A Real Master

Rate this Entry
Back in May I wrote a little entry based on a letter from Teller to an upcoming Magician.

The gist of that was to find heroes outside of haunting and to let them guide you.

Today I would like to make a case for Buster Keaton to be one of those heroes.

I can only put one video per blog entry, so I ask you to take 20 minutes to watch "The ScareCrow", a wonderful film from a century ago. Yes, 1920!

Buster Keaton has much to teach, as do so many silent era actors and filmmakers. Take the first set. EVERY piece in that set is there for a reason, and EVERY piece's reason/use is not what you expect. It really is the most ingenious of engineering. It seems so straightforward but the longer you watch, the better it gets!

The "world building" in this is remarkable too. The characters interact in their very unusual setting with the most casual familiarity. Can't you just imagine that they really do this daily?

More important than the world building is the gag setups. Surprises are planned well in advance and you don't see them coming because you are looking right at them the whole time!

Buster Keaton, like most of his day, had to do all his tricks/stunts/gags "in camera". With very few exceptions, what you see in film is what he really did. This has far more relevance to a haunt than today's cinema does. If you want to do an effect, you need to do it live in front of an audience. There is no fixing in post. You get it or you don't. If you don't, you had better have a plan B.

The gags are also almost non stop. Every new action leads to a new gag. Some build gag upon gag. Some are called back later. Sometimes you are led to believe a particular gag is coming, but it goes in an unexpected direction.

One of Keaton's rules was he never did any stunt the same way twice. Even if he was flipping or falling, every single flip or fall was unique. Watch his film's and you'll see.

Here's another lesson from Keaton - show, don't tell. The limitations of film forced him to never use words when actions would do.

I know you may be asking "where's the horror?"! Here's the thing - Buster Keaton's films constitute a master class in surprise. Whether surprises are amusing, shocking or horrifying is up to the designer. The tremendous setup and payoff can be frightening as easily as hilarious.

If you are a multi scene haunt trying to move people forward, you can design the setups so the payoffs are in the next room. You maybe only have time for one or two gags per room, but there are more in the next and the next. What Keaton might have done in one set over 7 minutes, a haunter can spread over 4-5 scenes. Genius is genius, and with a little creative effort, the Keaton genius could really enrich a haunt.

Yes, it is a different approach. In a world where home haunters doing slashers are everywhere, letting Buster Keaton nudge your storytelling and your scares in a different direction might seem ridiculous. After all, no one else is doing it. That's a great reason to give it a try, though, isn't it?

Here's something you might not know - Buster Keaton was friends with Harry Houidini. Buster was literally born into the Keaton Houdini Medicine Show on a one night stand in Kansas. Houdini was the one who gave Keaton the nickname "Buster", which at the time meant "a big fall". Buster therefore had an intimate knowledge of setting up illusions for a live audience. There is a moment in "Sherlock Jr." where Buster jumps straight into someone's suitcase and apparently through her body too.
Here is a link:


This is done entirely in camera as seen. No jump cuts or camera tricks. It's an amazing moment! If you cannot see the haunt potential in that gag, do you even haunt? ;-)

Let me know your thoghts on Buster Keaton, silent film and haunting, or who you think is a BETTER non-horror hero for haunters.

Happy Haunting!