Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Nonfiction

Interview: Daniel Knauf

Back in 2003, when HBO was flush with the success of The Sopranos, they premiered one of the most unusual and intriguing television series ever: For two seasons, Carnivàle followed a Depression-era carnival across a bleak American landscape, but was really about the eternal battle between light and darkness, as represented respectively by Ben, a farm boy with healing powers (played by Nick Stahl) and a preacher, Brother Justin (Clancy Brown), who is accessing far more sinister abilities. As unusual as Carnivàle was, the story behind the story was equally rare in Hollywood: the series was created and produced by a first-timer in his forties. Daniel Knauf had written a few low-budget films before he was thrust into the television grinder, and he went on after Carnivàle to write for NBC’s Dracula; he’s currently a writer and executive producer on the hit show The Black List. He’s also developing a series about the Wolf Man, and is working on a horror novel entitled Sleepers. Knauf in person is affable, articulate, and down-to-Earth, with a genuine affection for all things horror.

You’re an L.A. native, right? And your family was in the health insurance business . . . so how did you wind up as a screenwriter?

I was a big reader, but I was a visual artist the whole time I was growing up. I was that kid in the class who was an artist. It was always, “Dan draws dinosaurs really good!” I started college as an Art major, and I tried to get into Art Center [an exclusive design school in Pasadena], but I wasn’t good enough. So then I went to Pasadena City College for a while, and I was just drifting. It was the late 1970s—I graduated high school in ‘76—and went to PCC (“the thirteenth grade”). I really wasn’t into school anyway—I was more into just hanging out with my friends. I took a creative writing class . . . and I was good at it! I was writing short stories—I think the first one was sort of like a Twilight Zone-y thing. I really was a big fan of Harlan Ellison and Ray Bradbury and Stanislaus Lem and William Kotzwinkle. I liked the fantasists—not the hard science fiction, but the speculative stuff. Richard Matheson was one of my gods.

How about Theodore Sturgeon? There are parts of Carnivàle that remind me a little of his novel The Dreaming Jewels.

I read so many books—they went into the hopper and came out sidewise. I wouldn’t be surprised—I read quite a few Sturgeon books. The one I really remember is Some of Your Blood. I certainly could have read that one, though, and not even remembered. I read three or four books a week, back when I was “programming.” The one who was really my favorite was Harlan Ellison. “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” . . . I was that kind of a writer at first. Then I had people saying to me, “You ought to write a screenplay.” By that time my art classes were kind of being edged out. With my art, what I’d envisioned as I was painting or drawing just didn’t turn out to look like the finished product. I didn’t have full mastery over the medium. I’d get frustrated. Whereas right from the get-go with writing, I’d get a little closer to what I’d envisioned for the story in my head, when I finished it. I had more mastery with words. The process of writing is for me akin to sorcery, because what you’re doing is you’re putting down little symbols on paper, and these symbols represent phonetics, and these phonetics form words, and people are looking at it and as words are going into their heads, the inside of their skull is now your canvas. You, with their assistance, are painting a world inside their head. What they’re experiencing could be very different from what another reader is experiencing. The experience of a painting is, the painting is the painting. Now, people have different opinions of the painting, but there’s a concrete thing sitting there that says, “This is it.” One person can look at it and say, “That’s just a bunch of random splotches on a canvas,” and another person can say, “Oh, that’s a flock of birds,” and another can say, “Oh, that’s a representation of the artist’s anguish over the loss of his wife” or whatever. People can have different interpretations, but the painting is still the fucking painting.

