There’s nothing I like better when consuming some good fiction than to feel that cold thrill run through my body when a particular scene strikes me. It’s a rare experience, of course, and it’s often hard to tell exactly what kind of thing is going to get to me enough to elicit such a response. I enjoy the element of fear so much – be it in books, movies, songs, even my own nightmares – that I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the various ways it manifests itself.
See, the sensation I mentioned above is only one of many types of fear that anyone in the horror genre strives to create in their reader/viewer/listener etc. I prefer some more than others, and some are more difficult to inspire, but all of them are delicious, and so I will do my best to list all I know about them here, as a scotch enthusiast records tasting notes for his favourite single-malts.
- The Shocks (Also known in movies as Jump Scares).
Not my favourite flavour, since it can be (and has been in a lot of recent movies) overused for cheap screams. It’s an easy way to give people a jolt, and over the years some directors and writers got lazy and forgot that the jolt should be only a part of the experience, not the whole package. Whenever I see this type of thing used over and over again in a movie I’m reminded of the old Goosebumps books. Don’t get me wrong, I loved those as a kid. But R.L. Stine did have an annoying habit of ending chapters with a jump scare: ‘And then I turned, only to see that Billy’s throat was horribly slashed!’ only to start the next chapter with something like: ‘Gotcha! Billy said, wiping the ketchup from his fake wound.’ Also seen in a million movies where someone is facing away from the camera, and the protagonist slowly approaches them and puts a hand on their shoulder, preparing to spin them around to face the camera as quickly as possible and reveal the horrible Face of Death!
But it can be done well, and when it is, a good old fashioned Jump Scare can deliver a pleasant adrenaline rush that rivals the best roller coasters.
- The Dreads
The Dreads are very difficult to accomplish, because they are mostly to do with atmosphere, and the instilling of an idea without ever quite stating it. It an ominous, vague presence, a back of the mind monster lying in wait, or a fate too terrible to imagine but which is inevitable nevertheless. The best horror always has at least some element of The Dreads, and they often use it as a solid foundation on which to build the other elements. Three movies that come to mind which do this well: Deliverance, Event Horizon, and The Shining. You know shit’s gonna go down, and that it’s gonna be really bad, but this is all communicated to you in only the most subtle of means, so that it speaks more to your subconscious than anything else.
- The Creeps
God damn I love me some Creeps. I don’t know what it is, but to me The Creeps are as addictive as Nando’s hot sauce. The Uncanny Valley, spiders pouring out of eyeballs, heads that do 180 degree twists, the buttons in Coraline’s eyes, etc. You get the picture: The Creeps are the bread and butter of horror. You can even, as Tim Burton does, stick them in as extra decoration in places that have nothing to do with the story. The spindly, big-eyed paleness of his characters is creepy. Edward Scissor hands’ scissor hands are creepy, even though he isn’t a malicious person and only kills one person with them in the whole movie. I really should do a whole separate post on this, because there are so many different ways to create Creeps for different effects, but I’ll leave it for now. Suffice to say that if a horror has nothing else, I’ll be satisfied with even two or three scenes that give me a solid dose of Creeps. It’s my heroin, baby.
- The Icks
The first resort of horror amateurs and the last of pros, the Icks are definitely a part of horror, and neglected only by the careless. I associate them most with the horror movies of the eighties, when a casual knife to the throat was likely to result in ten meter blood sprays. Wounds with maggots in them, extremely detailed dead bodies, intestines spilling from the open belly of a screaming soldier, etc. Done badly, the Icks are nothing but a cheap gross out. Done well, and they can be the icing on the cake of a truly horrific scene, and make something that would have been merely off-putting seriously disturbing.
- The Horrors
This is an interesting category, because it is concerned mostly with concepts rather than types of scenes or techniques. The Horrors are what you get when you realise a truly awful truth, or contemplate a terrible fate. See Stephen King’s ‘The Jaunt’, Harlan Ellison’s ‘I Have No Mouth But I Must Scream’ and Winston Smith’s Fate in ‘1984’. It’s a difficult effect to create, but it has a high potential for resonance, which is why you’ll most often find it at the end of stories. But you can have it in small tastes, too, in little scenes over the course of a novel or movie that stick with you, long after it’s over, even if they were only mentioned in passing. You can even include it indirectly: perhaps a character gets The Horrors so badly that he or she goes completely insane (ie. Pretty much any Lovecraft story). Which brings me to the next flavour, one of the most valuable of all in the horror writer’s arsenal…
- The Unseen
This is not so much a flavour as a base. It is a versatile tool, and the principles that govern it can be adapted to enhance the scare factor of just about any scene. Why do Harry’s friends never speak the name Voldemort? Because to acknowledge the evil, to face it in some way, immediately diminishes its power over you. There is nothing more terrifying, when faced with a horror, than to turn one’s back on it.
Besides that, all fear ultimately stems from the unknown, so it makes sense that horror does best when it capitalises on mystery as much as it can. Just as the best books give you just enough for you to complete the scene in your mind, the best horror stops just short of showing you the source of the fear. The Unseen complements all the other flavours of horror, and that is what makes it so good. Here is someone banging on a door as hard as they can to get out. Nothing strange, but you happen to know that door has only ever opened on a brick wall since you bought the house… The fear lies entirely in the question, and vanishes the moment you answer it.
So, these are Horror’s tasting notes, the things we all seek so hungrily as we flip the pages of Dracula or It or Ghost Story (and in those cases, find in abundance). Why such tastes are so delicious is, I think, as pointless as asking why one enjoys the taste of pickles. That’s just how my tastebuds work. The more important question, as far as I’m concerned – and you too, if you enjoy the craft of horror fiction as much as I do – is how do I create such things myself?
That’s a question I can only answer in the vaguest terms, but I think it begins with understanding the nature of the feeling, and how other authors have so masterfully created it in us in the past.
Until next time, I urge you to seek your favourite flavour – whether you like the jolt of a Shock or, like me, the crawling itch of The Creeps. Seek it out and when you find it, take a minute to savour it. Look for clown faces in drains and red balloons in odd places. Listen for the howl of a werewolf on the full moon. Go and stand in forest at midnight. Find an abandoned house, open the front door, and turn your back on it. Laugh, and listen to the sound of your voice.
And when you feel it… smile.
Happy Halloween ‘17
– Ben Pienaar