What scares you?

Scary Eye by Graham EdwardsWhat scares you? It’s a question of some concern to the writer of horror fiction, the maker of horror films, the creator of horror art. The scariest thing of all is that there’s no easy answer.

Ask the question of a hundred different people and you’ll get a hundred different responses. Spiders. The dark. Vampires. Enclosed spaces. I know someone who’s afraid of feet. A hundred different demons, every one with its own unique shape. So which, as an artist, do you choose?

Well, I don’t believe it matters. Because I don’t think it’s the shapes themselves that are scary. I think it’s the space around them.

I’m currently working on a horror project. To get myself in the mood, I put together a short ‘atmosphere soundtrack’ using samples from horror films. The first edit was frightening, but not frightening enough. Second time round, I put in a lot more silence. Now I can only listen to it with the lights on.

The conclusion is obvious: it’s the silence that makes the scary parts scary. It’s something I’ve known intuitively for years, but this exercise really brought it home. Think of your own favourite horror film. I’m willing to bet it’s not the horrific parts themselves that put you on the edge of your seat, but the anticipation of them. By the way, I’m not talking about feelings of revulsion here – the kind of squirminess you get when someone’s guts start spilling over the kitchen tiles – I’m talking about good old-fashioned suspense – still the best tool in the box for evoking feelings of dread.

If you’ve read this blog before, you’ll know I’m fond of drawing comparisons between writing and the visual arts. In this case, the idea of silence around the shape reminds me strongly of the concept of negative space. This is something you learn in life drawing class. You’re encouraged to draw not the model, but the space around the model. It’s a hard concept to embrace but, once you’ve cracked it, you start seeing things you never saw before. And that, incidentally, is what horror is all about, isn’t it? Showing people things they’ve never seen before. Things that, perhaps, they’d rather not see at all.

The very best horror is about what we don’t see. In Robert Wise’s 1963 film The Haunting, we never see what’s thumping on the door, but it still scares the bejeezus out of us. In Ridley Scott’s Alien, the titular beast is on screen for no more than a minute or two, and that’s plenty thank you very much. I recently re-read Stephen King’s Bag of Bones, and was struck again by how King’s evocation of the ordinary world is critical to the effectiveness of the supernatural elements that encroach into it.

So what does scare you? I don’t know. But I do know this: if I can fashion a silent, empty space that’s just the right shape and size for something suitably hideous to creep in, I’ll have you screaming before you can reach the door. It’s all about holding your breath, keeping quiet and treading as softly as you can. How else are you going to hear the monsters creeping up behind?

Comments

  1. Phil Guest says:

    Excellent post, Graham.
    A couple of thoughts. Firstly, I would say that there are some exceptions to your statement that the “very best horror is about what we don’t see”. Occasionally a film is explicit with its visuals and can still be ranked as a top-flight horror experience – such as The Exorcist, The Thing (’82) or The Evil Dead.
    Secondly (and this is me in full-on devil’s advocate mode – it’s one of my all-time favourites!) – by not showing anything, is The Haunting therefore terribly uncinematic? Could it have worked just as well as a radio play?

    • Thanks, Phil. Don’t they say the exceptions prove the rule? Your list of explicit horror examples is right on the button. Those movies contain plenty of scenes that are hard to watch because the images they throw at us are so disturbing. But I still think real fear comes down to suspense. It’s about wondering what the priest will see when he opens the door to the possessed girl’s bedroom. It’s about wondering what will happen as Kurt Russell jabs the red-hot wire into each successive blood sample. I think the power of the subsequent revelations is vested more in revulsion than fear. If there is fear wrapped up in them, it’s only because an air of suspense is maintained, as in ‘oh hell, the guy strapped to the chair is turning in the Thing – who’s he going to eat first?’
      As for The Haunting … I guess it would make a pretty good radio play. But it’s still good cinematically because we get to see the terrified reactions on the faces of the characters as they listen to the noises. And even though Wise never actually shows us the monster, we know he might.

      • Phil Guest says:

        I’d argue that our fear of what’s lurking behind the door becomes real fear when we see what it actually is and that it’s convincing; if there’s a gulf between what our imagination had created and what’s really up there on the screen, fear rapidly dissipates.
        I now realise that my earlier argument could be misinterpreted as saying that the 1999 remake of The Haunting was superior to the original because it showed stuff. So I’ll shut up.

        • I’m not convinced the fear we feel when we get through the door is somehow more ‘real’ than the anticipatory shivers when we’re pushing it open. If the Thing on the other side is a rubber monster with a zipper up the back, we laugh and the fear dissipates. If it’s something more convincing, our anticipation of the Thing simply develops into anticipation of something worse: the Thing’s going to eat my girlfriend, the Thing’s going to tear my head off, the Thing’s going to steal my passwords and access my bank account …
          However … I’m not suggesting fear is defined by anticipation alone. Full-frame monsters and gross-out body horror can be nasty too. I just believe the scream is loudest when it’s preceded by a moment of exquisite silence. It’s an interesting debate, however.

  2. I totally agree – what I am addicted to in horror is the build up. What I love best in horror films is the beginning, where everything is normal but you know something is going to flicker at the edges and gradually creep in and subvert it. Or at any rate this is easier to pull off – I’ve sometimes just watched the beginning of a really awful horror film and then switched it off as it gets closer to the reveal because I know it’s not going to work. The reveal is tough to do. Take Insidious – possibly the scariest first third of a film I have ever seen, operating with absolute genius on that high wire between normal and eerie (I’m not sure if this is the same space you’re talking about Graham). Then the second act is not scary, and third act is just laughable and awful – explicit, silly nonsense. However, when it works it is unforgettable. Anyone seen Rec?

    • I love the idea of a ‘high wire between normal and eerie’. And, delicious though the build-up undoubtedly is, I think we still crave a pay-off, tough as it may be to do one well. My argument really is that it’s the ‘normal’ that defines the ‘abnormal’. The more artfully the light is directed, the more scary the shadows become.

  3. Oh what a fabulously interesting post – you popped up on my Paper.li.(The WordsinSync Daily) headlines and I just has to click the link ;D I’ve also shared it on both of my FB accounts (shah wharton and WordsinSync)

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  1. […] indebted to Graham Edwards for this idea. His much more pro-social blogpost What scares you? got me […]

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