Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Children in Horror : Interview with John Ajvide Lindqvist

Author John Ajvide Lindqvist resides in the beautiful archipelago of Stockholm, Sweden. It is in this peaceful safe heaven that Ajvide Lindqvist conjures up his dark and disturbing, but still very human dramas. Dramas that have captivated audiences with their horrific elements set in a very realistic and normal world.

During 2008/2009 the movie Swedish movie Let the Right One In, with a screenplay written by Ajvide Lindqvist, based on his novel of the same name, conquered the world, quickly becoming a milestone of contemporary horror. With small resources the movie focuses on the human elements and relationships of an ordinary world to show that it’s the small details around us that scare us the most.

Whilst in the midst of completing Lilla Stjärna (Little Star), he took time out of his schedule to talk with me for the TV show Skräckministeriet (The Minstry of Fear) and this is the transcript of that session with John Ajvide Lindqvist during a rainy afternoon in September 2009. Picking his own location for the interview, Ajvide Lindqvist took me to an abandoned miniature golf course where the connection between young innocence and everyday horrors where apparent. A fitting milieu as we discussed the benefits and disadvantages of children in horror storytelling.

Jason: Why Do children appear so frequently in Horror Fiction?

John Ajvide Lindqvist: I believe that there is an number of reasons, where the simplest is really that if you want to scare, if you want it to be creepy, then it is very important that the reader or your audience can identify with the person who is to be scared. The protagonist that is going to confront the nasty monster or what ever it may be. And with adult actors there is always a certain barrier that inhibits me from identifying with the person they are playing. They have a certain speech, certain clothes, things that inhibit me. I’m not Brad Pitt no matter how much I would want to be. On the other hand, a child in frame, or text is read as incomplete, and it’s easier to enter the child’s mind. This makes it easier to connect it to when I was a child, when I was little. And that is an easy step to take, and a preferable one.

Then there are obviously other reasons. Children are something that we want to take care of and protect, and they are not supposed to be put through anything nasty. But when they are, it becomes so much more unpleasant. After all, there are still some sorts of Taboo’s in the horror world. They have been bent and twisted these last years with the Torture Porn genre, films like Martyrs (Pascal Laugier 2008) and those kinds of movies. But the film that first combines children and the torture elements, I feel that that’s where you pass a line. I don’t really think that it would be possible. Thank god.

But this really engages us. Nothing engages us as much as children. As soon as there is a youth related problem, kids in the ages of seventeen, eighteen, the newspapers report on it in a completely different manner than say when a child goes missing, or is killed. There is an extra level of uncomfort when you are dealing with children in vulnerable settings. And even children as perpetrators, which I find the uncanny. For me the scariest scene ever is in the opening of the Dawn of the Dead remake (Zack Snyder 2004) where a young girl has become zombiefied, and during the night walks in to her parent’s room. She walks in with a rapid pace and throws herself over the father, tearing open his throat. This child with its childlike movement pattern as she walks in wearing her nightgown to seek comfort with her parents, you can recognize those movements and the familiar shuffling, but suddenly ”Crack” you realize that she’s something completely different than you have envisioned and her movements change drastically. It’s a very scary scene.

J: But how come they evoke such strong emotions within the audience. Why do they create empathy?

JAL: Children! Well it’s quite obvious actually, it’s partially because children need to be taken care of, protected and sheltered from harm. If you have children it’s almost your main task as an adult, to take care of your child.

But then I think that many horror films and horror storytellers dig deep into the hole that is their own childhood to reach a more original fear. A fear that is nameless. As an adult we can rationalize out thoughts. This is that, and that scares me where that doesn’t. But as a child the stuff out there in the dark or that strange noise under the bed could be anything. If I want to conjure up something that is really scary, an image of something really horrible, then I almost always have to go back to my early years to find a description of that fear. And I think these are emotions and fears that many who write, or work with horror use in their work.

