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What Keeps Singaporeans up at Night? – Story Ideas to Get You Started on the Horror Round of The Inciting Incident

8 October 2020

What Keeps Singaporeans up at Night? – Story Ideas to Get You Started on the Horror Round of The Inciting Incident

The paranormal must have a tough time getting under the skin of Singaporeans. There are little to no dark alleys, abandoned buildings or really any cemeteries left to accidentally stumble upon. Singaporeans crave raw horror so much that they are even willing to pay upwards to $200 for some frights in a theme park.

That is not to discount the our strong tradition of horror. Being a melting pot of cultures from across Asia meant that the country’s early immigrants brought along their own supernatural folklores, many of which continue to be told today. In film, Singapore saw its horror heyday in the 1950s with a massively popular film series based on the Pontianak mythology directed by pioneering filmmaker B.N. Rao.

Nowadays, Singaporeans’ palette for horror has leaned towards Western trends, particularly with the focus on societal undercurrents rather than just on monsters and demons. A key appeal of horror media has always been with how they are able to manifest the latent fears of a society and present them in a tamable form to be cathartically vanquished. Today, it seems that unpaid bills and the ever-rising cost of living are bigger causes for sleepless nights than hantus and jiang shis.

2019’s Repossession, directed by Goh Ming Siu and Scott Hillyard, is one key example of what the future of horror films in Singapore could look like. Demons mixed with local folklore make appearances but the centrepiece of its scares really lies in how it is a chilling reflection of Singaporeans’ destructive obsession with wealth and status. 

With a haunting soundscape constructed by award-winning composer Teo Wei Yong, Repossession is an excellent horror film that is reflective of current trends while excelling in the tried and true beats of horror by thriving on atmosphere and the understated.

(Repossession will be screening this Sunday, 11 October at Filmgarde Bugis+ as part of this year’s Singapore Chinese Film Festival. Don’t miss out on the opportunity and grab your tickets from Filmgarde here. Following the screening, there will be an online Q&A session later that evening featuring the filmmakers and the principal cast. More details on that can be found here.)

While it is not to say there will be no place for traditional horror films strictly based on the supernatural, the genre would probably evolve towards Repossession’s direction, together with the inevitable flood of stories inspired by the global pandemic. The fourth round of The Inciting Incident, Sinema’s inaugural screenplay competition, will look to invoke this future today. Screenwriters are challenged to pen a 3 – 10 minute script for a short horror film with dialogue (including voiceovers) in the screenplay limited to only 50 words.

To get the creative juices flowing, we identify some of Singaporeans’ latent fears (other than COVID-19) and cheekily spitball some story ideas based on them in the hopes of sparking inspiration.

Fear of drowning

(In all seriousness, the utmost safety precautions should always be observed for any water-based activities / Image credit: Blake Cheek via Unsplash)

A survey conducted in 2019 revealed that drowning tops the list of Singaporeans’ greatest fears, followed closely behind by fire and reptiles. These may be surprising for some, especially with the unlikelihood of these encounters in our everyday life. However, in an inevitable future of rising sea levels, the fear of drowning in a country surrounded by oceans may not be as irrational as it seems today. 

Drowning is ripe for horror for being a double whammy of being able to tap on our natural fears while presenting the opportunities for social commentary and calls for social change. With the short film format, stories could focus exclusively on the cold loneliness that comes with drowning. Besides, the screenplay challenge’s 50 words limit might be easy to match when characters are too busy gasping for air or too submerged underwater to say anything. 

Off the top of our heads:

Title: Bowl

Logline: A Singapore shrunk by rising sea levels has forced some families to live by the shore on cobbled-together ‘kelongs’. An unknown sea monster threatens the fate of one of these families.

Lack of money / the rising cost of living

(For the last few years, Singapore has held its spot atop the list as the world’s most expensive city / Image credit: rigel via Unsplash)

While not as macabre as drowning, Repossession has demonstrated that this social reality could be amplified and twisted into raw horror. Being unable to meet the rising cost of living is a relatable concern that is felt throughout the world. There will be a challenge to channel the theme through a unique Singaporean perspective for the big screen.

It won’t be hard to imagine the issue being the basis of a dystopian future, perhaps extrapolated by the familiar Singaporean experiences of today. This could include an exaggeration of Singapore’s cold but effective bureaucracy or even of National Service. 