So anyway, people were saying, “Oh, you’re so good with dialogue,” and, “You’re so good with descriptive stuff,” because I was an artist. But the stuff was helplessly purple. But I grew up in L.A., so I thought, Screenwriting is for chumps, screenwriting is for tourists. By that time I kind of grew away from science fiction/fantasy, although I always stayed with horror. I remember buying my first Stephen King book at a car wash. It was Salem’s Lot. I’d also read “Children of the Corn” in a men’s magazine, so I was a Stephen King fan from way, way back. But mostly what I was reading was literary fiction. I was really into Charles Bukowski, all the Hemingway and Steinbeck stuff you read in college. Then I moved away from writing fiction and into poetry. I studied under a writer in Pasadena named Ron Koertge. He was jacked into the whole L.A. poetry scene, with Gerald Locklin and Bukowski, Exene Cervenka and John Doe from X. So I was really into poetry and doing a lot of readings. I was nineteen or twenty years old. The poetry turned out to be the world’s best training for screenwriting, because one of the things you learn in poetry is being economical and evocative with words. You have to choose the best word in poetry because you don’t have that much real estate, and the same thing’s true in screenwriting. One of the things I see in beginning writers’ scripts is what I call “aspirin bottle scene description”: “He walks into a room. There’s an expensive green rug on the floor, and the room is tastefully decorated with Victoriana. There’s a clock on the wall, and there’s this, and there’s that . . .” They describe the room to a tee, and take four or five paragraphs. I’d probably write, “This is the kind of room that Oxford professors dream about”—end of description. There’s a guy they’re gonna hire called a Production Designer; he’s forgotten more than I will ever know about designing a set. So poetry worked well for that.

I got married at twenty-two years old, immediately put away childhood things. Went to work as a bank teller for a year, then I was a payroll clerk. And the whole time my father was saying, “You need to go back to college.” And I’m saying, “I can’t. I’m married; I’m a grown-up.” So we came up with this great idea: He said, “You’re making eight-hundred dollars a month. I’ll pay you eight-hundred dollars a month, you work for me, put in forty hours a week but they can be any forty hours, and this will facilitate you going back to school.” I chose an English major because it was what I was closest to. I just plowed through. By the time I’d graduated, I’d built up a clientele with the family insurance business. For God’s sakes, if you’re going to do something you don’t want to do, at least get well paid for it. Insurance was just a job, but it was a very well-compensated job. I was able to support my wife; she was a stay-at-home wife as soon as we had our kid. By the time I was twenty-six, I was supporting five people, but I’d been doing this for about four years and I was not a happy camper. I was prone to clinical depression from the time I was twelve. For me it wasn’t situational, it was chemical, so I could never identify trigger points . . . but it happened. And every year that it happened, it was more profound. It reached a point where it was lethal. I ended up at a certain point checking myself into a hospital for treatment. My family didn’t understand; they were like, “We don’t know why you’re there—you seem so happy,” because I was really good at masking it. They were shocked. I was twenty-six, and I turned twenty-seven in the hospital. I was sitting in the cafeteria, and I was thinking, I hope they don’t tell anybody it’s my birthday, because if these people start singing “Happy Birthday” to me, I think I’ll start screaming and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to stop. My first day in the hospital I picked up a pencil and started drawing a picture; I hadn’t drawn anything in eight or nine years. My second day, I started writing a short story. What I learned is that writers need to write like sharks need to swim. You don’t have a choice. When people come up to me and they say, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to be a writer,” I look at it as akin to, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to be a porpoise,” or a unicorn. I always want to say, “If you were a writer, you’d know by now, you’d have written a bunch of shit. You’re thirty-eight years old—if you haven’t written anything and you’re not in the bug farm, you’re not a writer.”

Were you a writer when you came out?

Well, I have this rule: Finish what you start. I had a bunch of stuff I hadn’t finished, so I did, and I started sending these stories out.

So you really started with prose and poetry?

Yeah, I started with short stories, not poetry, because you don’t get paid for it. I’m like Li Po—I save the poetry for things like my Facebook wall. It’s like Li Po writing the poem on a little origami boat and sending it off. Poetry’s not about commerce, it’s pure art.

