Theres a lot of supernatural going around.
I’ve been blogging and speaking a lot of late about my forthcoming supernatural horror book series, ‘Transgressions’. So with that alone my head has spent a lot of time in the twilight zone. But I’ve also been working on a TV series that is currently shooting, as well as a hybrid interactive production in the US - neither of which my contractual NDA’s permit me to say much about - But what I can say is that all are rooted in very cool, mythological, high-concept, supernatural shit..!
Good times! It’s always a fun to go playing in big supernatural creative sandpits - they make for the kind of rich, fertile, larger-life, metaphorical narratives I love. But when you’re working on multiple projects in different mediums that share a common genre base, you’re inevitably compelled to try and understand what makes those genres work at a core level and what it is that underpins those stories irrespective of medium and platform?
It’s been a bit of drum I’ve been banging for a while now. Amidst all the hype and guru-speak about new media forms over the past decade, I’ve often been concerned that creators spend too much time examining what is different between formats, rather than seeking to understanding more holistically what unites and connects them. The result is an over-emphasis of the ‘new’ rather than engagement with substance.
So, as I work on 3 simultaneous supernatural story projects, in 3 different mediums (screen, page and interactive) I’ve been thinking a lot about what they have in common rather than what’s different or unique about them. And moreover, what makes supernatural stories work? In fact this very question is one that comes up quite often when I speak to fellow writers. And the answer I give, that many find strange, is ‘Realism and Plausibility…’
Ostensibly this would seem an anathema to what we think of as being the key element of Supernatural - that it is unnatural, unrealistic, beyond reason, not plausible or possible, that it is a form of ‘fantasy’. But whilst this might be a valid understanding for an lay audience, it’s actually not very helpful for a writer trying to write a supernatural story because it doesn’t provide a toolkit for development and execution….
The starting point worth acknowledging is that Supernatural is not the same as Fantasy. As the name itself suggests, Super-Natural is about being above nature, nature extended, the natural world pushed beyond what we can comprehend or understand as Rational. But, by doing this, Natural order is tested, subverted, challenged and dislodged. So in order to have this ‘super’ quality in our stories we have to have the rational Natural bit as well. And then we break it…
So, by this, great Supernatural stories are rooted in the real world as a launching off point where you are asking the audience to take great leaps of logic, yet still feel that there is an immediacy and connection to the ‘real’ - taken from what they know and is familiar, to what they don’t know and is foreign. This is something much more than just simple ‘suspension of disbelief’ at work in supernatural narratives - the audience are undertaking a much more concerted engagement with allowing themselves to entertain uncertainty about their real world, not escape to a fantastical one.
This is not just an arbitrary imposition but speaks directly to the emotional experience and expectation of supernatural stories on the part of audiences - to entertain uncertainty, to evoke mysteries that come from within the world around us, not worlds we have to venture away to. Ghost stories, witchcraft, demons, monsters, super powers, astral travel, time travel, mind-control, telepathy, possession, body swapping, werewolves and vampires and dopplegangers and anything we can’t explain that happens at the shadowed fringes of our homes, towns and villages - these are all supernatural story triggers that effect us most when they begin in our real world.
H.P. Lovecraft unifies this blend of the weirdly extraordinary in his essay ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’..
“A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain—a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.”
The crucial part of what Lovecraft observes as fundamental to this form of storytelling is the desire for audiences to entertain the idea that the natural laws which hold back chaos might not be as stable or consistent or inflexible as we perhaps would like them to be. That the very world around us, the natural real world, contains forces beyond us. And as audiences we choose to entertain those possibilities for a thrill in the short term, and for metaphoric reflection in the long term.
Now, certainly ‘Supernatural’ is a broad church of narratives, including forms of Horror, Magic Realism, Super Hero stories, Mystery and even certain sub-genres of Science Fiction that delve in to the ‘soft’ end of the hard-soft spectrum of SciFi. But this idea of natural laws subverted is the remarkably consistent component.
