Drawing the dark

by Alexandra Sokoloff

I have a dilemma.   I want to see The Last Exorcism this weekend but am too afraid to go alone.

(Where is my brother when I need him?)

This is the kind of movie that separates my friends from… my weird friends.   While I know all of you – most of you – would happily jaunt off to this movie with me, all in a day’s work, after all – there are other people who don’t see this kind of movie because they just don’t want that stuff in their heads.   I get these people at booksignings a lot.   “I want to read your books but I’m too scared.”   Fair enough – I’d never force anyone to open that door.

And because I’m very much into recovery these days, I have a lot of people around me who don’t want that kind of thing in their heads.    Hence not so many people right at hand who would go see The Last Exorcism with me.

I actually love going to movies alone – it feels decadent and I don’t have to pretend to make conversation when actually I’m there to take notes for my blog.   But this one – well, I’m not exactly expecting a masterpiece (did it have to be a Southern preacher?), but I’ve got a pretty good imagination and possession can take me all kinds of places that the movie isn’t really going, if you see what I mean.

In fact I had one of my – actually quite infrequent – but life-changingly intense nightmares last week, on this very subject.   So I am now dying to see this movie (and seeing it alone might be exactly what I need to do) but also a little worried about what it’s going to do to my psyche.   Of course I WILL go see it because the whole point is to fling open those doors in my psyche so I will have more nightmares so I can write about them – I’ve already got a book in mind from that last dream.

But – just hypothetically, you understand – what are we really doing to ourselves when we constantly, deliberately open those doors?

You may be beginning to see that this post is actually just an extension of Stephen’s post from yesterday, in which most of us were reveling in our comfort level with violence above sex, or violent sex.   Well, the dark is our job.   I don’t have to ask any of you why you write about these things.   I know why I write about these things.    Because they’re THERE.    Ever since I was a child, and I mean like a child of four, I have been stunned and outraged that people walk around pretending these things, like for example, evil, don’t exist.    I write it with a supernatural edge, because it’s hard for me to deal with evil without getting across that feeling of something supernaturally powerful at work, but it’s really human evil that I’m talking about.   I think if you don’t acknowledge it’s there, THAT’S when it can really get to work and do some major damage.

But there’s another aspect to my attraction to the dark, which is that I have an attraction to the dark.

A writer friend of mine just sent me a book with a perfect discussion of this, that asks among other things:  “Do you want to watch Andy Griffith or The Last Picture Show?   Do you want to hear Pat Boone or Little Richard?”  (it gets progressively more graphic, but I’ll need to ask him to quote him and anyway, you get the drift.)

Would you rather watch Eat Pray Love or The Last Exorcism?

A year ago I wouldn’t have had the slightest problem answering that last, but today, I am experiencing some discomfort with my answer.

I don’t think there’s any doubt that writing is a no-boundaries kind of profession and mindspace.   Most of us here have openly admitted that half the time we don’t even remember what we write and quite often are blown away by what we read when we pick up our mss for those rewrites.  

Now, I know for a fact that I started writing what I do because I saw it in my life, and my friends’ lives, and my school life, and life life.   No doubt which came first, there.   But you know how they say, “Life imitates art”?

Well, does that thought ever bother anyone else?

Writing is a powerful thing.   It manifests.   No one can tell me otherwise.

I had that possession dream. So one option is that I could take it as the obvious sign it is that there is a toxicity in a dynamic I have with someone that is actually dangerous and frightening to me…  cut off the relationship, and continue to heal myself.

Or I could fling that door open wide, run through it, and inhabit the dream for the next year as my next book.

Maybe it’s not an either/or question.   I think any one of us could make the argument that inhabiting the book would be healing.   Could be healing, I mean.   But is that a true argument?   If there is healing in writing a book, it seems to me a happy byproduct of the main purpose of writing a book, which is to bring a story to life.    If I approached it as a healing exercise… would that make a better story or no story at all?    If I used the healing part as the protagonist’s character arc, would that just be a clever rationalization for dwelling in the dark?

I honestly don’t know.

