The Power of the Familiar

by Chris McMahon

Last week I found myself downstairs in the dark, alone, watching a horror DVD (Insidious). What really creeped me out about this movie was that the setting – a family home – was so familiar. So much of the usual experience of living in a house was captured. Those moments of strange quiet, the more ominous moments when you are sure someone is beside you.

There was another low-budget horror flick that really creeped me out – that was Session 9

During one early part of my career I used to do environmental assessments – mainly land-based. I sampled just about everything, assessing a wide range of properties from former rural (cattle dips were fun) to deserted industrial buildings. Now those darkened industrial buildings – with the lights off (often the power has been disconnected) and all the bustle of people and industry gone – are downright creepy. Session 9 was set in an abandoned hospital. I won’t give away too much of the plot, but the central characters were there for asbestos removal from the deserted buildings. So much of this was so familiar – including the eerie atmosphere of those deserted buildings – that it really hit close to home. One of the best horror films I have seen in ages.

All this got me thinking of the power of the familiar in fiction. It is this which often serves to give a link to the reader and can be used in different ways. In the more straightforward way, those familiar elements – particularly personality quirks or things that evoke “Hey that happened to me” are fantastic for creating an emotional link to the character. 

In the case of suspense, things have a lot more impact to scare you if on some level you see yourself in the scene – either through familiar settings or situations (or are dragged there against your will!).

Do you consciously use the familiar in your fiction to engage the reader?

Oh – and I ended up finishing Insidious the next morning – in the light of day:)

10 thoughts on “The Power of the Familiar

  1. That’s the whole secret of the “fairy tales” that we think are quaint. *Now*. What they started with was common day things – wood cutters, kids who’d lost a parent, somebody herding geese — and then things went horrifically wrong. C.S.Lewis has a nice bit about this in the introduction to the first of the Space Trilogy books. The main character is doing a walking tour through rural England. He says he started it very prosaically in order to cash in on the horror when everything went *wrong* – and he apologized to anybody who started reading it thinking it was going to be a nice, normal, guy hiking kind of story.

    The *more* common and everyday things that are included in horror or suspense fiction, the better — because it’s the *wrongness* that gives so much emotional fuel to the thing.

    IMHO, and all that.

    1. Hi, Lin. Good examples. Another thing that really hits on a gut level in fairy tales is the consequences of – what under normal circumstances – is a trivial moral choice. For example, the little girl plays in the forest when her mother said not to. Usually it’s a forgivable day-to-day bit of transgression, but in this case has horrible consequences. The boy and girl who lie to their mother and play with the gypsies only to lose their souls etc. Powerful stuff!

      Chris McMahon

  2. I saw “Session 9,” it’s somewhere about the place, but it kind of lost me near the beginning. There are aerial tracking shots of an abandoned asylum that looks like the grand assembly hall of Hell, then we go inside to see — a couple of dingy corridors lined with plastic. I grew up reading Lovecraft and Hodgson, and I’m trained to expect some grandeur with the horror after a shot like that.

    1. Hi, Charles. And things with lots of tentacles and vast oozing masses of flesh that exist partly in unknowable dimensions? I know where you are coming from. I loved Lovecraft as well. He died so young – can’t help but wonder where he would have gone with his fiction after that.

      I guess I had been in situations exactly like that movie and been freaked the hell out – so I had a head start. I sense things in situations like that I would rather not sense, so it’s reality for me.

  3. I stopped watching horror after watching ‘The People Under the Stairs’. My bedroom was in the basement and that movie really freaked me out! I used to think I was hearing things coming from the space under the stairs. Horror linked with common things makes you all the more scared because you can imagine it happening to you.

  4. Raises an interesting question about Alien, doesn’t it? I mean, a sleeping crew on an interstellar freighter (if I remember correctly)? Diverted by an emergency signal or some such… I suppose the cat maybe helped make Ripley a little more “familiar” and in some ways the setting was SF standard until they went into the organic caverns where … the alien lurked? Interesting…

    1. Absolutely. I think little touches like the cat help to create that link to character – after all who doesn’t love a fluffy animal:) I think you could extend that to anything the character cares about helping to establish a sympathetic link – i.e. even if they are tough and mean and perhaps not that likeable on the surface, if they love a stray dog, then you see something under the surface that is attractive.

      Chris McMahon

  5. Hi Chris,

    I think anything threatening “normal” life can be scary. That’s why urban warfare is so much more terrifying than, say, aerial combat.

    Superman fighting a horrible monster = comicbook fun
    An everyday family fighting same monster = horror

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