By a story extending supernaturally from a familiar rational world where there is an anchored reality to the weirdness and doubt becomes a major element of the drama. Characters doubt what they see, they struggle to rationalise their fear, they must learn the new rules of a defied natural order before being compelled to take action with or against powers they don’t fully understand. These are all dramatic journeys that an audience can actively go on and be aligned with in a supernatural mythos.
Now, from a writing and creative perspective in having to create such supernatural forces that are entertaining and engaging, the important connection that is helpful is that between Superstition and Supernatural. These two ideas are deeply connected as Supernatural forces are those that Superstition warns and wards against.
It’s an ancient idea, rooted in the narratives of mythology and folklore, that certain behaviours control, ward against, influence or evoke supernatural forces - don’t walk under a ladder, don’t open an umbrella inside, don’t say Bloody Mary 3 times in a mirror, and indeed the very notion of formal Religion and religious practices which are inherently ’superstitious’. In such supernatural stories there’s obviously no rational logic but there is a compelling and metaphoric internal logic.
The simple term for this is ‘Superstitious Causality’ where there is an imagined cause+effect between otherwise rationally unrelated events, a casualty not based on realty, but on supernatural reality.
And this is where the behaviour of pigeons is interesting…
“In 1948, behavioural psychologist B.F. Skinner published an article in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, in which he described his pigeons exhibiting what appeared to be superstitious behaviour. One pigeon was making turns in its cage, another would swing its head in a pendulum motion, while others also displayed a variety of other behaviours. Because these behaviours were all done ritualistically in an attempt to receive food from a dispenser, even though the dispenser had already been programmed to release food at set time intervals regardless of the pigeons’ actions, Skinner believed that the pigeons were trying to influence their feeding schedule by performing these actions. He then extended this as a proposition regarding the nature of superstitious behaviour in humans”
So, this is all well and interesting from a sociological point-of-view (and for pigeon fanciers). But for a writer it is also enormously helpful as a guide to constructing a viable and exciting supernatural narrative by simply asking, What is the Superstitious Causality in your storyworld?, What behaviours are naturally illogical in ‘reality’ but have potency and power in the supernatural part of your storyworld? This is the crucial friction point where the drama springs in a supernatural story.
Such behaviours and casualty needs to have a clear internal logic, must be governed by rules and specificity. Such powers will form the points of discovery and revelations for your characters and for the audience to ride into such worlds on the shoulders of those characters.
In the projects Im currently working on, most of the collaborative development work has been spent on defining those causalities, those storyworld rules that govern how the supernatural works, what it can and cant do, and what rituals, behaviours and effects must take place to evoke it. Any plotting or even character work is arbitrary and weak until that work is done. The supernatural rules and their relationship to the ‘natural’ need to be clearly defined first.
And in truth, this is where there is so much fun to be had. The dramatic, conceptual, metaphoric problem solving that goes on to wrangle big ideas into a cohesive logic, is a great creative test for even the best writers. High-concept narrative genres provide great creative playgrounds that are rich with archetypes, structures, patterns and dramatic tools - alive with audience engagement, expectation and enthusiasm for those familiar emotional states. But if you are going to make great supernatural stories you have to bring your A game and be prepared to ask the right questions to get you past tropes and allow you to stand on the shoulders of giants.
And importantly these principles of Storyworld design and superstitious causality are as equally true and applicable in an interactive game as they are in a book or TV series. Genre is platform agnostic and what genres have in common as basis for storytelling needs to be engaged well before their differences.
On the topic of Genre and its universality, I’ll be moderating a panel at the Australian Screen Producers conference - ScreenForever - entitled “Is Genre the Universal Language?”
We have a pretty impressive line up of folks on the panel including Greg Mclean, director of Wolf Creek, Chris Brown, producer of Daybreakers, and Roy Lee, producer of such standout creations as The Ring, The Grudge and more recently on TV the superb new take on Psycho, Bates Motel.
Full details about ScreenFutures here….