There are so many aspects to this, and an essential part is also that the child’s consciousness is so special. Children in-between the ages of five to seven can easily see a piece of junk as the most valuable treasure in the world. When you are a child, things and events are what you decide that they are. You decide that this certain object is the most precious ever; you decide that that corner of the garden is the most creepy and so on. As an adult you don’t think like that anymore, which gives credibility to depicting a Childs point of view, hence making it a believable reality. If you see someone with blood pouring from his mouth, an adult would think “Oh they must be shooting a movie here.” or that the person has injured his mouth. A child thinks, “A Vampire, it’s a Vampire!” And because they decide this, it also becomes their reality. This is why children in stories are used as doors into other realities, because they accept it more willingly than adults do.

J: Why do you think we react so much more when children are in peril than when adults are in peril?

JAL: I feel that the main flaw in many horror films is that I can’t identify with the man characters. There’s the college horror flicks that where so popular for a while, where you have the guy with the shirtless t-shirt, and all these zombies that have picked up a load of stuff in the garden to kill their victims in all kinds of imaginative ways, and this guy is the hero. He’s the one that is going to save us all, and I don’t like him. I don’t believe in him, he’s a bad actor and had a supporting role in say Beverly Hills, and how he has his first shot at being a star, and he sucks. I just want the monster to come and kill him so that the nerdy kid who at least has had one interesting line of dialogue can get a shot in at the monster with the spade… But no honestly there’s such an obstacle with identifying with characters for adults, specifically if I have something against the character you know, if they are the kind that I can’t like or can’t identify with. It’s hard not to identify with a child, and even if the child was evil or malicious you tend to identify with it anyhow. Especially if it’s an adult environment.

J: You frequently use children as a driving force in own way or another in your narrative, especially for your main characters. As in Människohamn (Harbor), the child element is the explanation to why Anders has sunk so low as a human, and also what drives him to go up against his antagonism…

JAL: The reason for using children in my stories is that they are so effective for the kind of tales I tell, because they don’t have the preconceived ideas of what is real and unreal. An adult wouldn’t, apart from say Twilight or True Blood, willingly accept that this person I like is a vampire, but I love him anyway. Or that things can come from the other side of reality, that this may be for real. Not thinking that it’s a disease or someone acting out, or wearing makeup, but instead accepts the presence of an alternative reality. In Människohamn for an instance I can’t imagine a stronger driving force. Why? Well for me personally I have to write my stories so that they hurt me when I write them. And I can’t imagine anyone going to the extremes that Anders goes to in Människohamn for anything else than the loss of a child. Affection for another person, an adult such as his wife for instance, would demand so much more explanation. I could imagine this love, but there would be a whole load of description for the reader to accept this love as so huge and powerful that he goes to the extremes he does to save it. But with a child the most people can relate to this affection, and know that, Yeah you would go that far to save a child. You would descend into the underworld if necessary.

J: I get the feeling that there’s a lot of YOU in your books.

JAL: Nah… Really?

J: Well yeah I have interpreted it to be you anyhow. The Standup comedian, the magician and his tricks, the bullied child at school… Well that’s how I interpret it, or at least I want to interpret it as being you. There’s a part in Handling the Undead where one of the main characters is a stand up comedian and you describe his worry that nobody will laugh at his act, in Let the Right One In, where Oskar hiding in the basement hears the other boys coming for him… I feel that those passages are more horror than monsters and flying entities. There’s an honest everyday horror in there. Do you exorcize your own fears through your books?

