Friday, January 27, 2012

On Horror and Scary Things

When I was a tender lad of fourteen or so, The Ring came out. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I thought it was a Japanese cinematic remake of the Wagner opera cycle, so I hastened with my brother to go see it. Well, turns out the 2002 film has nothing to do with Wagner. It's terrifying. To date, I have never been more scared. And while I spent many a sleepless night recuperating from my fears, I started to wonder about what made things scary. What frightens us? I've been reading a lot of Poe recently, so I've begun to ask myself these questions again.

Drawing mostly on my experiences from The Ring, I decided that, like comedy, the core of horror lies in things being slightly off—just not as they should be. Things being out of place or fundamentally wrong is also the heart of farce. But unlike comedy, in horror this abnormality is sinister. In The Ring, we have a girl who is categorically evil, and children are not supposed to be evil. Jason should not be able to pop up behind someone without moving. When I was in college I discovered that Freud had beaten me to the punch, and what I had termed abnormality, he had already called Unheimlichkeit, or the uncanny. He talked about how there's nothing particularly frightening about a forest or a girl singing, but if you hear the voice of a girl singing in the woods, it suddenly becomes frightening because those two things don't go together.

Back in high school, I played with the idea of writing a screenplay about a little frontier town (I was definitely influenced by Shyamalan's abortive The Village) plagued by a subtly demonic solitary man. In the film, I would make sure that the exterior doors of houses opened outwards rather than in. I would make light do awkward things—darkness under lit candles, but light coming from the bottom corners of the room. I'd just do a myriad of things to make the scenes covertly eerie without ever showing anything gruesome or jumpy. I wanted to create a sense of continued anxiety through means that most viewers would be unable to identify. I still think it would make for a great flick.

Poe certainly has a great deal of that in his works. His characters stumble through looming, strange landscapes. They encounter maniacs and wastelands and deformities. They become obsessive over things that one should not care about. Poe is in full command of my abnormality and Freud's Unheimlichkeit, but Poe is also a master of what I'm about to term as silence, or what H. P. Lovecraft calls the unknown:

"The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown." So Lovecraft begins his behemoth treatise on horror in literature. I'm going to argue that the unknown or silence is the companion element to Unheimlichkeit. Just as comedy and horror share abnormality as a premise, so adventure and horror share silence. I'm hoping that you've seen ABC's Lost. If not, go watch it; it's good times. You can talk about how people watched that show for the characters or whatever, but the real reason we came back for episode after episode was Lost's silence. The show was never better than when Hurley said to Jack, "We got a problem. The manifest. Jack, the census. The names of everyone who survived, all 46 of us. I interviewed everyone, here, at the beach. Got their names. One of them, one of them isn't—Jack! One of them isn't in the manifest. He wasn't on the plane." How is it possible that one of these people wasn't on the plane? It was the most gripping question on the show, but the writers answered us only with silence. In that vacuum of information, we project all the unspoken possibilities our subconscious can come up with.

But alas, we eventually found out who this "Other" was and where he came from. With the grand exception of the "numbers," Lost never learned to maintain its silence. The same is true of Sherlock Holmes. It's always a marvel when Holmes catches the villain until he explains how he came to his conclusion. At that point, the detective's methods become banal. What makes Gandalf such a great character? His silence. Within the trilogy, we never really know where he came from, how he does his magic, or what he knows.

All of those examples are from the adventure genre, but silence crosses over eloquently into horror. All the great monster movies show only glimpses of the actual monster. And just as a great organist never pulls out all the stops, the greatest horror texts always hint that the story has much more devilish underpinnings than we will ever know. Take "Paleman" from Pan's Labyrinth. Before we ever see him, we see an abandoned pile of children's shoes in his lair. Although context makes it clear that he's been eating children, the collection of shoes remains an enigma. Sure, you eat kids, but what's with the shoes? Where are the other clothes? It's a perfect combination of abnormality and silence. We never find out where Paleman came from or why he does what he does, but we're confronted with images that just aren't right.

I need to come clean on something. My term that I'm so proud of, silence, is lifted wholesale from a Poe story, and here I'll turn for my last example of silence. The story is "Silence—A Parable," and aside from the obvious SILENCE which comes in so prominently at the end of the tale, the story is enveloped in silence. We begin with silence. Who are these people? Who is the demon, and who is the narrator? We never really know. But the demon begins to tell us a story about a nightmarish landscape, and a man who stands there listening. The demon curses him so he hears only silence, and he runs off in terror.

Why does the listener flee? Why was he content with standing in this horrifying abyss before the silence? Maybe in silence we project the worst of what we are and think onto the emptiness. Maybe we're haunted by the fear that no matter what is lurking in the silence, it is not as awful as what we have buried within us. Or maybe it's the horror of being entirely alone in a hostile universe. Whatever the process is, our imaginations will terrify us much more than any input the storyteller could provide. This is the hallmark of Poe's brilliance—he leaves so much unspoken and unrevealed. His most eloquent voice is silence. After all, he wrote the first detective story, a genre built entirely on the concept of the silence and the unknown. I think that Poe was not only aware of the mechanics of literary silence, but that those mechanics are what his parable is all about.

Poe ends the story with a lynx emerging from the tomb. The lynx stares at the demon. It "looked at him steadily in the face." Why? We don't know. But there the tale ends, and all we're left with is silence.

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