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"Scary Movie" Writer: My Mentor

Before I even saw the scary films of "Bunny Lake is Missing" (1965) and "The Nanny" (1965) I had heard that Evelyn Piper, the pen name for Merriam Modell, lived not far from our home.

My father encouraged me to write Mrs. Modell a letter to see if she would mentor me, a junior in high school, as a writer. I did so, and she agreed on certain conditions; a neutral location where we could meet, the local high school, and no more than six students to mentor. I was to organize this internship, and she would be the advisor and guide. Each of us students met with Mrs. Modell once a week in an empty office within the school. Sitting one on one with her was at first a bit daunting. The first time I just kept thinking of how she was published, and how her stories had made it onto the big screen. Listen and learn, I kept telling myself.

I would show her either journal entries or a short story for her feedback. She looked for passages that stood out, descriptions that could be used in a poem or were solid enough for a story. I wasn't there to find out if I was a novelist or if I could be famous. It was simpler than that. Was I a writer? Was any of my writing even interesting enough to be read? I was a teenager soon to finish high school, and I wanted to make sure I was creating something of worth. Through working with her I learned to trust what worked in my writing, when to ask for feedback, and to sharpen my writing for clarity.

It's after I worked with Mrs. Modell that I watched her two movies, and, I have to say the level-headed, generous lady I worked with didn't hint at the totally unnerving stories she wrote. Think of Stephen King who takes ordinary subjects whether it's your pet dog ("Cujo") or an insect and shows the "what if" scenarios if those non-threatening objects became monstrous. Now take that kind of scenario and make it more subtle and surprisingly unsettling, the kind of unsettling where one can't sleep at night, and then you have Evelyn Piper's (Mrs. Modell's) stories.

"Bunny Lake is Missing," a 1965 movie directed by Otto Preminger, and "The Nanny," a suspense film starring Bette Davis, are two films based on novels by author Evelyn Piper (Merriam Modell). My brother and I watched "The Nanny" late at night when we were teenagers, and the story was so scary that we couldn't sleep for hours. If you've seen those suspense modern films about not trusting the nanny it doesn't compare with Bette Davis as the nanny. Layers of fear add to the complicated plot of a boy who has been deemed unstable mentally, and his nanny who has other motives. Shadows and uncertainty build up the suspense and fear in these older movies. "Bunny Lake is Missing" also has dark elements to its plot as a mother goes to pick up her daughter at school, and the girl can't be found. Was she even there? Who can you believe? What is real, and, what is not? Once again the uncertainty add shadows to the story. Gripping stories written in novel form by my writing mentor.

That's what I am thinking about on this Halloween in 2021. You never know when an ordinary object or subject, or a level-headed lady will lead you down a long hallway to one of your scariest nights ever.

Websites for poster and/or information:

Biography of Merriam Modell:

SPOILER ALERT -- only read links if you don't mind knowing whole plot of movie

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