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The Bottleneck Effect

September 9, 2010

As drivers may know, a bottleneck is where the road narrows, causing traffic jams and trapping motorists for hours. This also applies to a scenario in horror stories where victims are trapped in an enclosed area while the big bad prowls around outside. One of the oldest formulas but still is quite effective.

Horace Walpole’s novel Castle of Otranto trapped a beautiful young woman in a creepy castle with the horny old baron. His key goal is to make her his wife, but with the help of a peasant boy, the true heir to the castle, she manages to get free. Gothics used castles, forests and caves as effective bottlenecks to portray feelings of entrapment. This form of writing has its benefits.

Your reader is given the ability to really connect with individual characters, limiting the number of new characters entering the story. You focus more on the small group versus a large group of people being killed off in horrible ways. It allows them to experience their fear and even their deaths on a more personal level. It also limits setting. No worries of characters running from location to location, requiring description after description. Without constant new locations and characters, the story isn’t disrupted and the reader is allowed to engage in the plot.

Bottlenecks are often tailored to the monster’s advantage. Stephen King’s Cujo kept a woman and her child trapped in a car by a rabid dog. In “The Wendigo” by Algernon Blackwood and “Leiningan Versus the Ants” by Carl Stephenson vast areas of wilderness become bottlenecks through their immensity. Haunted houses can come equipped with trap doors, secret passages and tunnels. However, the writer has to make the reader believe the space to be real. It’s all about making the space suitable for the atmosphere and keeping the reader’s attention with the quality of the characters. Richard Matheson’s I, Legend puts one man against a world inhabited by vampires. His home may be seen as a bottleneck but his isolation from any living human beings is also one as well.

Bottlenecks may be an old technique, but there will always be those who build the better mousetrap. It’s up the writer to take the old and use it in new ways. Isolation infused with a degree of endless hope can provide a terrifying read or movie. Perhaps M. Night Shyamalan’s Devil will give moviegoers a horrifying ride as the characters try to exit a broken elevator alive.

Andrea particularly enjoys writing bottlenecks. Her stories “The Phantom House” and “Blood Diary” play with this technique.

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