Doubt. Stolen manuscripts. Self-loathing. Censorship. Missed deadlines. Unanswered pitches. Typos in query letters. Spotty Wi-Fi? The horrors of writing range from the existential to the melodramatic.
Horror films are exercises in hyperbole. Writers are perfect characters for these tales of dread. Writers often become lost within the worlds of their minds. Their devotions to stories and poems can develop into frenetic obsessions. Writers crave solitude and distance, creating a barrier from the outside world. In a profession where rejection is constant, writers might take out their frustration on friends, partners, and children.
Writers are often the subjects of dramatic films, but less often the focus of horror. Perhaps writers don’t want to write their worst fears into reality. Still, there are enough tales of writerly woe and worry for poets, novelists, and essayists to ponder their deepest anxieties on the screen. Here are eight horror films about writers.
The film begins with an extended scene of composition interrupted by a phone call. Cathryn (Susannah York), a children’s book author, labors over a draft. Alone in a large house, she crumples and tears manuscript pages. She kneels and rolls on the floor, and then traces letters on a window while rain sprays the glass. When she finally does pick up the ringing phone, she hears a woman ask “Do you know where your husband is tonight?” One of Robert Altman’s largely forgotten films, Images delivers slick scares that are secondary to the psychological terror of a writer whose past and present with her lovers intersect to the point of confusion. Cathryn’s voiceover of the manuscript continues throughout the film — which turns out to be In Search of Unicorns, an actual fantasy novel for children published by York herself.
The Shining (1980)
The Overlook Hotel: a nightmare writer’s residency with spectacular views. Frustrated writer Jack Torrance is the winter caretaker of an expansive hotel in the Colorado mountains. He is alone there — except for his wife, his son, and the various spirits that occupy unlocked rooms and tend empty bars. Jack’s single-sentence manuscript might be the sign of madness, or a recursive experimental novel. In Stanley Kubrick’s house are many mansions: from spatial disorientation to Jack Nicholson’s whirlwind emotional shifts within a single scene (watch the bathroom sequence with the butler closely — is Jack evil, manipulated, or something else entirely?), The Shining might be the ultimate horror film about a writer.
Barton Fink (1991)
“I’m just having trouble getting started.” Playwright Barton Fink has moved to Hollywood to write for the movies. Capitol Pictures wants Barton to pen the script for a wrestling movie since he “knows the poetry of the streets.” Between a struggling writer and hallway shots of a haunted hotel, the nods to The Shining are many, but the tone is quite different. The Coen Brothers — who allegedly wrote this film about writer’s block to break their own real-life writer’s block while drafting Miller’s Crossing — probe the horrors of Hollywood. “This is a wrestling picture,” says studio executive Jack Lipnick. “The audience wants to see action, adventure, wrestling — and plenty of it. They don’t want to see a guy wrestling with his soul. Alright, a little for the critics.”
Romance novelist Paul Sheldon crashes during a blizzard. He is nursed back to health by his “number one fan,” Annie Wilkes. Health, of course, is a relative term. Wilkes becomes Sheldon’s tormentor when she discovers that his new manuscript contains profanities — and that Sheldon has killed off her favorite character in his most recent release. Other than the infamous ankle-breaking scene, the most painful sequence of the film might be when Annie forces Paul to burn his new manuscript.
Actor-novelist Ethan Hawke (Ash Wednesday, The Hottest State) plays Ellison Oswalt, a crime writer whose family moves into a home with a terrible past. Oswalt has been trying to recapture the success of Kentucky Blood, his first book, and turns to the murderous history of his new home as his next subject. He soon finds a boxful of Super 8 snuff films in the attic, and discovers a mystery far more frightening that any book he might have imagined.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)
Sam Dalmas, an American novelist living in Rome with his girlfriend, has writer’s block. He remains uninspired by Italy, but is soon about to become distracted from his literary worries. Sam views a brutal attack in an art gallery, and although the victim survives, Sam becomes embroiled in the serial killer’s carnage. Scored by Ennio Morricone, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage was director Dario Argento’s first film. He would later direct Tenebre, another slasher about an American author in Italy.
Castle of Blood (1964)
Alan Foster, a journalist from the London Times, wants to interview Edgar Allan Poe about his tales of horror and dread, but Poe assures him that every story he has written is true. Skeptical, the journalist accompanies Poe to a haunted castle, where, from midnight to sunrise, the dead come to life. Classic black-and-white atmospheric horror.
An “occult writer” of “ghost survival guides” who plays up the camp of his experiences but is actually skeptical of the supernatural, Mike Enslin has found his newest subject is Room 1408 of the Dolphin Hotel. Early in the film Enslin is having a reading and book signing for his newest book about haunted houses, and quips ghost stories are “awful convenient for desperate hotels when the interstate moves away.” While mindlessly signing copies of his new book, a fan surprises him with a copy of The Long Road Home, his only novel. The fan says she bought the copy on eBay, and asks the question every author fears: “are you going to write another one like this one?” Although the bulk of 1408 occurs in the devilish hotel room where the manager says no one else has lasted more than an hour, for writers, a room haunted by demons pales in comparison to the fear that our best work is behind us.
Image Credit: Pexels.