Forced by social unrest, what if Singapore becomes as authoritative as most would believe it to be today? What if National Service became a form of social control where compliance would allay those fears? While it would be extremely difficult to tackle this theme head on, it is with the vagueness of the short film format where such a direction could thrive.

Off the top of our heads:

Title: Route March

Logline: In the far future, every 18 year old in Singapore has to partake in a boot camp, ending only when its group of 200 narrows down to 30. Non-compliance or ‘unsatisfactory behaviour’ will lead to enlistees paying the ultimate price, with the final few survivors winning the ultimate prize. The short film follows a “route march” programme of a boot camp group now in its third year and down to its last 31 enlistees. 

Mass surveillance

(According to a study by tech website Comparitech updated in 2020, Singapore is among the fifty most-surveilled cities in the world. / Photo credit: Victor Garcia via Unsplash)

For better or for worse, almost every corner of our heartlands are covered with cameras. While this has been a key factor in Singapore’s low crime rate, it can raise privacy concerns as well. This, especially with the distrust of the government ever-brewing for some.

Mass surveillance being seen as the first signs of a dystopian nightmare ala 1984 can be well-founded, and it would only require a few nudges to be turned into something terrifying. The fear of mass surveillance may not be just due to Big Brother behind the lenses, but the cold-nature of the cameras themselves as well. 

To craft an exceedingly fresh take from these perspectives can be extremely difficult given the theme’s popularity in recent years. However, the extra challenge presented by this round of The Inciting Incident may be exactly what could differentiate itself from the field – and we are not just talking about emulating Paranormal Activity style horror exclusively told through security footage.

The angle we came up with hopes to be a humanistic reminder that an authoritarian nightmare will affect and terrify every corner of society. Unless artificial intelligence reaches a horrifying degree of competence, mass surveillance in a dystopia will probably be much like a job – albeit one of massive importance with no room for failure. 

Off the top of our heads:

Title: The Silence

Logline: A Camera Man, one of the few tasked with watching over every camera in the country, is accused of being a traitor after he failed to intercept an act of terrorism. Even though the terrorists have been arrested, he is forced to watch the footage in question again and again to identify them but there are just no signs.

Staying single

(According to the Singapore Department of Statistics, the number of single Singaporeans have rose steadily across the last three years / Photo credit: Zhu Liang via Unsplash)

Again, the fear of being single forever isn’t exclusive to just Singaporeans – although we would argue that it can be a fear that can be manifested internally into something grim for many here given our societal structure.

For the first two decades of our lives, most Singaporeans have a structure to lean on and follow: primary school, secondary school, tertiary education and National Service. Beyond that, those craving for more of the same familiar and comfortable structured life can work towards meeting expectations and milestones like having a stable job and settling down. These, however, do not come certain, with fears of missing out only increased by societal expectations and doubled with every passing year.

Unwillingly remaining single probably won’t be the cause of any deaths or nightmarish torment but it does seem like one of those fears which can be a solid foundation to build a horror or dystopian film around. The recent success of horror films about love, such as with Midsommar and The Strangers, shows that the mixture definitely has legs to be a mainstay in the genre’s future. 

Whether it be with comedy or with dystopia in mind, it will be exciting to see what local filmmakers come up with in bringing to life these fears that can be so deftly felt amongst Singaporeans.

Off the top of our heads:

Title: Rejection #32

Logline: A socially-awkward single man in his 30s desperate to move out and meet his parents’ expectations looks to summon and romance a pontianak. Everything goes well until he forgets one slight detail: he can’t speak Malay.

Inspired by these fears (and maybe even by our off-the-cuff ideas)? Why not channel them into your submission for round 4 of The Inciting Incident. For more details about the competition’s last round for the year, visit its official website here.

Read more:
Lurking in the Shadows of the Asian Psyche – What Makes Asian Horror So Terrifying?
‘Repossession’ Manifests the Anxiety of Middle-Class Singaporeans into a Tense and Unnerving Fare
A Different Kind of Horror

Banner image credit: SHTTEFAN via Unsplash

There's nothing Matt loves more than "so bad, they're good" movies. Except browsing through crates of vinyl records. And Mexican food.