So I was sending out these stories, and they were all horror. And I had my first sale to a magazine called 2 A.M. I got a check for something like twenty-three dollars, and suddenly all the people who had been saying, “Maybe you should write screenplays,” made sense. I mean, twenty-three bucks? I used to send the stories out with blank postcards instead of the usual SASE, because it meant the editors would have to respond personally, even if it was something simple like, “Well, this didn’t quite work for me.” I’d take these postcards and I’d tack them up to a bulletin board over my desk. I had a huge collection of rejections, but I just kept sending stories out. That’s one of the things I try to tell young writers today: Every time you get a rejection, don’t be bummed out by it. Celebrate it, because you’re one “no” closer to “yes.” You’re moving through “nos” and eventually you will get a “yes.” It’s inevitable.

So I decided to do a screenplay. I had half a screenplay I’d started in college, and I decided to finish it. It was The Legend of Hatchet Jack, and it was a slasher film. At the time I was attending a writers’ workshop out of the AFI Alumni Association. At the second meeting I attended, this woman from a company described what she was looking for, and it was exactly my script. I told her, “I’ve got something I think you’ll want to read,” and she said, “Send it to me.” I hand-delivered the script to their offices, and about a week later I was down at Al’s Bar downtown, and I ran into her. She said, “Oh my God, that script is fantastic—we want to buy it.” So I got thirty-five-hundred bucks for the script, and I was like, “Wow!” It was way easier than writing a novel, and that was like the advance on a novel for a first-time writer. So I never really looked back.

They didn’t make that movie, thank God, because it was terrible. I basically was being paid to learn how to write screenplays because they hired me to do another one called Savage Weekend. They asked me to do a rewrite of this script. The producer was one of these classic Hollywood fringe creatures. He called me in and asked, “What did you think of the script?” I said, “This script is awful. It’s badly written, I don’t even know what’s happening, it makes no sense at all, there’s no structure,” and he says, “Yeah, I know.” I said, “Well, tell me the pitch—I mean, something must have convinced you to commission it.” He said, “Here it is, it’s great: ‘It’s Straw Dogs with chicks!’” “Okay,” I said, “I can do that.”

So Savage Weekend was also never made, but I started getting a little more money every time I worked on a script. It was all non-union, direct-to-video.

In my own career, I’ve heard some pretty amazing reasons for why bad scripts have been purchased.

Sometimes they hire novelists to try screenwriting, and it just often does not work. The disciplines and skill sets that you have to have as a novelist are different. Producers think, Oh, well, it’s all just slinging words. There’s dialogue in there, there’s descriptions of stuff, why shouldn’t a novelist be able to write a screenplay?

It’s a completely different form.

It’s extremely disciplined. When I was writing this novel recently, I felt like I was drunk! It was like, I can talk about what shit smells like! You can’t get inside the character’s head in a screenplay, you can’t focus the attention on what’s meaningful. It’s like entering a boxing ring and having both feet and one hand nailed to the floor, and then trying to fight. I think screenwriting is a much more difficult form.

Was it Sturgeon who coined that thing that Vonnegut attributed to Kilgore Trout about, “Ninety percent of everything is crap”?

I think that’s actually known as “Sturgeon’s Law.”

It’s true. It’s shocking to sometimes read the script of a two-hundred-million-dollar movie and go, “Wow, what were they thinking?”

Did you do a lot of those low-budget feature scripts?

I did. And I was in this group where I found everyone was kind of divided between approaches. One was, “I’m going to go out and network everyone, make friends, work my contacts, and that’s my way in.” And the other side was sort of, “I’m going to dial in on my craft, and eventually someone will notice.” Being kind of obsessive-compulsive, I maybe did that a little too much. I would write a script, and then I would put it aside and start another script and finish that, then I’d go back to the first one and rewrite that. I was playing leap-frog with projects and focusing on my craft. I wasn’t really going out with them. I didn’t know anyone in the business, even though I’d grown up here. I wasn’t really looking for opportunities at all; I was dialed in on getting it right. I became very facile at plot and action; my character work was not as good as it should be. I’d always kind of be in the weeds with characters.

