Exclusive: Vera Miao on Crafting a Horror Series Around Two Sentence Horror Stories


At this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, Stage 13 premiered the first episode of their upcoming horror anthology series “Two Sentence Horror Stories”. As the describe it, the show is inspired, “…by the viral fan fiction of two sentence horror stories, this series taps into universal primal fears — death, abandonment, and loneliness — filtered through the anxieties of the most connected and racially diverse generation.

The Reddit phenomenon of two sentence horror stories quickly became a viral sensation as micro-story after micro-story aimed to scare and terrify readers with a setup and twist. And while these stories clearly laid out enough information for the reader to understand why they were so harrowing, they obviously left themselves open enough for interpretation and imagination. Our minds were allowed to go wild, crafting a narrative that not only led up to the events that we just read but gave us the opportunity to ponder the ramifications of the conclusion. A good horror ending is one that haunts us long after we read it, which is why it’s so important to make sure that everything leading up to that moment gives it as much impact as possible.

For writer/director Vera Miao, “Two Sentence Horror Stories” is a place where imaginations can run wild, where two simple lines of text can be the foundation for a story that delves into the most primal and basic of universal fears.

I was lucky enough to get the chance to speak with Miao recently about her show. Below you can read our interview, which tackles the origins of the series, what themes we might see in future episodes, how the show addresses the concerns and fears of today’s society, and more. Head on down to give it a read.

For more information about “Two Sentence Horror Stories”, head on over to Stage 13’s official website.

Dread Central: So I wanted to ask a bit about that concept of taking that viral sensation of Two Sentence Horror Stories and turning it into this series. How did that idea come about?

Vera Miao: I’ve been following the phenomenon and literally it comes from being a fan. It’s a completely provocative challenge, “Can you write a horror story in two sentences?”, and I just had a great time reading them, the creativity behind them. I really love that, in a certain kind of way, they seem really old fashioned. Meanwhile, it was made possible by new technology, a special community of Reddit, [where] it became viral, so I like the kind of mash up. There’s something gothic about the stories but then having it intersect with new technology, there’s just something about it that I got really fascinated with and honestly I thought, “Well, this is great!”

You know what it is, I’m going to say this Jonathan, you read a horror story and in two sentences, particularly the really good ones, and your brain just starts immediately working, starts filling in the gap and building a story out of these two first provocative lines. What I was doing was, I was thinking naturally as a fan, this was amazing and as a filmmaker this could be your story, your script. This is an anthology series that would also kind of reflect my love of really classic and traditional love of horror, updated though, if that makes sense.

DC: I love how you spoke about this kind of mix of the classic mentality of horror stories versus this new digital trend because it has given so many people a voice that they normally don’t have. So I’m curious, when you look at these stories, you see these ones that are making their way around, what do you look for in them to feel that it’s good enough for an adaptation?

VM: Well, I can say that the horror stories used in this series are original, though it’s hard because I think we all inspire each other. I know there’s a million horror stories, tremendous horror stories around mirrors and, when I was reading them, it’s wasn’t because we’re kind of ripping off of each other, mirrors are such a classic and creepy sort of thing, it’s an easy thing to try and convey in two sentences. The Two Sentence Horror Stories that I as a fan and a reader really respond to, they do the setup in the first sentence and the twist in the second, but they do it in such a way that they’re using sort of universal elements that scare all of us, the dark, something in a mirror, something that starts moving when it shouldn’t be moving, all of those universal things.

So, in a sort of literary way, it kind of does the thing that great horror movies do, have a shot on a really dark corner and hold that shot for a really long time and your mind starts to fill in what’s in that dark corner, even though the shot isn’t changing. It’s the dread and the anticipation and the open-endedness of it that has your brain starting to create answers. The setup and the twist are inventive and you’re kind of marveling at the genius of it, but then it’s so open-ended that it makes you focus on the concept and then your brain does all the work for you, trying to imagine what all this is.

DC: I tend to agree and it’s interesting that you mention the first sentence sets up the story and the second sentence is what offers the twist and yet, at least in my opinion, the stories that have less to say are the ones where the twist will set off my imagination, not only everything leading up to the twist but then everything that comes afterwards.

VM: Yes, exactly. Literally, what you just said right now is the kernel of the original theme to how this series came about because I would do that! I would sit there and, exactly what you said, spend some time thinking about what led up to this moment that’s captured in the two sentences and then my brain would go on what’s happening next. I would see it visually and that’s when I’d think, “This is a film”. I don’t know about you when you read them but they’re just so much fun to read, they really are, and at the end of the day I’m a fan of horror but I’m a believer in finding joy in whatever you’re doing, even in content and grit.

So I would read these stories and I had such a blast reading them and I kept wanting to read more, like, “Oh, I’m going to get that feeling again!” And that kind of excitement that clicked in was also another reason why I did this because these are great content for film because, again, we can update the material, we can update the content to be reflective of the moment of the time that we’re in, but there’s still this kernel of classic ickiness that I just feel, to a certain degree, it makes me feel like a child again, which I loved.

DC: The first episode was told in a very humane way. It came from a place of understanding and I don’t want to say humility but I want to say it comes from a place of humanity. The way that I saw it there was no, for lack of a better word, agenda being pushed. It was simply a snapshot of two people that start talking, they find out more about each other and they go from there. It felt very normal, very every day, which is something I really appreciated.

VM: I would say that as a filmmaker, as a woman of color, as an Asian American woman I’m very much interested as a filmmaker in how the stories I tell really contribute in some small way to pushing representation in front of and behind the camera. I’ve been very explicit about that, make no bones about that, but I’m not interested in a message film. I’m interested in making material where as you said, what you were responding to is the normalcy, the humanity, the day to dayness of the characters.

DC: I love that earlier you brought up this concept of universal fears. What kinds of tales can we expect to see, what fears will we experience, with the rest of “Two Sentence Horror Stories”?

VM: So for me, I love that you said that because in the Two Sentence Horror Stories, the universal fears are the universal way we experience fear, the dark mirrors, the unknown, and then I think that’s a reflection of the stories in the series that are also dealing with universal fears but I would say they are universal primal fears. Death, but for me not just death but loss, grief, abandonment, loneliness and, a really big one for me, being helpless. So I feel like if I was to just do the kinds of things that scare me the most I would do those.

If I’m being completely personal and honest, being alone is one of my biggest fears and what I love about horror is that really, that is one of the central themes of almost every single horror tale ever told. You’re alone, you’re alone in the dark, you’re alone facing the beast, you are alone in the sense that you are trapped in some way, incapacitated in such a way that you are bearing witness to all of these things that are about to happen but you can’t do anything about it.

Others are about coveting what someone else has and the length to which a person might go to in order to get that. Other episodes deal with, being so excited with something that you’re doing that you go far beyond the boundaries of what you should do and what are the consequences of that, and all of it is animated by this feeling of helplessness, of being alone but also that each episode deals with, I hope that when folks watch it they see them also as meditations on issues that we’re dealing with and confronting now. Racism, the focus on beauty and beauty standards, how far technology goes and is that too far, the world of internet trolling, law is obviously dealing with a host of issues, particularly what it feels like to be an outsider, particularly when you’re a child or immigrant, living in other cultures, dealing with internalized homophobia, and fear, about who you truly are and living life in the light and then of course, very much being abandoned, so each episode is trying to grapple with all of those things at the same time and the thing about horror is that you can, it has the ability to shift through all of those levels at the same time.



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