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?