I ended up selling a Western to HBO. My brother called me up and said, “I know a guy who needs Blue Cross.” And I said, “I don’t do individual plans.” And he said, “Well, this guy’s a movie producer.” And it was Neal Moritz [Moritz’s credits include The Fast and the Furious series]. So we met. And after I had him fill out the Blue Cross application, I mentioned that I was also a writer. He said, “Oh, what are you working on?” And I said, “I’m doing this thing about a blind gunfighter.” It was a riff on Zatoichi, the Japanese blind samurai. He said, “Are you done with it?” I said, “No, I’m still working on it.” He said, “What page are you on?” I said, “High forties, I think.” “Well, I’d love to read it.” So I go home, and not long after I get a call from Neal, and he says, “Are you done with your script yet?” I say, “No,” then I pull it out, because I’d been working on other things, and I had like fifteen pages on it. So I finish it, it goes to HBO, and they buy it. They make it and cast Armand Assante. Armand had an acting coach named Cliff Osmond; Cliff had been a character actor whose credits went back to The Fortune Cookie and Bonanza and The Rifleman . . . he had a million credits. Me and Cliff hit it off. At the time I thought I was going to be a director; I thought I was writing my way into a directing slot. I thought, It probably wouldn’t be a bad idea for me to understand acting if I’m going to be a director. So I signed up with Cliff to take his acting classes. I was a terrible actor; I can get up and present my own stuff to ten-thousand people and I’m fine, but if I’m pretending to be someone else, the wheels fly off. But what I learned in that class was how to write character. That was the breakthrough. What happened was that even though I was aware of that fourth wall, and even though I had stage fright, every once in a while I’d find the moment where I was no longer going, What’s my next line? I was no longer acting—which is the secret to acting. Cliff would always say, “Stop acting! It’s being!” So it was basically impossible for me to do that on a stage with other people, but in a room, alone . . . so what I basically do is write inside the moment, and it’s the same moment the actor uses.

Everybody has a different process. Some people say it’s like they have a little movie screen in front of them, and they see the movie happening. When I’m writing, I’m there. If I was writing this scene, I’d be in this chair, and I’d know what’s happening with everyone—what’s she thinking? What’s he trying to do to win? Really what I find myself doing is just transcribing. If you know the characters well enough and you understand what their intents are coming into a scene, then you just let them write the scene for you.

In one earlier interview, you talked about how one of the first things you came up with on Carnivàle was the big epic story, but I know for a lot of us our favorite part of that show was the cast of characters.

Well, with television—especially with television—I think story is the biggest MacGuffin. Story is just an excuse to spend time with the characters. What it really comes down to is being invested in the characters. And their life is much more interesting than yours, and much more dramatic, and you’re using them to key into moments in your life. It’s the ecstasy of recognition—you say, “Oh my God, I thought I was the only one who felt that way.”

I didn’t break into TV until I was in my mid-forties, and one of the benefits of that is that I was a consumer of television. I know why people watch TV. A lot of people who do what I do watch a lot of TV—they watch way more TV than I do. I’d go to story meetings and they’d be saying, “Oh, yeah, it’s gonna be like episode three of The West Wing,” and I’ve never even watched The West Wing. They’re watching TV as writers, not as straight-up consumers. People watch TV because their lives seem pointless and make no sense. You go to work, you have a series of random events in your day, maybe your boss comes down on your ass and you’re afraid you’re going to lose your job, and that’s kind of confusing because you hate your job, but you’re afraid you’re gonna lose it? You had a difficult customer, the car didn’t start, you were late . . . and you get home, and your one accomplishment for that day is you just managed to waste eight hours, and you’re now eight hours closer to the day you’re going to die, and you have nothing to show for it. Maybe every once in a while you have a great day, but that’s the exception, not the rule. And they turn on the TV and they see people in more exciting professions—doctors, lawyers, policemen, whatever they are—but they’re dealing with the same things. They’re going through the break-up, or dealing with the sick spouse . . . you get invested in them, and you recognize things in them.

