Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Mechanics of Horror

No, not really scary guys who fix cars for Dracula but the "hows" and "whys" of the horror world. And I also don't mean that persnickety shit where know-it-alls ruin everyone's fun by complaining about something being physically impossible in a supernatural story, like a vampire not reflecting in a mirror, which is, yes, impossible because the reason you can see the vampire is because lights reflects off of him and if your eyes can see that reflected light so can a mirror. But, you know, it's a vampire and the mirror reflects the soul and we all get that when watching Dracula.

I'm talking about the actual mechanics of how something works within the logic of the story itself. Let's take a look at three horror staples and ask a question of each in the hopes of understanding their inner workings a little better.

For starters, how does a vampire suck out the blood? Seriously. Usually, when we see the results of a vampire attack, it is as pictured above. A couple of bite marks and some drops of blood. But does that mean the vampire is sucking it out through his teeth? Because, if not, the neck should be a lot messier. If the vampire is biting into the neck, to get the blood flowing, and then sticking his mouth over the gushing to lap it down, there should be blood smears all over the neck or, at the very least, a big-ass hickey where the sucking took place. Personally, I think vampires have fangs that act as straws. Much like a snake has ducts that spew venom, the vampire has ducts, either within the teeth themselves or just above them, that suck the blood out neatly and cleanly. It would seem the wisest evolutionary move for an animal reliant upon such feeding to waste as little blood as possible.

Now let's consider the werewolf. The werewolf is a person who, with the full moon, suffers a full DNA reworking and becomes a hybrid wolf/human. The werewolf then goes out and starts attacking. Why? Animals attack for two reasons: hunger and fear. Take a lion. It attacks prey when it is hungry and intends to eat it. It attacks a human wandering into its territory when it feels threatened. It never attacks because it's bored and feels like attacking before taking a nap. So a werewolf is attacking for one of those two reasons. Now, when a person knows they are a werewolf, they will often go to great lengths to keep themselves from being set loose so as to stop their murdering rampage. They will lock themselves up or ask someone else to in order to prevent the unthinkable. But might not a better plan be to stuff yourself silly before the transformation?

Let's say you know you're going to transform at midnight. Okay, buy a large roast, cook it up with some potatoes, eat the whole thing and maybe have an entire pie for dessert. Eat until you can, literally, put not one more morsel in your mouth. When you transform you will be sated and, perhaps, even a little sleepy. Hey, that's another idea! The night before the full moon, don't go to sleep. Stay up all night and then, the next evening, after you've been awake for 36 hours, eat that enormous feast of food and guess what? When the transformation happens you'll do what any other wild animal does in the same circumstances (or, for that matter, my cat): You'll roll on your back, pass out and snore like a gas-powered chainsaw running on a ten-gallon tank. You're not hungry and you're not afraid. Threat diffused.

Okay, now over to zombies. I assume they can smell a living human just a predator can smell its prey. This is why I don't think the scene in Shaun of the Dead would work, again, within the logic of the genre itself, where Shaun and the rest pretend to be zombies to get past the real zombies. I mean, if that works then it means zombies are literally just going by visual cues in which case, surely they would go after each other by mistake every now and then.

But maybe that's wrong. In 28 Days Later, the zombies don't detect Jim (Cillian Murphy) in the church until he speaks. If it all went by smell it seems like they would have detected him earlier.  But those zombies are more about rage anyway, not so much eating.  And zombies have been approached by so many different angles now, without a real primary source to sort out the rules.  We've got plenty of old zombie movies as well as the one that gave us the modern zombie, Night of the Living Dead, but there is no original source novel, written in the late nineteenth century, that serves as a guide for the development of all future zombie tales.  It really is an open-source kind of sub-genre, which probably accounts for the haphazard inundation of zombie material these last several years.

There are many other horror staples that may have multiple "hows" and "whys" attached to each and it's an interesting way to think about each sub-genre more deeply, looking for answers that help us understand the nature of the beast just a little bit more.  And now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go eat a massive meal and pass out in front of a movie.  What's that?  Werewolf?  Nope, just a slob.


Pax Romano said...

Great post!

I think the zombie is attracted to movement...that theory was first advanced in Night of the Living Dead (1990), when Barbara realizes that she could escape just by walking past the zombies ("they're so slow"). If memory serves, Romero scripted the 1990 remake, and since he cooked up the modern movie zombie, I buy it.

