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.
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:
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.
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.