JAL: Well I don’t know if I do really. I use them to tell stories, so in one way I use my own fears as driving forces. Mostly my fears of loosing the ones I love, but working them out or exorcizing, I don’t think so. But then again perhaps I do considering that I’m quite a happy guy, or actually a very happy guy which I probably shouldn’t be considering the images that come to mind when I sit down to write. I still surprise and shock myself when I sit down to write. I find myself thinking that this time it’s going to be an easy process, and there won’t be any problems… but then the psychological complications start and it gets darker and darker. The story I‘m writing right now is terribly dark and sinister, and I can’t really understand why I write in this manner. I suppose that there’s something there as it makes me a content person, but when I write it gets dark. Pitch black. But working things out, I don’t think so. I don’t feel that I have so much to work out. And then, of course I do use a fair amount of my own background, my previous jobs, and myself in my text. Like I don’t know what it’s like work in a butchers shop or a mechanical workshop, I know nothing about it, but I do know what it’s like to be a stand up comedy performer and a magician. I was also know about child care too, I worked in a daycare center for two years – it was the only normal job I’ve ever had, and some work as a teacher too. But outside of that I have to find out about stuff, and I have to research other fields of work, but I don’t like doing that.

J: Children in danger, exposed to threat, they engage us so much, you know the child must not be hurt, but if we flip that around and have a child threatening instead… in many ways this is more frightening than what murderers or monsters are. Why do you think that is?

JAL: I think that it’s easier to threaten us with children than using them as identification objects in film and text because children shouldn’t be a menace. They should represent the good, the friendly and even the Disney figures are being remolded towards baby shapes so that they can be as harmless as possible. So when a child becomes a threat, when a child picks up a tool and attacks… this is what I’m writing about right now… it becomes very scary. It crosses a kind of border when they become threatening, and theoretically you could portray say rabbits, bunnies attacking humans and even that would be scary. But it doesn’t, it becomes silly, it becomes Monty Python. But it should become scary, as they are so harmless. It’s a wide step to take, and it becomes almost a parody. You can imagine little bunnies with tiny, tiny chainsaws skipping along [laughs] kind of Tim Burtonesque. It just doesn’t work. But with children you are on the right track, it is still conceivable, you can imagine a child snapping and becoming evil…

J: …But at the same time it’s so tricky using children as evil entities as there are so much values that you interpret into the narrative…

JAL: …Yeah, but the thing is that you’d rather apply all that to children. Evil is a very problematic conception, you could take a person in prison and follow a chain of events backwards and claim that nobody really is guilty. If we have an infant that has a load of stuff happen to it up to the day where it as an adult walks into a bank with a sawed off shotgun only to shot two people, or with an automatic weapon which they use these days, well… There’s always a chain of events and explanations that make people innocent. And this is a social necessity that we have, that we need to have to define where the lines and rules are drawn…I don’t really know if that was an answer to a question really…

J: I’m not sure that I asked a question… [Joined laugher] But what sort of emotions does the threatened child produce?

JAL: I think that it’s a combination of the fact that a child needs protecting, and that a child which is threatening, instead of being cute and kind, is very scary because we also feel that we have to protect the child from the evil influence that may turn them bad. There are plenty of movies where children are possessed by demons or the devil and then go about doing evil things. The Omen and such, well he’s the Devil’s son so that may be different, but there are several other examples. It’s a combination of those two things. That children need to be protected from the evil that may enter them, turning them evil themselves. There’s always more of a guilt element there than in say a movie with a psycho killer in a hockey mask. You wouldn’t say to him, “No, your not really evil, we have to fix you so that you change your ways…” You wouldn’t say that to Jason in Friday the 13th, but a child can go so much further in it’s evil ways or threats before it becomes unacceptable and we have to back away, which gives the evil child in the movies a whole lot more of opportunities to get to the warm flesh it craves.

J: I feel that there’s a wider tolerance towards children that perform acts that could be interpreted as evil…

JAL: You can look at Mary Bell, or those two kids in England who killed James Bulger a couple of years ago. There was outrage and a moral panic, and people wanted the death penalty for these two kids. And lifetimes sentences, even though these children where like nine, ten years old. Just because, things like that can’t happen. Children are not supposed to perform evil deeds like that. This can’t be around my family, or my own children in any way. The thought that my children could engage in acts like this it can’t happen. We have to punish, or kill these children for their acts. Because it is unthinkable, children can’t be this evil.