I had a woman send me an email—she was a cop who worked with abused kids, she saw the worst of the worst. And she said, “I come home and I turn on the show, and it just transports me.” The business I’m in is to transport people. At least distract them. And that’s what I tell people who work on my shows—”We have to do our best to do that. If we as writers don’t do our best to entertain, transport, distract, whatever—” and we’re not always going to do it, sometimes it’s just not a good episode, “—but we have to try to do our best, because we’re in the mass media business.” The show I’m on now, The Black List, has seventeen million viewers. If we don’t do our best to move, entertain, distract, we’ve just wasted seventeen million hours of human life. That’s huge. That’s like this little mini intellectual holocaust. I think it’s important, because people are choosing to spend their time with us, and the most precious thing is time. It’s a sacred contract, and we have to honor that.

Television also gives people that sense of intimacy, because they see these people in their living rooms every week, and they become . . .

. . . friends. Yes, it’s a very different relationship from a movie. You have a relationship with a show. When a show jumps the shark, you’re really dismayed. It’s like seeing a friend go bad. If you go to a bad movie, you just feel gypped, but if your favorite show suddenly goes south three seasons in, there’s that feeling of, “Oh God, I remember when Janet was really cool before she married Jack and really changed.”

On Carnivàle, your first draft was something like 220 pages long?

Yeah.

How much of that ended up being in the series?

I really just took the first act and made that the pilot.

Did you use any of that other material for later episodes?

The screenplay of Carnivàle was written when I was heavily influenced by Clive Barker. I was a major fan, so it was very Barker-esque. By the time it became a show it was ten years later, so a lot had changed.

The show feels more magical realism to me than the big dark fantasy of Clive Barker.

Yeah, Marquez had an influence on me, too. I wanted to ground it, so I made things feel real. There were a lot of influences on that show. So no, it wasn’t like a balls-out fantasy.

And I thought it was interesting that the character of Brother Justin’s sister Iris (played by Amy Madigan) wasn’t even in the script, because she’s one of my favorite characters on the show.

The cooch family and Iris weren’t in the pilot—we added them later. I wrote Carnivàle kind of early in my screenwriting career so it wasn’t that good. Brother Justin had a sort of right-hand man who was an Igor-sort of guy, like a flying monkey—it was really very arch. My first version of Brother Justin was very arch. It wasn’t until we were shooting that we realized, “This doesn’t look like the rest of the show.” In my first draft of the screenplay, Brother Justin was much farther along in his evil journey; he was fully realized as a bad guy. We reeled that way in and re-shot everything.

An example is the scene with the woman who has stolen from him and vomits up the coins. In the first draft he takes her into his office, and he’s completely masterful and he makes her do it. In the rewrite, I made it like he’s just as surprised as she is; it’s the first manifestation of that kind of illusory power he has. Then we had a journey for him. It was an important change. We had a perfect co-trajectory then for our antagonist and protagonist. In fact, you didn’t even know exactly who the protagonist and the antagonist were.

No, you don’t know in the first few episodes.

So that was a key change. And that’s what pilots are for. Basically a pilot is a prototype. You look at it and you think, Well, it runs, but it’s really wobbling on that left front tire, so maybe we should make an adjustment there.

And your plan was always to carry the story through six seasons and end with the atomic bomb?

The last frame of the show is contained in the first episode of the show.

Right! In the little montage of Ben’s dream.

We called it “the nuclear kiss.” It’s Ben and Sofie standing out on the flats kissing each other goodbye as the bomb goes off and they’re vaporized.

Wow! That would’ve been a great ending. Where would Justin have been in all that?

To me, he’s the most interesting character in the show. We’ve seen all the stories about the reluctant messiah—even Jesus was a reluctant messiah . . .

