The ‘Cellar Door’ Theory

18 Mar
What lurks behind the cellar door...

What lurks behind the cellar door…

I have a theory… well, ‘theory’ is rather a grand name for it. ‘Idea’ would be more apt. Maybe even ‘nonsensical notion’. Whatever.

It concerns types of horror, and how all of them can be created from the same setting, and it goes something like this…

Ok… well, imagine the scene. A big, old farmhouse, zoom in to the kitchen, a big, old fashioned farmhouse kitchen. A lady is sitting at a large wooden table. Maybe she’s reading a recipe, or shelling peas, or peeling potatoes. On the wall behind her is the door to the cellar. She’s listening to the radio as she works, a local country music station…

Picturing the scene?

She hears a noise, she pauses what she’s doing. All is quiet, apart from a country singer singing a sad song on the radio. She carries on doing what she’s doing. Another noise. This time she looks behind her. It sounded like it came from the cellar. Again, quiet, just the radio. Before she can carry on working, another, louder noise. This time she’s sure it came from the cellar. Her brow creases, she puts a hand to her mouth. What could it be?

Still picturing the scene?

She marks her place in the recipe book/puts down her paring knife/pushes aside the shelled peas – whatever it is she’s doing – and she stands up, frowning at the door. Maybe she was mistaken… but no, yet another noise. Her heart beats loud in her chest, her breathing quickens. She scolds herself for being nervous, it’s probably just a rat knocking over her pickling jars… She moves forward, she needs to check it out. After all, hasn’t she saved the small change from her housekeeping money to buy those jars? She approaches the door. A cold draught blows from under it, chilling her slipper clad feet. The doorknob is cool to her touch as she grasps it, ready to open the door…

Still in the scene?

She swallows. Her heart is racing. The radio DJ is talking about the unseasonably hot weather. She scolds herself again for being silly, smiles, turns the knob and pulls open the door….

…And what happens next depends on what type of horror you want to write. Or at least the type of horror for that particular story.

Did you get all geared up there, waiting to see what happens next?

Good, that’s the point. That’s the base for a horror, the suspense. What the suspense leads up to depends on the style that’s being aimed for by the author.

So she opens the door, and there’s…

A guy in a hockey mask with a chainsaw – teenage gore fest type horror.

Glowing yellow eyes, myriad sharp teeth, rancid breath, roar drowns out her scream – slightly more imaginative teenage gore fest type horror.

Nothing there but a cat on the bottom step – psychological, playing with your nerves until the real scare type horror.

Nothing there but a cat on the bottom step… but, she slips, falls down the stairs, knocks herself unconscious. The cat, a starving stray, starts to lick up the blood. Hunger getting the better of it, it nuzzles into her neck, eating its way through… – OMG, that could actually happen type horror.

Aliens living in her cellar who ask to borrow an extension cord to plug in and recharge their spaceship – comedic and silly type horror.

Of course, none of the above actually means anything, and the list of examples is unending. It’s just nice to waffle on about a theory once in a while. What an author wishes to write is their own affair, and how they go about it is their business. Horrifying and scary to some may be laugh-a-minute comedy to others. And vice versa.

Personally, I like the third example, though the fourth one has a certain appeal.

Write about what scares you, because then you’ll be able to inject a real sense of fear into the words. The unknown scares me the most. A serial killer with a chainsaw – a snarling monster, all teeth and claws – a malevolent spirit from the other side – an unimaginable horror from another planet – these are all tangible things. If they can be seen and touched, they can be dealt with – yes, they may scare the life out of you, but they’re all problems with an achievable solution.

For me, the actual walk to the cellar door would be the worst part, the most frightening. Until I’d opened the door and seen what I was dealing with, my mind would be supplying all sorts of different scenarios, and none of them would have happy endings. Once the door was open though, well, then I’d know the exact nature of my immediate fate and be able to make plans to deal with it. Or just run away.

Anyway, enough waffling.



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Posted by on March 18, 2014 in Writing


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