Thursday, March 26, 2015


Why is thrilling and spooky better without graphic blood and gore?

The best kind of scary is not explicit, but is left to the imagination.

            Achieving scary is more of an art, than a science, especially since what is scary to one may be just dumb to another.  In the author’s book of fright, broad rules with general applications are few and far between.  While most formulas for fear quickly lose potency with age and use, there is an old proverb that is always sound advice:  There is more scare in the anticipation, than in the revelation.
It is always what we don't know
that is scariest!
            When a threat is left to the imagination, we all tend to imagine the worst, meaning our own personal version of the worst, and scary is a personal affair.  Very early in childhood, we are all introduced to scary.  We know so little about the world in general, but we don’t lack for imagination.  It is actually a miracle that we don’t scare ourselves to death before we can grow up.
            We grow up by learning the rules that govern the real world.  Whether those rules are actually correct is not relevant.  What’s important is that rules define the world, giving us a false sense of stability and certainty.  As adults, we don’t need to use our imaginations.  We already know the rules of reality.  But, when we allow our imaginations to wander, we find that scary is still there.  Nothing has changed, not really.
            Scary is child’s play—it has always been child’s play.  Some of the scariest games are the ones we played as children.  In telling scary stories, we just have to remember how to play those games again.
            Slowly, I pushed the door open, straining to see into the bedroom without actually stepping in.  The door opened wide, all the way to the sliding closet doors behind it.  I could see that both closet doors were closed, so I knew there was nothing immediately behind the door I was pushing, but I had no idea what might be waiting in the closet.  The hallway lights were off, but there was still enough light behind me to cast a black pillar across the room and onto the far wall.  Nervously, I crouched to minimize my dark shadow, knowing there were hidden eyes watching me, waiting for my next move.
Watchers are watching!
            I could feel those eyes heavy upon me, drilling holes through me.  I couldn’t see the watchers, but I knew they could see me.  Each one waited for me to carelessly stray too close, where I would be easy prey.  It was mandatory that I see or hear each one first, before I came within reach.  The sense of doom was palpable.  So many times, I had tried.  So many times, I had failed.
Reaching carefully around the corner into the room, I flipped the light switch, hoping a light might come on, but nothing happened.  Though it was hopeless, I flipped the switch a couple more times, thinking it might elicit a reaction from someone in the room--still nothing.  Except for a dim lamp, stuffed under a red sheet in a far corner, the room was dark and hidden in heavy shadows--nothing moved.  A blanket hung across the outside window, blocking all daylight.  Another blanket hung from the non-working ceiling light across to one end of the window blind, completely hiding one corner of the room.
Evil can see in the dark
This was a new configuration.  I didn’t know what to expect.  Dropping down to hands and knees, I tried to see under the beds, but blankets on both beds hung all the way to the floor.  Hoping to see underneath, I flipped up a corner of the blanket on the bed by the door, but it was too dark to see anything.  Holding my breath, I listened for any sound that might betray a nearby watcher, but heard nothing.
The first move had to be mine.  Standing, I leaned into the room.  Piles of blankets and pillows covered the bed to my right.  I decided not to go that way--who knew what was under those piles.
Sliding into the room with my back against the closet door, I kept a hand on its handle to prevent anyone from sliding it open from inside.  I stepped quickly to the middle of the wall on the other side.  Back to the wall, facing out, I watched for any movement, listened for any noise.  I was now close enough to the second bed that with a quick step, I could hop on top.  This bed had no blankets or pillows on it that might be hiding someone--it looked safe.  I stepped forward, getting ready to jump, but a hand suddenly shot out from under the bed, grabbing my ankle.  I yelped in surprise as I stumbled and fell.  Already, they had me, and I hadn’t seen it coming.
In a sudden rush, the tension was released.  I was safe once more.  Of course, I had never really been in danger--it had just felt that way.  And that was the fun of our small haunted house.
This was a game invented by our cousins, Sandra and Steven, fraternal twins.  When they came to our house, there was usually something scary going on, and one of our favorite games was “Haunted House.”  Because the grownups didn’t want us ransacking the entire house, it was really just a haunted bedroom, but that was all we needed to create some serious haunting.
The rules of the game were simple.  One kid was sent away to wait in the front room while all the other kids turned a bedroom into a haunted house.  When someone in the haunted house yelled, “Ready,” the designated victim would try to find (see or hear) all the monsters hidden around the room before one of them could grab the victim by surprise.  Everyone enjoyed the mystery and suspense of being the victim.  It was a challenge trying to anticipate where all the monsters would be hidden.  Sometimes a monster would be put in an obvious place to distract the victim from another monster carefully hidden nearby.
We all enjoyed being monsters too.  It took a lot of creativity to not do the same thing every time--there was no mystery or suspense in repeatedly doing the same thing.  In addition, a good haunted house required more than just mystery and suspense.  In order to be really scary, a good haunted house, or a good horror story, needs one or both of the following:  (1) a grave threat from a hidden source of danger, and/or (2) a warping or distortion of something that is normally familiar and friendly.
The victim in a haunted house (or the reader of a horror story) must feel a personal threat (either to him or herself directly or to a significant other, like the story’s main character).  The more significant the danger, the scarier the threat, with life and death threats being among the scariest.  A good horror story creates a bond between the reader and the character at risk, so the threat will hang heavy over the reader as it hangs heavy over the character in the story.
One way to make a hidden danger feel eminent, or to increase the sense of alarm, is to create a sense of revulsion through a warping or distortion of the familiar.  Few things are more fascinating, and at the same time more scary, than something familiar, even mundane, that has been horribly warped or distorted to the point of being painfully repulsive.  Even without feeling a direct personal threat to oneself, or a significant other, an encounter with a repulsive distortion of the familiar can elicit gut wrenching feelings of disgust and fear.  This has been done successfully with clowns, birds and even mothers.
When it comes to scary, a subtle presentation of a hidden danger coupled with a distortion of the familiar will beat a stream of blood and gore every time and will keep your readers (victims) coming back again and again.  Though you will need to be creative in building the mystery and suspense anew in each new story (even each new chapter), your readers will love you for it.  Good haunting!  Good horror!

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