Friday, October 21, 2011

What Scares You?

The Anatomy of Horror, Haunting, and Halloween

Story #1:
David’s heart pounded against his ribcage. His breath fled in feeble gasps. The splintered wood floor in his bedroom clawed at his bare toes. Where was it coming from? Scratch…scratch…scratch… It had crawled into his dreams and pulled him out, kicking and screaming. Now that he was awake, he couldn’t rest until he found the source. Scratch…scratch…scratch. It was getting closer. John halted at his bedroom door and curled his fingers around the cold handle. A high-pitched screeech echoed through the shadows as he pulled. His curtains rustled. As the door creaked open, a flood of blinding yellow light poured in. Amid the glow, there was a shadow. A black unknown something, moving, growing, approaching…scratch, Scratch, SCRATCH!

Story #2:
The chilled night air was filled with a mixture of big city fumes and death. The sirens had ceased, but the squad cars’ pulsing red and blue lent an eerie glow to the narrow alley and the dismembered bodies hanging there. David felt his lunch crawl up his throat as he sorted through the butchery. He never got used to the smell of fresh blood.

So, which one scared you more? Story #1 about the frightened little boy’s approaching poodle, or Story #2 about the cops at the open-air meat market? (Gotcha, didn’t I?) If I’ve done my job properly, neither should have been pleasant, but they should have evoked different feelings. #1 should have felt like a classic horror film or campfire story, stimulating the imagination and making your palms sweat. This is what we (and most of the horror industry) will call “terror.” #2 should have pulled up a visceral distaste from the pit of your stomach, leaving less up to the imagination. Grosse! This is known as “horror” (in this particular scene, it could also be called “revulsion”).

Most scary books and movies utilize both “terror” and “horror” for their success, but most use one more than the other. Think of it as “Paranormal Activity” versus “Saw 3D.” Both movies evoked that psychological response to danger known as fear, but which one was more effective? Which movie sent you into cardiac arrest. Which gave you that adrenaline boost, that “fight or flight” response. Which one causes moviegoers to flee the theatre, rending their clothes and screaming their faces off? The answer is…both. Sorry. I know. Weak sauce. But it’s true. If there was a “best” scare, we would only have one horror movie, and they would make it into a book, and the book would be better.

The truth is, horror movies play on our fears, and if you Wikipedia “phobias,” you’ll get a whole smorgasbord of ‘em. Everyone is a little different. Me? I’m scared of centipedes, heights, and that creepy girl from “The Ring.” Some phobias are pretty outlandish, but there are some primary fears used commonly in the entertainment industry: the unknown, death, darkness, confined spaces, etc. You’ll see these themes used over and over because they work. Stories that successfully utilize these primal fears will be a hit. Those that don’t wind up being overproduced, under-acted flops that score a 3% on Rotten Tomatoes.

With that said, it’s important to realize that fears tend to differ by generation. Thus, the original “Frankenstein” just doesn’t have the same scream-potential it once did. The more scared people are as a nation, the more money the horror industry makes, and you can bet the industry will be acutely aware of what real-life fears their audiences hold dear. “Godzilla” was big when Japan was afraid of WMD fallout and invasion. Whatta ya know, “Cloverfield” popped up right when the U.S. was afraid of the same thing. Women are more afraid of rape and abduction than they have ever been (and rightly so, thanks to the news and a lack of moral foundation), and the “thriller” section on Netflix directly reflects that fear.

Finally, one last note on modern horror movies. To paraphrase Stephen King: “We go to movies now to see good looking men and women get naked, then get killed. There is a certain moral queasiness that comes with paying money to see monsters kill, not be killed.” “Saw” and “Hostel” come immediately to mind. Sure, people say there are underlying morals and themes, but when it comes down to it, people aren’t rooting for the victims, they’re rooting for Jigsaw…and that’s pretty messed up. In my mind, it’s only a couple steps away from throwing two slaves in a coliseum and paying to watch them hack each other to death. I’m definitely a huge proponent of the horror industry. I think it’s healthy to see good triumph over evil, to remember how small our own problems really are, and to scream until we laugh (talk about therapeutic!), but we have to be careful to preserve these true fundamentals of classic horror without stepping over into the realm of just plain horrible.

So what have we learned? What makes a good scary movie or book? In the end, it’s all about that dark, primeval reaction known as fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of death, fear of creepy music-- all those things we love to see on the big screen, but never in our own lives. So remember, the next time you curl up to a scary movie or book, remember, there’s nothing to fear but fear itself…that is, unless you’ve failed to kill that blood-soaked axe murderer hiding in your bedroom closet…

For some of my own, creepy, crawly examples of horror lit., check out my “Interview With a Vampire Victim” and “Paradise Undead.” I also have a little scary surprise waiting for you luck readers in my next blog!

Happy Halloween!