J: It’s quite a complex weave, using children as part of a dramatic flow. I’m thinking about Eli in Let the Right One In who actually does kill people, but as a reader you feel that it’s still ok…

JAL: In my opinion, this is because as soon as someone is engaged in a love story, when there’s love at play in one way or another, then you really, really want these two lovers to get each other and at any cost. You know it’s like, Eli – clear all obstacles, kill them all… Oscar – get the knife, do something… As long as the two lovers get each other, but there needs to be distance and obstacles between them so that you can like them.

J: Yeah, that’s what I mean; you buy into it in a completely different way. It’s the same in Handling the Undead, where Elias is a child that’s come back from the dead, and normally I’d fill him with negative values. But I don’t, instead I feel for him and his suffering.

JAL: Yeah, but he’s not portrayed as an evil zombie though.

J: No, definitely not, but the zombie as a phenomenon usually is an evil being just like the vampire is a monster, an entity.

JAL: Well that’s kind of where I’m focusing, and where I primarily work. I try to twist and turn convention. But if you where to stop and think about it, how would it really be? Why would zombies want to eat our brains? I don’t know… do you realize how difficult it will be for them to make the movie of Handling the Undead, with this child zombie? We’ve discussed that a lot.
 (There is currently a production of Handling the Undead in the shape of a TV serial in the works)

J: Children as protagonist or antagonist, which do you find most exciting to work with?

JAL: I tend to combine both those things, that the child is the protagonist, the one we are following, the one that drives the tale forward, and at the same time being the one that you have to watch out for. Especially in the story that I’m writing right now. It’s hard to answer that question right now, as that story isn’t really there yet, Lilla Stjärna [Little Star] the one I’m working with now, because this one contains a lot of that what we have been talking about. A child that does really bad and terrible things.

J: What’s the thought process when you describe a child that does bad deeds? It feels as if it would be much more difficult to write about children doing bad things, than good.

JAL: But I don’t think it is, because I like the company of the language that arises, the speech patterns that come up when I try to set my mind equal to a child explaining it’s actions. I feel that it is much more interesting and fun than writing about an adult, because then you have a hell of a lot of rationalization, but if a child wraps the reasons of its actions in some sort of mental imagery it becomes a lot simpler and obvious. But as an adult you have to work with guild and anguish while children are easier to see to use because it gives other effects than for an adult. Like suddenly not liking Cornflakes or something that I can remember from my childhood and put in a context. In all honesty I like child protagonists as I feel they are much more interesting. Portraying an evil child that does vile things isn’t that interesting for me, I have a tendency to move about inside the enemy’s head at the same time too.

J: Previously we talked about being a child and deciding that a certain areas are dangerous; that part of the garden is bad and such, and also that children and adults react to things in different ways. I think that this is something that we all can relate to, you know, those fixed idea’s like that there’s something nasty hiding under the stairs to the basement and so on. And I feel that there are a lot of those themes and elements in your texts, which one can relate to on a personal level which make it so engaging.

JAL: But that’s just what it is! That’s why children work so fine in tales like these, because the rules of the world are fairly unknown when you are eight, nine years old. How does stuff work? Do monsters live in the sewers? Could something actually fit under my bed; are there doors that lead to a secret place? Could humans in fact be robots in disguise that just look like ordinary persons? There’s still a possibility that this may be possible. Like whey you as an adult take a look out over that cliff that when you where a child was enormous, or that gigantic puddle that you almost had to swim over, but as an adult pass over with half a step. It’s in that condition that these stories are so rewarding, and I like being there in that world and that consciousness when I’m writing.

J: I’m not going to ask you if you are afraid of the GB Man… [a clown illustration which is the logo of an ice cream company – and figures briefly in Människohamn]

JAL: Nah, don’t because I’m not. That was one of those things with my son when he was younger. It was just like Människohamn, he had a fear of something else, and I used it as an example, you know; “That’s like being afraid of the GB Man…” and he became afraid of the GB Man.