So I wondered today if you all ever wondered or worried about what dwelling in the dark does to you, on a long-term basis.   Do you think you’d be a happier person if you wrote lighter books?   Do you care?   Do you think dwelling in the dark draws the dark?  

And – if you feel like telling us – Why do YOU write what you do?

(PS:  Realistically,  if I went to see Eat Pray Love this weekend – I might enjoy it, but I’d still come home thinking about when I could get off to see The Last Exorcism. )

42 thoughts on “Drawing the dark

  1. Laura Jane Thompson

    For me, reading and writing about evil has more to do with empathy and hope. I feel like, if I can confront the worst among us on the page or in the movies, I can believe in the best among us. I wouldn't say that it's an exercise in healing, per se, but more a necessary acknowledgment. I've never been the type to bury my head in the sand.

    My favorite books are those that bring me hope in the end. I love books where the white hats are placed in such perilous situations that I can't imagine they will survive, but they do. It isn't about living happily ever after, but about holding the evil at bay — at least for a while.

    But I don't think that exploring evil through literature and cinema forces writers (or readers) into the dark. Even when a book has a profound psychological effect on me, I can always take comfort in the fact that there was an equally strong opposing force.

    Maybe none of that makes sense. 🙂

  2. PK the Bookeemonster

    I think there are levels of dark, like in the movie Inception regarding dreams. There's dark and there's darker, etc. I also think that if you do accept those images and thoughts in your mind then there is a higher possibility of attracting it into your life (the "thoughts create reality" school of new age-ism). The mind is so much more powerful than we realize, therefore, I think people can also attach the thought to most darkness that "this is fiction" and suffer little consequence.Things get blurred when one loses that "this isn't real" thought and begins to embrace the dark to the point of believe it and then acting it and then enacting it on others.

    Would I go to that movie with you? Sorry, no. I know it's just a movie but I don't want those images with me. Nor would I go to Eat, Pray, Love — I've read the book and enjoyed it but I don't want to see Julia Roberts contemplating her navel. 🙂 I haven't seen Salt yet though …

  3. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Laura, you've said exactly how I feel, right here:

    "I love books where the white hats are placed in such perilous situations that I can't imagine they will survive, but they do. It isn't about living happily ever after, but about holding the evil at bay — at least for a while."

    That is my definition of a perfect book (or movie). And it's good to hear that you don't think that writing the dark means drawing it.

  4. Wen Baragrey

    I don't always write about the dark side, I am at the moment, but I don't always. It's my favorite subject, though.

    My reason for loving horror, thrillers, and the dark side in general is simple — it makes real life seem less horrible. Strange, I know. But the thing is, when I know it isn't real, I can enjoy the ride without fearing for my life. It's much nicer that way. It's like riding a roller coaster, the thrills without the risk 🙂

  5. Alexandra Sokoloff

    PK, absolutely agree – there are levels of dark. Rape and torture are lines I won't cross – possession is a far lesser evil, to me.

    Salt, though, is a level of Hollywood evil to me that I'm just not interested in subjecting myself to. Remember Angelina in Girl, Interrupted? Terrible movie but what a talent she was. Was.

  6. billie

    I'm fascinated with the question "does dwelling in the dark draw the dark?"

    I don't really know the answer to that, but what I think is true, and what seems true in my books, is that we lose depth when we don't explore the shadows. There are deeper shadows (and dark caves) that are individual to each of us and to our characters, and those probably get explored over and over again during the course of a life (or a book). And there are lighter shadows that we encounter along the way, that aren't so personal to us, but that we navigate because they're there.

    Not sure if that makes sense.

    And in a hilarious aside, husband just served my morning coffee, and I complained that it was "too light" – he says "there's a lot of coffee in there" and I answer, "it's just not dark enough." He wants to know "does it need more coffee or does it have too much cream?" Isn't that the exact question we need to know the answer to? LOL.

    In writing and in life, I always think about the fact that light without any shadow, with no darkness, is blinding. And in some cases fake, like grocery store light. As humans, if there are no shadows, we're not living genuinely. And neither are our characters.

