During my time reading pastas and giving feedback I’ve become quite interested in the recurring motif of ambiguity. A lot of people get this right, but I think even more people get this cripplingly wrong. Worse still I see the justification of ambiguity getting tossed around a lot as a defence when people offer feedback along the lines, “your story doesn’t make a God damned bit of sense – it reads like the acid infused ravings of a schizophrenic in an out of control elevator”.
Thing is though, I have some sympathy. Ambiguity is really hard to balance in a story, and it’s often conflated with a few other core concepts in horror, so I thought I’d write this blog post so I could share my thoughts on the matter.
So to start off I want to establish three related concepts in horror…
The first is that a phenomenon becomes less scary when we learn enough information to be able to predict it.
The second is that in order to prevent excessive knowledge, it’s a good idea to not spew everything onto the page, so that every bit of your story is explained.
And the third is that if your story has elements of ambiguity, it can become even harder for the audience to feel like they could safely predict the phenomenon in your story, because there are multiple explanations for any single event.
If you want to see points one and two in action, see every haunted house/ghost movie ever. Most critics are quick to point out every ghost story on Earth stops being scary the second you find out the ghost’s motivations. I think the woman in black is a great single example of this going wrong. Everyone feels afraid of unexplained noises, and the book of Woman in Black (and movie) do a fantastic job of conveying this atmosphere for a large portion of the story. But once you learn the ghost’s motivations she just turns into an angry old lady. I’m not exactly terrified of that. People are afraid of what they can’t understand… but what’s there to be confused about in that story? The old lady is unhappy and her ghost is haunting her house. So… don’t go into her house.
In contrast I think paranormal activity nails this. That movie, with one simple omission, solved the haunted house problem altogether. There’s no ghost. I mean, mechanically it’s a ghost story. It goes bump, it moves things, it’s invisible, it’s mystical and all that. But they tell us it’s a demon, they tell us it’s something else, it’s not human and because of that you get all the scares of a haunted house but without turning the movie into a slow reveal of some boring family drama.
And it’s something we’re seeing pop up in loads of movies too. Babadook, sinister, insidious, oculus… these are great horrors that are mechanically just ghost stories, but they let go of the fact that a ghost is a dead “human” and just call it something else. They free themselves from committing to the worst part of every ghost story, which is the last 20% where the ghost’s whole life story is laid down for the audience to see clearly.
By taking away this shared human point of view you lose the ability to predict, or even understand, the monster’s intentions.
It becomes alien, it becomes other. That’s a big deal because in the real world humans don’t get to share their physical environment with intelligent sentient beings that aren’t also human. That’s a completely unknown experience for our entire species, and it’s a lot more frightening than finding out you’ve been caught up in some old tart’s emotional baggage.
So that’s just one small case study that, I think, exemplifies why a lot of horror relies on concealment and obfuscation to keep the reader on their toes. But I feel like point three is frequently mistaken as just being synonymous with points one and two. There’s this misconception that ambiguity is the result of a lack of information. If anything, ambiguity is only effective when there’s more information.
Here’s the first definition of ambiguity google offers:
“the quality of being open to more than one interpretation; inexactness”
What’s important is that you need more than one valid interpretation. And that having no valid interpretations is not the same thing. If anything, you need to explain even more of your story because you need it to work on multiple levels. A great example of this is a film called Home Movie (spoilers follow) – it’s a barely known movie but I can’t recommend it enough. It’s about a couple (a vicar and a therapist), whose kids just go full psychopath. It begins with two children who are distant to their parents, and lack affectation, and slowly winds things towards the usual conclusion for killer-children movies. This movie does a lot of things right, but I wanted to focus on one scene in particular.
While the mother looks for her child, she leaves the camera running in a bedroom. We the audience are completely alone in a room with no windows open, and suddenly, without explanation, the door to a cupboard just violently opens on its own. The mother never sees it, she just returns, notes that a door is open and shuts it. It’s the only hint of supernatural activity in the entire film.
But that’s enough. That’s all it needs. You can watch the whole movie and read it as nothing more than a film about two kids who are psychopaths, who start out killing animals before finally killing their parents. But that single scene will tell a lot of people that there might be something supernatural at play, and that the children might be possessed. There are two equally valid ways to explain the events of this movie. This helps make the story more frightening because, again, small children aren’t necessarily terrifying on their own, and neither are demonic possessions. We live in a world where we’ve made up so many stories that we assume both of those things follow explicit rules (his head’s rotating, call the priest), but a truly great horror drives home to its reader that they don’t get to be privy to the rules. It’s just a story with a series of events, and just like real life there are a million different ways to justify those order of events, but we aren’t so special we get to know them.
That’s scary because it robs us of those reliable rules, but it doesn’t put us in a world where rules don’t matter (which doesn’t reflect the real world we live in). Instead of rules not being important, it’s us that doesn’t matter. We can’t help but get the sense that there are rules. That there are beings in that world who know the rules, maybe God gets them, maybe the monster gets them, but we don’t. Insignificant things don’t get a list of the rules. Cockroaches don’t get the privilege of knowing why we step on them, and (in the first movie at least) the protagonists of paranormal activity don’t get the privilege of finding out why some invisible force has decided to step on them. The characters in the shining don’t get the privilege of knowing whether there were ghosts driving Jack to insanity… and neither do we. We’re that insignificant. We’re allowed to be privy to the events, but not to the logic that underlies them.
Thing is though… that is not the same as there being no underlying logic in your story.