 . . . but we never see the reluctant antichrist.

Right. What would it be like to wake up in the morning and think, This is my fate. My role is to destroy. Especially if you have an intact conscience. He’s a very tragic figure. He doesn’t want to be what he is, but he can’t be anything else. He’s the last of the dark Avatars. And he’s not really the Antichrist. If anybody’s the Antichrist character, it’s Sofie. Brother Justin is the usher, ushering in the Omega, the last Avatar. And the last Avatar is the first female Avatar. Avatars have to be male. If they’re female and they have the holy blue blood, they tend to be mad. The men are just more highly-functioning crazy people. Sofie is neither dark nor light. The Omega—she’s the last one.

So magic gives way to science?

No, not really—magic just gives way. And the only thing left is science, because magic becomes irrelevant. I always looked at Carnivàle as the story of man leaving his childhood and moving into adolescence. There’s a certain point where God looks at His creatures, these amusing, entertaining monkeys, and He takes great joy in us, and He’s horrified by us sometimes. It’s like imagine if you had a dog, and you loved the dog, and you fed it and played with it, and then one day the dog looks up at you and says, “You know, I’m really not happy being cooped up in this apartment. Please let me go.” And you’d say, “Oh my God! The dog’s sentient!” Everything about the dog changes. And with God, I think it’s like the minute we create the nuclear bomb, we’re not the same kind of creatures anymore. He’d say, “They’ve created their own star, their own sun, we’ve reached the moment where miracles and magic really aren’t interesting anymore.” And then He tosses us the keys and says, “Good luck, kid, you’re on your own now.”

And it’s interesting that the same “technology vs. magic” theme was in Dracula, which I know you didn’t create, but obviously had a lot of input on, with writing the first episode.

Yeah. I didn’t really think about it when I was doing Dracula, but there’s a similar theme.

Cole [Haddon, the series creator] . . . I don’t know what his religious beliefs are, but he definitely sees science and rational thought as being far superior to religion and superstition. I see them as two sides of the same coin. They often take us to the same places and to the same conclusions. An atheist can do a rational analysis about why murder is a bad idea; and somebody who is religious thinks, “Murder is a bad idea because you’re going to go to Hell.” I was reading up on true crime and trying to understand what would make someone into a sexual psychopath. I wanted to understand, how does a monster like that get created? We always wonder, Could I be like that? At the end of the day, I read everything behavioral psychologists had to say, and there were all these things like lighting fires as a child, a head injury, they’re brought up in a broken home where there’s abuse present . . . there are at least 30,000 people who fit that, but how come only four of them became serial killers? You might as well say serial killers go out and murder people because they’re possessed by a demon. I look at that as just as viable a premise.

Were you part of Dracula from the beginning?

No. I was a last-minute addition. They developed it with Cole. They got a green light, and they got it to Jonathan [Rhys Meyers, the series star]. Jonathan wanted to do it; once he wanted to do it, they got a ten-episode series order. There were a lot of producers; I think there were seven production entities I had to answer to. It was a juggling act. They hired me, when two other writers fell through, in desperation, because they were ramping up production. I got vetted very quickly and came in to run the show. And I really ran it by remote control—never set foot in Budapest, where we shot it. It was very frustrating, because I felt like the scripts were twenty-five percent better than the episodes. It was just about what didn’t get shot. It wasn’t because the networks were cutting anything. Or scenes that should’ve worked and didn’t because nobody knew what the scene was about. Like there was a scene where Mina is in the hospital and realizes that Lucy has had sex with her fiancé. And that scene is 100% subtext; it’s all played with a series of incomplete sentences and uncomfortable silences. To me, in real life, what we say is not nearly as important as what we don’t say; the truth is contained in what we don’t say. The only time we really tell the truth—the spiritual, emotional truth—is when our backs are up against the wall and we really have no choice. When I’m writing, it’s all about what people aren’t saying. It sometimes drives executives crazy, but once you sit down with the actors and tell them what you really want, they get it. And I was so happy because with that scene I was so terrified that they wouldn’t understand what was really going on. And I saw it, and the two actresses so got it—they just nailed the shit out of it. It was one of the finest scenes I feel like I’ve ever written.