    My suspicion is that when we are able to live in pure light we go on to a new and different place.

    And wrt Eat Pray Love – I haven't gone yet, but I want to because of Javier Bardem. And part of what will make the movie fun for me is that the last movie I saw him in was No Country For Old Men. It will be the memory of his character in No Country that makes his character in Eat Pray Love so intriguing.

  7. Gayle Carline

    I don't write dark. Can't, because at the end of the day, I go for the funny every time. I write a humor column, ala Erma Bombeck. I write mysteries – light, cozy, murderous puzzles, Miss Marple in the 21st Century. Actually, it's more like Murder, She Wrote starring Murphy Brown. But I do like to read serious, dark, moody works. I loved The Price. I admire people who can write it. For me, it's a little like what my old pastor used to say about demons in the New Testament – "name it and claim it" – finding out what the dark consists of, giving it a shape and calling it by name so you can defeat it.

    Although I love to read dark, and will even watch it in small, episodic bites on TV, I don't like to see it at the movies. The screen is so big, it sucks me into the film and makes the experience way too emotional for me. If the book scares me, I can put it down and process for awhile before I pick it up again.

  8. Sylvia

    A friend's advice on a different matter seems to apply here as well:

    "Let yourself go there, don't stay too long and don't beat yourself up for needing/wanting to go there every so often."

  9. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I never worry about you having a balance, Billie. Not so sure about myself, sometimes.

    "My suspicion is that when we are able to live in pure light we go on to a new and different place." Yes, I think that's right, exactly. So why resist the light, is what I'm asking, I guess…

  10. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Wow, such profound responses, I'm glad I asked.

    "Finding out what the dark consists of, giving it a shape and calling it by name so you can defeat it." That really helps, Gayle.

    And this, too, Sylvia:

    "Let yourself go there, don't stay too long and don't beat yourself up for needing/wanting to go there every so often."

    I feel better already.

  11. Debbie

    Alex, I'd love to see you write that book-on a subconcious level-just get out of your own way and write it. No eye to publishing, what a friend, editor, reader…would think. I read an article on voice once where an author discovered that he couldn't write characters of a particular race, so he left them out of his novel and worked through issues he wasn't aware he had. I had finished my first draft at that point and analyzed what I had written about genders, ages, orientation, disability,race…. Enlightening.
    As for the dark, I think it can be a little like feeling unwell. You know yourself and when it's nothing and you let it take its course, and you know when to act. Like a daydream, you indulge it for a time and then there's that point when it's just not productive. Indulge yourself for a while, I'm confident that you'll know when to stop should it become necessary. Perhaps deep intamacy is about possession, mutual and healthy possession?

  12. billie

    Alex, I don't know if we ever really "resist the light" – I think (and I'm really distilling my thoughts on this here, but I think you'll know what I mean) we pass through the dark places as many times as we need to on our way to the pure light. Even if on an unconscious level I think we are moving toward the light.

    Sometimes that means dwelling in the shadows. It's true we can get stuck there, but it's passing through the shadows that heals us, oddly enough. And for those who live completely in the deepest darkness, my belief is that there is a wound so profound it might be that it can't be healed, in this lifetime. We might also call that evil.

    I like it that you mentioned balance. We find it and lose it and find it again, all through our lives. It's part of the journey.

    It's funny because I'm working in the first novel right now, in advance of putting it on Kindle. This is exactly what that book tries to deal with – the healing of wounds, dwelling in dark places, getting stuck there, finding balance. And the next book that takes up later in the lives of these same characters looks at how we grow and battle the same shadows, in lesser ways maybe, and how finding ways to live with that brings grace.

  13. toni mcgee causey

    The very first full-length piece I ever wrote was a dark psychological thriller for a screenwriting class. It was extremely dark, but that was normal for me.

    When it was my turn to be critiqued, the professor stood there with my script in his hands (he was from L.A. and had been in the business for about 10 years), and said, "I want you to know that last night was the first time I've ever had to leave the light on after reading something."

    The guy next to me leaned over and whispered, "Get. Help."