You know all of this stuff that we’ve been discussing, it’s all contained in that wonderful scene in Frankenstein [1931] where the monster is sat at the edge of the lake with a little girl and there she is throwing flowers to the water and it’s all so peaceful and beautiful, and the monster finds the girl so beautiful that he throws her in the water too. It’s almost like a comedy sketch when you talk about it like this, but that is a very scary and wonderful scene with so many layers to it. The monster as this weak fragile being, and on the other side he is completely unaware of the consequences of his actions, he just reenacts what he sees the girl doing. It’s a great example of how terribly wrong things can go. I could write a piece on the horror genre from everything that’s going on in that scene.

J: It was removed from the film when it was released for TV in the late thirties. Supposedly [Boris] Karloff himself fought to get the sequence removed from the film because he found it too disturbing.

JAL: Yeah it was just too much for them. But it was reinserted for the re-issue a few years back. But they are still incredible both of those two movies.

J: But like you say, it’s all there in that one little scene, the discussion about good or evil as he kills a child, but at the same time it’s not because of him being evil that it happens. It’s like in Steinbeck’s, Of Mice and Men, where Lenny, the retarded brother, squeezes a pet mouse to death. He just can’t get it, he can’t understand that he’s done something wrong, because all he wanted was to give the mouse affection, but smothers it with his love.

JAL: Yeah it’s the same sort of scene.

J: On the subject of innocent items impending threat, like the GB Man, what is it with the attributes that surround children, clowns, dolls, playgrounds, and music boxes…

JAL: Or Pokémon cards!

J: Yeah, they are all very effective tools to manipulate us with, why do you think that is?

JAL: Well it’s because they are children in a figurative manner, they are part of the childlike, and therefore they should be associated with something fluffy, cute and nice. If you make such a place threatening it becomes creepy. Or when you use those items to kill people. It becomes even creepier because you are almost corrupting those attributes using them in horror contexts. It’s used all the time in horror, I mean, although it’s sort of a different thing, what about all these old baby prams! You know the big ones with the tops folded up to conceal something. There’s something very disturbing there for some reason. There’s a lot that could be wrong inside that pram.

J: There sure is. I myself, find children such an extremely effective narrative tool, and even more when put in the off screen space, in the area we can’t see as it forces us to visualize stuff that is more scary than could be shown or put in text. It’s very effective.

JAL: But when I write I use the areas that affect me the most, I use the stuff I feel most affectionate towards, even if I’m going to break it, or destroy it in the story. And that’s where Bamse (a Swedish cartoon bear – referenced in Människohamn) automatically engages the most readers, you know “Fwoosh” – a series of associations and emotions from when you where a child are set in motion by Bamse, Bamse dolls, the Bamse comics and all those things. There is an emotional resonance in there that contemporary items don’t hold for you as an adult. I think that the attributes that belong to children hold a powerful emotional resonance for me, that’s why I use them. They are all inside me and loaded with positive values, so if you for instance say Saltkråkan (a Swedish TV family show from the 60’s that took place in the archipelago) well then most people think of the pastel colored TV images that you liked so much as a child, and if you put this in a creepy context, well then there’s an added level of threat there as it in some psychological way threatens our nice safe childhood. Using these safe areas, Bamse, Saltkråkan there’s a threat towards the child in us, towards our own innocence.

J: Sure, it is very effective, and I think of when I read Let the Right One In, there are so many pop-cultural references that really nail the time period, the atmosphere and emotions of that age. I was mentally sitting in my room as a young lad on several occasions as I read it, and it’s very tangible with all those time capsule references to TV shows, pop music on the radio, the clothes and all that.

JAL: Yeah it was fun finding all those things, reminiscing the old days when Kiss was written with zedd’s allover the place.

