It’s October, and what better time of the year to explore things like fear and the writing of it than the month that only exists because of Halloween. September is the beginning of the school year, November is Thanksgiving, December Christmas, but what the hell would you say about October if it weren’t for that most beloved of holidays, that wonderful free candy fest known as Halloween? Nothing, that’s what, we wouldn’t even know we we’re in October if it weren’t for all the stores peddling big sacks of candy. This month should be interesting because as the world’s biggest coward talking about all the scary stuff I’ve read and seen over the years will be a bit like walking into a cage of Goliath Bird-Eating Spiders (you’re welcome). In fact, I’m so easily frightened I’ve yet to actually complete the game Amnesia and watching anything related to Slender Man leaves me sleeping with the lights on for several days afterward.
You’d think writing something scary would be easy, right? I mean you just throw some horrible monster, a big spider, or a deranged serial killer into a story and boom, horror is made. Of course we’ve all seen enough terrible “horror” films to know that’s not true, writing something truly scary is one of the hardest things to do. Why is that?
Well because fear is a tool that we humans have been sharpening with loose bowels and terror-urine for thousands of generations, ever since we came creeping out of our caves and were startled by our own shadow. Fear often gets a bad wrap because, as big manly men with beards, we’re expected to stand up to eldritch horrors like spiders and bumps in the night. Yet really, it’s because of cowards like me that the human race has evolved to this point, because all the brave morons from our caveman days ended up getting eaten by spiders, falling off cliffs and running into the open mouths of sabertooth tigers. It’s fear that kept us alive, and what keeps us alive today. And it’s because we’ve had so long to perfect our fear that we writers have such a hard time coming up with something truly horrifying.
See while fear has its uses, if we were afraid all the time, we’d never get anything done. So our fear has learned to size up threats in a mere glance, and if it’s not impressed, then the threat is cast aside and ignored. I’m sure we’ve all had a moment where we see movement in the corner of our eye and immediately gone tense, ready to run or fight for our lives, only to realize that it’s your pet cat or a shadow. The relief is almost instantaneous isn’t it? That’s what makes writing fear so hard, if the audience senses weakness in your monster, even for a moment, than it loses all its credibility as a threat and the fear it is meant to instill. For instance let’s take Scream, that most famous of cheesy slasher flicks from the 90’s. Once the ghost mask was gone, and you found out that this infamous serial killer was actually just a pair of emotionally disturbed teenage boys, did you really feel like they were still a threat? Of course on some level they still were, but they no longer had that otherworldly visage and were revealed to be mere humans. Before the mask came off, it could have been a zombie for all we knew, and it was our imaginings of what were behind the mask that was the root of our fear.
There’s a great scene in The 13th Warrior that really embodies this idea. For those who don’t know, The 13th Warrior, was a realistic interpretation of the epic poem Beowulf and how a small group of Vikings (and one Arab) hold off a horde of monsters, or rather what appear to be monsters. It’s basically 300 without the slow motion camera and CGI pecs. Anyway, these marauding monsters are so scary to these Vikings that even to speak their name aloud is forbidden, and it’s that fear that completely paralyzes a village of swarthy Vikings. Then, about midway through the film, the Arab Ahmed (played by Antonio Banderas), unmasks one of the “monsters” where he finds only the face of a man. Ahmed has been terrified by these monsters the entire film but when he sees that their only men wearing bear skins, his fear evaporates.
“It’s a man, it’s a man, it’s a man.” Ahmed repeats this to himself as he throws himself back into the battle, no longer afraid of his enemy.
It’s a great scene because it illustrates just how easily our fear can evaporate once we understand the threat. The greatest fear of all is the fear of the unknown. It’s why Slender Man is such a horrifically scary monster (or whatever the hell it is), we have no understanding of what or who he is. Why is he killing people? Is he killing people? Most of them are simply vanishing, and those that end up dead are usually killed by other people rather than Slender Man himself.
Think about some of the most famous horror movies:
What do all these movies have in common? In all of them, you don’t get a good look at the killer until the very end of the movie. Psycho’s famous shower scene was effective because all you see is the knife and the woman’s expression of fear. In Alien, the titular alien spends most of the time skulking in the shadows. We only get glimpses of The Thing, and most of the time it’s posing as one of the humans. Jaws doesn’t show you the shark until the final scene of the movie.
These movies worked because instead of showing you a rubber monster and saying “be afraid”, it showed you a glimpse of something terrible and let your imagination do the rest. They basically let the audience scare themselves, and that’s why they worked so well, because our imagination will always conjure up something so much worse than the reality. It’s the same reason people will diagnose themselves with horrific African diseases on WebMD instead of the common cold, and why I hate flying, my imagination always conjures up images of jetliners going down in flames rather than tranquilly floating through the air like millions do everyday.
Using your audience’s own imagination against them will always be one of the best ways to scare them, because only they know what will scare them the most. If you can let your audience do all your work for you, then so much the better.
Of course that’s not the only way to scare someone. There’s also the Uncanny and the Gross, but I got to leave some subjects for the rest of the month! Also coming this month will be a review of The Walking Dead seasons 1 and 2, a commentary about zombies, and more terrified whimpering about Slender Man.