From my experience watching and reading horror novels, grief always leaves an indelible impression on characters, even more so when those characters are parents, and deeper still when the grief is driven by the loss of a child.
In some cases it is not the loss of a child physically but mentally, that old case where rearing children in a particular way leads the child to exhibiting unexpected behaviour. The “christian” parents whose child abandons the faith. The overprotective parents whose child rebels. And so on.
Sadly, in most cases, it does not take a supernatural occurrence to drive the child into that state, but adding the hyperbole that is horror into the mix, we as the audience see the depths that grief can bring out in people.
It’s not always extreme cases, such as the abuse Carrie White faces from her peers and mother in Carrie, or Alessa Gillespie’s abuse and eventual immolation in Silent Hill or the abusive history of Toshio Saeki in The Grudge.
Sometimes it’s much, much less subtle, such as Cody in Before I Wake:
Still mourning the death of their son, Mark and Jessie Hobson welcome foster child Cody into their lives. Soon they discover he has a strange ability.
The premise for this dark-fantasy horror film is quite simple. Cody has the ability to make his dreams come to life while he is asleep, and they vanish as soon as he wakes. Sadly he can’t control the ability, and as you can imagine, his nightmares are inevitable.
Writing Style / Atmosphere
Before I Wake carries less of a grisly/dark atmosphere prevalent in horror films. Initially it is much brighter, creating a false sense of security and augmented by Cody’s first dreams coming to life as beautiful blue butterflies, real as they are surreal.
As the story progresses, so does the growing oppressive aura around the whole film, deepened at night when shadows loom around every corner, automatically drawing our eyes to them as we anticipate something lurking in the darkness. This digression is then shown when the butterflies become moths.
Writing: Word choice is as important to creating this gloomy atmosphere as lighting and camera technique is to movies. Not every scene should be foreboding, but there will be elements that coalesce to paint an overarching mood/ambience.
- Word choice will hint at the unsaid, willing the reader to see more than you’ve told.
- Foreshadowing gives readers a glimpses of what is to or may come, increasing the sense of apprehension.
- Sub-plots that seem minor or circumstantial (The Cranker Man) can merge with the bigger picture to tell a much deeper, darker story.
- A few deaths necessary to the plot will help add to the reality of this horror.
Before I Wake centers around a child’s known fear they can’t explain, made manifest by parents who downplay that fear.
The character development of both Jessie and Cody, intertwine perfectly to bring this fear alive. Cody is aware that his nightmares coming to life could mean losing his parents both a) physically from the nightmare monster, and b) physically as his ability may scare them off and send him to another foster home. To a child’s mind, these are very real fears.
You see how he attempts to overcome it in the choices he makes, such as reading books about butterflies to keep the nightmares away (among others), and drinking anything to keep himself awake.
Writing: Writing about a fear is never easy. This is why character development plays an important role in creating that sense of unease and dread.
- Let the fear correlate with the characters. Cody’s main fear is the nightmare creature he calls “The Cranker Man” and later on in the movie we get the full story of where the name comes from and why he is so afraid of him.
- Ground the fear into the characters until its almost tangible enough that it manifests itself into an almost irrational terror. Cody forced to stay awake leads to an incident that literally haunts him later in the movie, solidifying his fear of both sleeping and The Cranker Man.
- Not all fears are rational, however, how you inject and show that fear in characters will make it more plausible and relatable. This helps you turn even the most irrational fear into a paranoid-fueled rational fear.
The true horror is not in the fact that Cody’s nightmares come to life per se, but grief.
Cody’s grief created The Cranker Man.
Jessie Hobson’s indomitable grief drove her to use Cody’s abilities for herself. Her first child accidentally drowned in the bath so, as a recently grieving mother also suffering from deep-seated guilt, you can imagine the appeal of your new foster child bringing your dead child to life at the mere cost of sleeping. This obsession eventually blurs the line between being a good mom and being a grieving mother.
Mark, Jessie’s husband, sees his wife’s digression and gets drawn in too at first. Sadly he does little to help comfort her, even when he realises just how far she’s been willing to go to use Cody’s abilities.
Writing: In my opinion, writing horror shouldn’t only be about scares and gore and ghosts (among other things). Yes there’s a place for it, but looking at Before I Wake, there’s also delving into the human psyche.
- Put yourself in each character’s shoes and ask yourself how you would react in that situation. More importantly, why.
- Asking why helps build solid characters. Does the answer slowly grind away at the character’s sanity or belief to the point where logic and realism blur with the illogical and surreal.
- What are your character’s flaws? Test them severely. Usually in horrors, the characters end up making bad decisions. (Running up the stairs, going into the basement, playing that evil blues record they were told not to).
It would have been easy for this movie to simply be about Jessie and Mark trying to figure out what causes Cody’s dreams coming to life, but before that we see Jessie’s character digression, fueled by the very real and palpable experience of grief. We see innocents suffer for it too. This character flaw not only frustrates (don’t go there!), but shows us that sometimes we’re willing to justify doing the unthinkable for the sake of getting what we think we need. Whether its safety or
Isn’t that true horror?
The visible “Cranker Man” is not the villain of this film. He is actually a physical manifestation of Cody’s fear, interlinked with an event in his past and his own coping mechanism for that trauma. He is more Cody’s protector than some nightmare creature like Freddy Kruger would be.
Cody himself is not the villain of this film. Sure it’s his nightmares and physically materialised creature that threatens those around him, but it’s really just how his young mind is trying to cope.
Jessie herself is not the villain either, though her actions are selfish and put her herself, husband and Cody in danger. But as explained, she too is suffering and this is her way of coping, though in her eventual effort to finally solve the mystery of Cody’s dream, she helps bring closure to everyone.
The real villain is actually something more real and not at all supernatural or otherwise. It’s a reality that affects many people in the real world, and this film is about how it affects those around people who fall victim to both its effect and high mortality rate. It was given a personification in Before I Wake, the hyperbole of horror, to show how devastating its effects would be.
Spoiler – highlight to read it.
“The Cranker Man” is Cody mispronouncing the word cancer, which is how his biological mother died, and the Cranker Man is the only way his young mind is able to grasp this unseen monster. This real killer.
Writing: There’s a lot to pull out of this in terms of writing, and how it is the reason why the story, fear factor, character flaw, and final twist work so well together. This is because the horror is not a supernatural being, or some otherworldly creature that one can simply overcome by stabbing or shutting a door leading to the “beyond”. Nor is it a masked killer who is actually just human. It is the real horror of every day life for some people.
- Not every creature/entity has to be mythological or supernatural. Sometimes its something as simple as a virus e.g. zombie apocalypse.
- The story itself is not always about the creature/entity, but how those around it are coping with the reality of its existence. The entities add the suspense and action. E.g. The Mist by Stephen King.
- Not every horror ends in despondency. Sometimes there really is light at the end of the tunnel, and they live on past the darkness.
Before I Wake was initially called Somnia and was co-written by Director Mike Flanagan and co-writer Jeff Howard. Flanagan had to say about writing the script for this film:
“I think that for someone like me, monsters and ghosts are very real but only in so much as the ones we create, the ones we are all haunted by. They have everything to do with our past, with regrets, mistakes we’ve made, people and time we’ve lost … Somnia, even more than Oculus, is dealing with intense feelings of loss, and of the worse kind. I don’t know if there’s any real world horror, or a personal level at least, that can compare with losing a child. I think my other movies have been building up to Somnia in a way.”
Here’s a trailer for the movie…
Let me know if you’ve seen this film and your thoughts about it. If you’re a writer, horror or otherwise, was this helpful to you? Any way that it could be improved? Let me know in the comments below.