    I needed to write that script, to put a shape to nightmares I'd had, and adhere them to a spot I could define and reference. There have long sense been a mix of stories. Some very dark, some lighter. While the Bobbie Faye stories are comedic, there's some very dark stuff going on in the relationships there–it's just not the focus–but it *is* the scaffolding.

    In the current work, I'm going very dark. It worries me, sometimes, how dark it is, and I already know there will be some shock over that aspect, but I have to corral the nightmares once again, and get these things named and defined.

    I think by examining those things, going to those dark places, I remind myself I can survive. Or maybe there's something really twisted and broken in needing to be reminded. I'm not sure, but I have to go there, this time, to see.

  14. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Billie, I feel like I should be paying you for therapy. Maybe I don't mean resisting the light so much as not moving toward it as fast as I think I could.

    Hurry up with the Kindle thing – I want to read that book!!!

  15. Dudley Forster

    I agree with a lot that’s been said. Human evil is the worst. PK’s point that there are layers of evil and that people can distance themselves from the dark by reminding themselves, “this is only fiction.” But I think that distancing gets harder as the evil we read about gets closer to reality, “that it could happen to me.” Wen’s comment that writing horror etc. makes the real world seem less horrible and Alex’s about walking across a deserted parking lot – reality can be far scarier place. I don’t get scared by werewolves, ghosts, or even exorcisms and apparent confrontation with the devil. The manifestations of evil I fear are the ones that can be real now or tomorrow morning with my bagel. THE LOVELY BONES generated a palpable fear in me. The evil was mister ordinary that lived next door. He could be real; we all know he’s real. And I have three daughters and knowing there are lots of Mr. Harveys out there made the book much darker for me than say, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. I not so concerned that life imitates art, as much as art reflects life.

    Like Alex, I love books where the good guys survive the odds. I want evil to be held back and the more real that evil is the more I want it held back. I think that it is why I read dark, the darker the evil the more the victory when the white hat wins. Or maybe it all comes down to thrill. I would like to think I have more noble reasons, but the more real and darker the evil the greater the thrill when it's vanquished. If it is not vanished, that’s a problem. Going back to THE LOVELY BONES, was Mr. Harvey’s evil vanquished or just metastasized into the grief of family and friends? There was certainly no thrill of victory, I just wept.

    I write dark. All my shorts have been dark. What I am working on now is dark. But I don’t write dark for the same reasons I read it. I have all these little boxes in my head full of dark matter. If I write about it, I open the box, the light shines in and the darkness flows to the page. The last short I wrote was about teen suicide and an overbearing father who loved, but had no tools to express it to one of his sons. I went back and reread that story about a month ago. I was stunned to find out I had been writing about my father.

  16. Jude Hardin

    I think if we stick with what we feel is our version of the truth, we can't go wrong no matter how deeply into the abyss we delve. My WIP is shaping up to be downright noir. It's not how I want things to happen, but it's how they DO happen. If that makes sense.

  17. Robert Gregory Browne

    My own personal feeling is that any idea that dark materials draw you to darkness is nothing more than superstitious mumbo-jumbo and they have no effect on your psyche other than the immediate emotional reaction you'll get from watching it.

    I do think that those who instinctively find themselves moving away from such materials should certainly stay away–I know people who find suspenseful movies to be too much to handle (largely, I'm told, because their vivid imaginations start going wild when they watch such things), so they go in for comedies instead.

    But I don't think there's any lasting damage.

    I enjoy dark work and have been told that my books are often very dark. The thing is, I don't see them that way. On the scale of darkness I think they lean a lot more toward the light. It's not as if I'm gratuitously violent or sexual or am engaging in torture porn — which is what I thiink is truly dark.

    And I write the stories I write for two reasons: 1) I enjoy reading and watching those kinds of stories; and 2) people pay me to do it.

  18. billie

    Alex, your posts on writing and all the screenwriting tips are more than payment for anything I've written here! 🙂

    Will let you know when the book is available – I'm struggling with the formatting and probably making it harder than it needs to be.

