How to Breathe New Life Into Old Scares

A few years back I wrote an article called Horror Clichés in Need of an Exorcism . My premise was that superstitions erode over time. Horror authors can’t just conjure up the same old scares as their forbearers and expect them to work. The things that haunted older generations turn into clichés in the light of reason. Fears like razor blades in Halloween candy, the Satanic panic, and alien abductions all came with expirations.

Among the clichés my article targeted were Ouija boards. I thought it was common knowledge that Ouija boards depended on the subconscious movements of their participants, something known as the ideomotor effect, a phenomenon that’s been proven in lab conditions. I thought I spoke for the horror community when I asserted that spirit boards had no more scares left in them (of course I was wrong).

At the time I went to great lengths to design covers for my articles. That one featured me made up like the demon Pazuzu from The Exorcist. I couldn’t think of a great backdrop so I settled on a giant Ouija board.

Not long after I published the piece I got a DM from a Twitter user warning me to steer clear of those fabled Ouija boards. I told him to read the article to find out why he needn’t worry about me.

He DMed me back, “That’s funny and all, but seriously, don’t fuck around with those things.”

I didn’t know how to break it to him that I wasn’t playing the same role-playing game he was. The one he was playing required him to treat an alphabet on cardboard as a tool of the devil. Mine didn’t.

Here was a full-grown man who considered Ouija boards contraband. Part of me pitied him. Another more insidious part of me envied the hell out of him. Why? This man had retained a kind of childlike wonder that I’d never get back again. Maybe it wasn’t wonder but more of fear of some esoteric unknown. I wasn’t afraid of Ouija boards because I knew how the ideomotor effect worked. I’d seen it demonstrated and I’ve never been possessed.

Then that Ouija Board movie came out

I imagined going to that 2014 Ouija movie surrounded by spirit board believers like the one who messaged me with the ominous warning. I could hear them all shouting at the screen, “Don’t you dare touch that planchette! Don’t you dare ask it a question! Don’t you dare slowly spell out its response!”

I really thought Ouija boards were done, but here was Hasbro’s film division re-mystifying a party game for a new generation (yes Hasbro has a film division they also produced Battleship. They have a deal with Universal to make movies out of Candy Land and Monopoly as well. Not a joke. I wish it were).

Who was I to tell these theatergoers they were falling for mediocre mayhem? Who was I to tell them that spirit boards wouldn’t work if you blind folded the participants and spun the letters around? Who was I to spoil their good time?

My skepticism felt like a glitch in my imagination. Enough people went and saw Ouija to warrant it getting a prequel. Maybe I was just too old to get its appeal (like Dubstep, EDM, or the Chainsmokers).

In the weeks that followed that DM I wondered what would it take to get Ouija boards to frighten me again. I should have just reread my original article:

The smart way to make a mystical MacGuffin work is to draw attention to the evidence against it.

And that is just what 2016’s Ouija: Origin of Evil  did.

Play to Your Audience’s Skepticism

Ouija: Origin of Evil is the story of a desperate widow fighting foreclosure by pretending to be a medium.

Alice makes her living conducting slight of hand séances with her daughters helping from behind the scenes. The film takes place in the 70s when Ouija boards were at the height of their popularity. Alice’s daughters convince her to work one into the act. Reluctantly Alice devises a plan to control the board with tools underneath the table.

The first act of Ouija: Origin of Evil sidesteps our skepticism by introducing us to a charlatan, one who preys on our desperate need for spiritual confirmation (for another good example of this storytelling trick see The Last Exorcist).

When our skeptical heroine starts believing in the board’s ability to contact her late husband we nonbelievers find ourselves drawn in. We know better than to cower at a piece of cardboard, but so did she and that didn’t stop her.

I was surprised by how much I liked Ouija: Origin of Evil. It got me by playing to my doubt directly. That open acknowledgement of the absurdity of the situation gave me permission to indulge in the fantasy of it. That’s something too many fantasy horror stories are missing. The trailer for that first Ouija movie might have sold me had there been a single skeptic amongst the kids that were about to be haunted.

So many horror stories could use a “Scully.”

Yup, all roads lead back to The X-Files

The X-Files streamlined the trick of poking holes in the supernatural before ultimately committing to it. In nearly every episode Agents Mulder and Scully visit a crime scene, Mulder suspects a cryptozoological culprit like El Chupacabra and Agent Scully says most attacks attributed to the famed Mexican goatsucker are coyotes.

The writers use dated legends as red herrings. The true culprit is usually a third thing. Mulder and Scully are looking for a monster, one not entirely defined by legend, and one that isn’t entirely beyond scientific observation. Mulder and Scully are each half wrong and half right.

This trick works by acknowledging our growth into adulthood right before informing us that all our childhood fears have grown up too.

Closing Thoughts

If you’re a horror writer looking to sidestep your audience’s drawbridge of doubt, don’t. Walk right up to it. Acknowledge everything that makes the situation you’re selling so impossible and watch that drawbridge descend. Then invite the monsters to follow you in.

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