and failed to gain any notable respect until after his death in 1937. The author’s fiction has endured as one of the most influential bodies of work in the horror genre, in spite of the controversy surrounding much of its content; his views on race were, and continue to be, the most criticised elements of his fiction. Spending much of his life as a staunch white supremacist, Lovecraft’s xenophobia perpetuated damaging stereotypes and contributed to the vilification of ethnic minorities.

In 2016, Mark Ruff gave a voice to the very people Lovecraft disparaged in his writing. His dark fantasy novel ‘Lovecraft Country’ focuses on a Black family’s experience of racism in 1950s America in conjunction with a world of Lovecraftian horror. The rampant discrimination and segregation in the US is horrifying enough as a backdrop for the novel, but is compounded by cosmic, monstrous terror. Earlier this year, the roots of the problematic author’s legacy burrowed deeper into the horror genre with the release of the series ‘Lovecraft Country’.

Developed for television by Misha Green and overseen by executive producers from the horror hall of fame, Jordan Peele (Get Out) and JJ Abrams (Cloverfield), the first series covers the whole of Ruff’s novel, meaning any subsequent episodes will be unmapped by literary footprints. Green saw the 2016 novel as a “beautiful jumping off point” for the series and endeavoured “to deepen the characters and the stories”. The interwoven narratives in the series speak to the intersectional experiences of America’s Black population, and the necessity of education regarding the country’s troubled history.

In one chilling scene, the two protagonists find themselves in a sundown town, a place unsafe for Black people to be after dark. Although such things have largely been left in the past, the worrying truth that “for many Black Americans, the difference in freeway exits or a redirection of routes can be a matter of life and death” is a reflection of modern sentiments concerning racial tension in the US. The cultural significance of reimaginings like Lovecraft Country perhaps supersede their sources of inspiration; it may be Lovecraft’s world, but the last word belongs to the people now living in it.

The Haunting of Bly Manor

Mike Flanagan is no stranger to adapting beloved books, having made two of Stephen King’s most famous stories into popular films. The writer-director’s much anticipated follow up to ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ (itself inspired by Shirely Jackson’s novel of the same name) was released this month, terrifying viewers across the world. ‘The Haunting of Bly Manor’ is a story about finding a family you choose and a love that surprises you, punctuated by past trauma and insidious secrets.

By Joanna Davies: Literature Columnist

Although bound together by Flanagan’s artful storytelling, the revered creator owes much of his show’s spookiness to Henry James and his 1898 novella, ‘The Turn of the Screw’. Many of the basics remain the same; a naive governess is charged with the care of two children whom she believes are being controlled by the malevolent spirits of their previous carer and her lover.

‘The Haunting of Bly Manor’ makes no secret of its spectres; we aren’t left wondering whether they were figments of a fraught mind, an ambiguity central to James’ psychological thriller-turned-ghost story. Central to Flanagan’s reimagination on the other hand is the inclusion of stories close to the hearts of a modern audience: an LGBT romance, the implication of unfulfilled dreams and the conquering of personal demons. Many adaptations have attempted to recapture the terror of James’ novella, but it is the embracing of an individual’s fears and desires that raises the stakes of Flanagan’s vision of Gothic horror. Despite some downright terrifying moments, the overarching themes are hope, love and sacrifice, making it a “Gothic romance” in his own words. Far from being saccharine, he claims that in James’ Gothic world “romance held buried secrets, supernatural agony, and the sense of encroaching doom. Gothic romance, it turns out, has teeth.”

The Invisible Man

You many have seen Elisabeth Moss in the “Handmaid’s Tale”, an adaptation of Margaret Attwood’s revolutionary novel. But this year she brought to life Cecelia, a desperate escapee of an abusive marriage, hounded by her obsessive husband Adrian. Leigh Whannell’s electrifying film is a retelling of the HG Wells short story of the same name, published in 1897. Using the bare bones of Well’s story that narrates an experiment gone wrong and a scientist gone mad, Whannel’s antagonist can choose to be invisible by way of a suit he made which he uses to psychologically torment his wife.

As the story unfolds, Adrian’s twisted vendetta against Cecelia (who doesn’t exist in Well’s story) mutates into a horrifying and frustrating tale of manipulation and terror. Whannell asserts it wasn’t his initial intention to explore these issues, but it quickly became the direction of the film: “It was during the writing of that first draft that I felt the movie drifting in this direction of gaslighting, domestic abuse, and women not being believed or feeling like there’s an unseen threat. It felt like it really fit his character naturally.” Being accused of a crime you didn’t commit is everyone’s worst nightmare, but for Cecilia, the horror she suffers is compounded by the disbelief of those around her and the impossibility of proving her innocence. In the wake of the #MeToo movement and the continued bravery of women speaking out, Whannel’s retelling has one foot in horror and the other firmly in reality.

Social and cultural context is inestimable when it comes to giving literature its legacy. It provides a reference point for the significance of stories and helps us understand why they were written. Adapting these stories to be a catalyst for provocative and meaningful entertainment is a triumph of modern horror and helps to keep our love of literature alive.

MACKAYAN: horrors heritage