J: Although I don’t feel that theirs is as much of that time capsule in the other books. Well not down to that same level of detail at least…

JAL: I don’t really agree, I feel that there is, in some way anyhow. It wasn’t a conscious decision, it just happened, and I think that many will encounter this if you write about a time when your conscious starts to take shape and you start to discover the world. There are a lot of flavors, colors and tastes there. What the butter carton looked like, what it felt like in your hands and so on. There’s almost a guilty pleasure in there which should make the story less effective, but when I read it myself for the audio book, I noticed two things, one was that I felt the book was more scary than I imagined it to be, and secondly that there perhaps was a little too much of the references. I think that I in some ways got swept away with it when I was sat writing it. All those feelings and impressions.

J: Yeah but at the same time I feel, and I’m sure many others do too, what makes Let the Right One In such a unique book. It’s really a document of a time long gone. A time of innocence left behind.

J: You mentioned Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs earlier. Have you seen it?

JAL: Yeah!

J: What did you think of it?

JAL: I thought… Well I said to someone who asked me, I said “It’s a great movie, don’t watch it!” I saw it at a horror film festival in London where Let the Right One In was being screened, it was almost like a Lars Von Trier film in an emotional way, but after Martyrs I was completely devastated. I honestly wished that I had never seen it because I found it to be so disturbing, so wrecking. It’s like Haneke’s Funny Games [the original in 1997 and then his own US remake in 2007], I found that one very disturbing too, but these movies make you think further about them, and take them out of the theater. They stay in your head and you can go over them again and again. I didn’t enjoy it, but it is a very effective movie, I’m not sure if it is a good film, but at the same time it is. It’s extremely well made, and I can’t really get it out of my head, which must mean something.

J: Yeah, I saw it a few weeks back, and I can’t either get it out of my head because it is such an effective movie and so extremely…

JAL: Harrowing! But the problem is that he is such a talented director. He’s very good, and it’s a good movie, a really good movie.

J: It’s so fascinating that he can drive it so deep into those dark and diabolic levels of black, pain, suffering and anxiety that the downbeat ending comes off as a happy one when she reaches this martyr state and moves on to a better place in some way…

JAL: Yeah, I know… But then perhaps not… [Shrugs – Sighs and groans] I don’t want to think about that film. It is powerful stuff. Laughier said during one of these face-to-face sessions afterwards that the film was solely an image of his own depression; he’d had such a depression that this was his visualization of that state.

J: Martyrs?

JAL: Yeah, Laugier who made it, but that’s what Trier says about AntiChrist [2009] too.

J: I didn’t know that about Laugier, but with Trier I can kind of make sense of it. With the years I’ve put into this project studying how horror works and why, and, especially with our discussion on the child’s part in the genre, and how horror affects us. Even though Freudian analysis is somewhat obsolete, if you do bring the Freudian theory – what happens in your childhood is reflected in your life as an adult to the table, it gives a really bizarre and disturbing chain of thought to the case of Lars Von Trier. I read an article in the paper about Trier where it said that his mother on her deathbed revealed to him that his father wasn’t his real father, but that she’d been unfaithful with a renowned artist as to give her child artistic genes. Obviously this disturbed him and he went into a depression which resulted in AntiChrist, and putting this into the context of who Lars Von Trier is, – one of the most artistic, talented and acknowledged Danish directors of all time. I mean that must have disturbed him profoundly as his mothers “experiment” worked and he became who he is today.

JAL: Yes it makes you think doesn’t it. Trier and Guillermo Del Toro are my favorite directors. They are just amazing. I feel that Riket [1994, 1997] is the best production ever made for TV, it’s just so… wow.

J: But Del Toro is like that too, and he, just like Trier in Riket and AntiChrist use children as a tool in the narrative.

JAL: Sure, Like Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth [2006], it’s probably my all time favorite all categories. And these movies are so effective because they use the child in their storytelling, it’s woven into the narrative and the child factor engages us. We want to see the child pull though, stay safe and live to tell the tale a story wiser. They do evoke emotions that are essential to us as human beings, and used the right way they are powerful tools.

J: John Ajvide Lindqvist, that’s a perfect summary of our discussion and I thank you for taking the time to talk with me. Thank you.

JAL: Thank You.

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