So you were over here writing it, and they were over in Budapest shooting it . . .

. . . and a day later I’d get dailies, and I’d either be horrified or happy. The production was gorgeous, but there’s only so much you can do without a writer on the set. I truly believe that it’s critical to have a writer on the set. If you look at television, the average hour of television is costing three-and-a-half million dollars, so if you have two hours that’s seven million. And the average two-hour movie has a budget of seventy million. With television, for ten percent of the budget you’re getting (I think) eighty-five percent of the quality. And I think a big part of that is because film is a “director’s medium” and TV is a “writer’s medium.” So when the director and actors are playing blind man and the elephant on the set of a feature film because they don’t allow the writer anywhere near the set, on a TV show, you go in, you watch the blocking, and you say, “No, no, he wants this, and she wants that,” and they all say, “Oh! Okay, let’s reblock that.” To not have the writer present on the set of a movie is pure ego on the part of the directors—they want to pretend they’re the authors. The whole auteur theory just kind of destroyed film. The only movies with any real integrity are the ones that have a writer-director. With most movies, you watch them and you don’t really know what’s going on. They’re these big pageants, kind of like a fireworks show. You know, a fireworks show kind of has a story—there’s usually a beginning, a middle, and a end . . . but at the end of the day all you can really say is, “I think they started with red ones that were kind of like flowers . . .” You don’t really remember them two minutes after you walk out.

Horror in particular seems to have really moved its best work to television.

But horror’s almost impossible to do on television.

But things like Carnivàle and Dracula and American Horror Story have both more interesting ideas and even better production value than any horror movies lately.

But if you look at things like American Horror Story and The Walking Dead, they’re surprisingly not scary at all. You never feel your guts churning. You never feel that sense of absolute dread that you feel when you’re watching The Exorcist or The Shining or The Haunting. That sense of dread is the hallmark, the exemplar, of what you should instill in a reader. And you can’t do it if every seven minutes you’re being interrupted by an ad for Toyota. Dread is a sustained tone. You just can’t do what Polanski does in Rosemary’s Baby. You can kind of do it on pay cable, but you watch American Horror Story and it’s like, “We can get in a lot of gross stuff in little eight-minute chunks, we can get in a few shocks,” but you can’t do that kind of sustained tension that Hitchcock was a master of.

But what it offers instead is disturbing ideas, which is something that movies seem to have moved past.

Well, except for the Japanese, with Ringu. And Old Boy, for God’s sake. And then the French and the Spanish—The Devil’s Backbone is one of the best ghost stories ever shot. And Pan’s Labyrinth, certainly one of the best dark fantasies ever. Have you seen Martyrs?

Yes, I just watched it recently for the first time.

Amazing. It’s like an Olympic gymnast—it’s like, there’s no way he can spike that madness . . . and then he does. It’s like this exercise in nihilism, and at the last possible minute here comes this redemptive ending . . . but you don’t want to watch it twice.

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Lisa Morton

Lisa Morton is a screenwriter, author of non-fiction books, and award-winning prose writer whose work was described by the American Library Association’s Readers’ Advisory Guide to Horror as “consistently dark, unsettling, and frightening”. She is the author of four novels and more than 130 short stories, a six-time winner of the Bram Stoker Award®, and a world-class Halloween expert who has been interviewed by The Wall Street Journal, Real Simple Magazine, and The History Channel (for The Real Story of Halloween). She co-edited (with Ellen Datlow) the anthology Haunted Nights, which received a starred review in Publishers Weekly; other recent releases include Ghosts: A Haunted History and the collection The Samhanach and Other Halloween Treats. Lisa lives in the San Fernando Valley and online at lisamorton.com.