    Dudley, I had the exact same response to The Lovely Bones. I distinctly recall reading bits of it and then slamming the book shut. My husband kept saying "just don't read it if it's so disturbing." But it was also quite beautiful in a number of ways and because of that I wanted to read on. I read the last few chapters sitting in the bathroom with the door locked and a towel wiping the tears – so my young children wouldn't be upset by my crying. I haven't been able to re-read it nor have I seen the movie.

  19. Dudley Forster

    One thing I forgot to mention about nightmares. This is true, I am not joking. Really, I’m not. Last night I had a nightmare that the Ratis were being murdered by another Rati. In the dream, I find out who the killer is, but I’m not going to tell you about that part of the dream. I have no idea what the dream means, but I know there is a good story in it.

  20. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Powerful stuff you got goin' in this here blog, Alex.
    Strange that you should be blogging about human evil today. For some reason last night I became fixated on human evil, on what people do to one another. I've been thinking about the maid that came back from Saudi Arabia with something like seventeen nails that had been pounded into various parts of her body. The man and woman of the household, the ones who employed her, had put the nails into her body as punishment for not attending to their needs in the way they felt she should. And the children of the household held the woman down as their parents tortured them.
    Yesterday I heard a report on NPR that this kind of thing is very common in Saudi Arabia, that women are brought over to be maids and are then held hostage for years and treated as slaves, that they are raped repeatedly and many become infected with HIV. And their host government keeps the stories quiet because they value the relationship with Saudi Arabia.
    It got me thinking about all the things man does to man…and I began to spiral down into that place where I see no hope for mankind. I am so sickened by seeing the many examples of human cruelty in this world. I know there are people who do great acts of kindness, who struggle their whole lives to bring comfort to others. I'd like to think that they are the majority. Sometimes I just don't know.

  21. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Re: LOVELY BONES: The next-door child rapist/killer is about as evil as you can get. Dudley, this question is so intriguing I think I'm going to have to reread the book to figure it out:

    "Was Mr. Harvey’s evil vanquished or just metastasized into the grief of family and friends?"

  22. Alafair Burke

    I'm not sure we have a choice whether to write about dark material. I have a couple of friends who, for separate reasons, told me recently they wished they could write "happier" material – happy ending stories about happy, well balanced people. These particular writers just wouldn't be able to do such a story. It would be forced, and they'd be suppressing the stuff that makes their own writing so different.

    As for the movies, no Eat Pray Love for me, thank you very much. At Piranha 3D, I did see a trailer for an upcoming Ryan Reynolds movie about a man who is buried alive as part of a ransom demand. Even watching the commercial made me extremely uncomfortable. It looked like a fabulous movie, but will probably be very difficult for me to watch.

  23. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Jude, I just don't know. Some people I don't think should be allowed to delve into their own abysses, if you see what I mean.

    But I might be one of them, from someone else's point of view.

  24. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Alafair, I know what you mean about no choice. I mean, I could not write dark, probably, but probably it would mean not ever writing at all.

    I AM going to see Eat Pray Love, and read it too, party as a marketing research exercise, and partly because I am totally with Billie on the Javier Bardem thing, and partly because I think there are some funny things in the trailer, like the "he just won the lottery" quip and the idea of two minutes of meditation seeming like an eternity… I've been there.

  25. Dudley Forster

    Stephen – You have captured the truest darkness, what we do to each other. Here’s a question. Who commits the greater evil the one who does the act or the one whose complicity is limited to knowing of the act but doing nothing? There is an episode in The Band of Brothers where Easy Company enters a small German town, there are tense be generally civil and sometime friendly reactions. Then some of the men from Easy Company discover the Camp. After the horror wears off, Easy Company, knowing that the villagers had to know what was happening, rounded them up and forced them to bury the corpses.

    Who personifies the most evil, those in Saudi who torture their housekeepers or countries, including the U.S. who hypocritically turn a blind eye, in the name of self interest? Then there’s the famous case of the assault and eventual murder of Kitty Genovese whose screams for help were heard by 38 of her neighbors and not one even called the police. Both are evil, but which is worse?.