But I love the werewolf hypothesis. It makes perfect sense.

Greg said...

Pax, thanks! I like to think that theory of zombies is correct, too, I suppose. They're like little t-rexes, waiting for movement, or a light to go on, to make their move.

P.S. - I test out that werewolf hypothesis often, just in case I ever need to do it for real. Anyway, let me tell you, it works!

Dane said...

Pax is right, great post. And if I ever turn into a werewolf, I'm going to take your advice; hell, I kind of do that on any given night anyway.

Your theory about vampires is also brilliant.

Greg said...

Thanks, Dane! And, yeah, if I were a werewolf I would so look forward to each month's full moon because I'd finally have a moral reason to eat a two-gallon serving of macaroni and cheese instead of just, you know, I'm bored and I'm going to eat a two-gallon serving of macaroni and cheese. If I were a werewolf, I'd actually be saving people by doing that. Win/Win.

Christopher said...

theres a nerve on the neck halfway between the ear and the bottom of the neck,where if breathed on just right creates a tingly paralyzing sensation.I believe Drac knows just where to blow to keep his victims still and from giggling and squirming and going "stop!..that tickles".

Greg said...

Drac knows all. I always assumed he was going after the carotid artery for the best possible blood flowing action.

SPEEDbit said...

We totally hear ya on the mechanics aspect. Especially in horror films..You seem to have a keen sense on the subject. Thanks for the great post..

JtB said...

I like the idea of the vampire biting with the teeth, then leaving a massive hickey in a beastly act of sucking. The snake, remember, is delivering a small amount of liquid through the teeth into a body. For the vampire to suck blood in this way, it would have to have some kind of esophageal plumbing that would conduct the blood, presumably to the stomach. In order to do this, it would either need a second heart or maybe the previously human heart is re-purposed for this in the process of becoming a vampire. But this involves growth. Can undead creatures grow?

Arbogast said...

My wife, who is no fan of horror per se, is often frustrated that monsters in movies don't really do what they seem to be made to do. In Jose Larraz' Vampyres, the girls just sort of lap at the blood, which reflects less their innate, undying thirst than the distaste of the actresses with having to ingest (even a little bit of) cosmetic blood. Vampires should tear into their victims or latch tic-like, their mouths forming a vacuum lamprey seal. But they never do. The liberty with which modern filmmakers are allowed to make a sex act out of the vampire's bite has led to some very boring luxuriating-in-the-blood-like-it's-fricking-Calmay scenes, which reflects a waste of blood more than anything else.

Same with zombies. As I dragged Mrs. Arbogast to 28 Days Later some years ago she launched into a litany of complaints about zombie movies in which the undead effectively seem to be saying via their attacks "Ooh, let me bite a little bit of your shoulder... ooo, now let me bite a little bit of your leg..." Her mockery was, as usual, right on target, as zombie setpieces are too often a showcase of a special prosthetic effect rather than a honing in on what should be a gruesome inevitability.

Sometimes it takes an amateur to show us the true path.

Greg said...

I wish the "romantic" aspect of vampires had never happened. It's not there in Dracula though its been forced there since, especially in the Coppola version which turns it into a love story. What I like is the idea of a vampire like Dracula making an attempt to fit in with polite London society but failing, coming off as the dirty, swarthy outsider. Then, at night, he breaks into the bedrooms of the women who find him repulsive, tears into their neck like an animal and sucks and laps and slurps in all the gushing blood. In the morning, the whole room is one big, vile, bloody mess. That's the take on Dracula I'd like to see.

Fred said...

Regarding zombies, I never understood two things. First, they are decaying, so wouldn't they eventually continue to decay until all that is left is bone? And wouldn't the decay affect their ability to move, since the tendons and ligaments would all rot away, make movement all but impossible? So, instead of fighting them, you just wait them out until they have rotted away into nothing. Second, why do they need to eat? They're dead and their digestive systems are rotting, so I imagine the food would just sit in their gut rotting away with the rest of them.

As for vampires, maybe they drink the blood like ticks and mosquitoes, by pumping anti-coagulant into the wound and forcing the blood out through displacement? Wow, I guess I missed my calling as a fictional monster bioligist!