    Alafair – So how was Piranha 3D? I was thinking of seeing it, but was worried it was real cornball stuff and wouldn’t have the jaws (pun intended and apologies to Benchley, Spielberg and Bruce) to be a really good monster flick.

  26. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Dudley – yes, all of that is behind my contemplation of what is good or evil in men. It's much larger than simply looking at the ones who perpetrate the evil. What frightens me is that everyone is capable of some form of it, and there are gradations, and there's a slippery slope. At least in America we do have laws that forbid things like "honor killings." It's difficult for our entire society to be culpable for horrendous acts of violence. And yet we still had the blacklisting of Americans in the 50s, with ordinary Americans standing on the sidelines. And we had the imprisonment of innocent Japanese families in internment camps, while Americans sat on the sidelines. The list goes on and on.
    In fiction, we can explore these things. The slippery slope.

  27. Sandy

    At its most elemental as well as fascinating level, every piece of literature, I believe, is about balance (as in harmony) lost and balance restored. Reading this column and many of the comments, I, perhaps, should extend that concept to the author's act: that is, the author loses balance and through writing restores balance.

  28. becky hutchison

    I'm a light person. I don't think dark and I can't write dark. I was hesitant to read your books, Alex, but I've always been fascinated with the paranormal, so that was the pull. I found them enjoyable, but I could only read them during the day.

    I would definitely have to pass on The Last Exorcism movie. I'm a sissy when it comes to seeing dark things on the big or little screen. I had to have someone with me when watching The Twilight Zone, and I still remember how squemish I was (and still am) after watching an episode of either Twilight Zone or The Night Gallery where a man turned into a slug. Traumatic, to say the least!

    I do want to see Eat Pray Love because I've read the book and liked it. Plus I like Julia Roberts and Javier Bardem. This will be a movie I'll happily attend by myself. My husband goes to a lot of chick flicks with me, but this is way too far out of his comfort zone.

    Whichever movie you choose, I hope you have a fun evening.

  29. Gerald So

    For me, the key to writing dark is to remember moments of disappointment, anger, fear, etc. I can recall these moments without wallowing in them. I find I write best when the emotions have had time to cool.

    I consciously try to run the gamut from dark to light in my projects. I appreciate honest writing above all. To try and be dark all the time or light all the time or funny all the time doesn't ring true to me. Along the same lines, have a character show a range of emotions and you give the character depth.

  30. anonymous


    Write like that—-yeah…….you know what you do.

    That is all we ask.

    Hey. Let the reader DECIDE. Writers? Tell your publishers and editors to let the fucking reader have their moment.

    Too dark? Too real? Too much sex? Not enough!? Gore? Language? Fantasy? Sickness?

    Your responsibility is to offer the best YOU do and BE TRUE TO YOUR VOICE.

    If you want to consider what you do as "craft" or "art"? Then follow THE rule. CREATE.


    Sorry. I get weary over all of the "rules". It becomes more about the Marketing than the Murder and Mystery. I know that the marketing is a very important third of your blog focus here, but it is the least interesting to me as a reader.


  31. Allison Brennan

    I don't know who anonymous is, but I agree with the sentiment to BE TRUE TO YOUR VOICE.

    I couldn't write light to save my soul. I tried. Failed miserably. When I was asked to contribute to the BLOOD LITE 2 anthology I was told to write "light or humorous horror." Um, I did the best I could . . . the best "lite" for me was the character's sarcasm.

    I write dark because I can't write light. I enjoy romantic comedies, both reading and viewing. But the one time I had a great idea for a lighter mystery, my voice fell flat. And I ended up with dead bodies anyway, and violence, and sex, so it wasn't the cozy I was hoping for. And I never finished, my agent told me I wasn't funny and should stick to suspense (she was very right!) and so I doubt I'll go back for another try.

    P.S. Stephen — that Saudi Arabia story? It happens all over the world. 800,000 children and women are sold across country lines every year to be sex slaves or indentured servants. And that doesn't include the over 1 million who are brutally exploited within their own borders.

    Great blog as usual, Alex!

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