For my profession I work as a software developer, so it’s not much of a surprise that I find the technology sector fascinating. I’m always interested in new developments, hardware and software alike, so when virtual reality first came on the scene I was anxious to give it a try. For the most part, the showings there have felt lackluster and halfhearted, but a few standouts have been quite exceptional and remained with me for a long while since. One of my favorite experiences was a short-film called Sonar, which placed the viewer at the helm of a small space-faring craft, following the trail of a crew that went missing some time ago. The story began with a sense of intrigue, soon became ominous, and finally concluded in utter terror. I loved every second of it. Repeated viewings of the piece still held the same punch, due to both the quality of the work as well as the extra immersion made possible by the VR medium.
Now, in general, I am not a fan of mainstream horror stories. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for suspense, I’m a sucker for intrigue, I relish foreboding and tension, and I’m always up for mounting dread. But more and more the genre has lost touch with those core tenets in exchange for just increasing the amounts of violence, gore, and jump scares. True fear is not the same as queasiness, and none of these cheap parlor tricks hold a candle to a truly terrifying encounter. In contrast, consider the last great nightmare you had, one that brought you to a point of terror so profound that your mind revolted and snapped you back to consciousness before the scene could be completed. Now that’s true fear.
Of course these sorts of sleeping horrors are, by their nature, unpleasant experiences, yet it is worth considering what value there is in that unpleasantness. One does not need to be a sadist to appreciate that nightmares are some of the richest dreams we ever have; the images are so very vivid, the immersion is so very deep, and the emotions are so very, very real. Beyond that, though, the fact is our core fears are, well, core to us. Frightening experiences, therefore, have the ability to help us to better understand our own selves. Our basic fears influence much of what we do, think, and believe, and coming to learn the names of these fears is our first step to gaining closure with them. On the one hand, understanding these fundamental worries helps us guard against the tragedies which we can prevent, and on the other it helps us to gain acceptance for the ones which we cannot. In this sense there is a degree of interest in fear that can be healthy, when we face them with the intention to see our own souls.
Of course, good horror authors know and utilize this when crafting their wakeful nightmares. They understand that the extreme and unrealistic dreads we hold, the mythical and supernatural terrors we conjure, all of these are only the personifications and exaggerations of the basic fears at our cores. Deep down we don’t really expect to be mutilated in some horrifying way, but we are afraid of pain, particularly of pain that is greater than our ability to bear. We don’t really expect to be murdered or devoured by a beast, but we do dread being in another’s power, of losing control in our lives. We don’t really know many people who have been possessed by demons or mind-controlling aliens, but we do see the reality of loved ones losing their higher cognitive processes and sense of self. As such, the good author does not try to scare the reader with a monster, they scare them with what the monster represents, with the way it speaks to and provokes a reaction from the fundamental fears that are common to all humanity.
Washington Irving was one author that certainly grasped this concept. In his classic tale The Legend of Sleepy Hollow he presents a monstrous being, one that is supernatural and terrible, and one who relentlessly pursues the protagonist with forces of inhuman evil. Yet in its closing moments we realize that this monstrous being was actually a fabrication. The headless horseman in all his dreadful glory was nothing more than common human envy dressed up once in Brom Bones’ costume and clothed a second time in Ichabod Crane’s superstitious imagination. The revelation that the villain of the story is a mere mortal who menaced and murdered Ichabod does not make the tale any less ghastly, though, if anything it only makes it more so. This speaks to an evil that is far more sinister because it is far more common and believable; the evil of what jealous men will do to secure their own interests.
Another excellent example is in the theatrical production Wait Until Dark. Here we have a heroine, Susy Hendrix, who is menaced by a group of hardened drug dealers and thuggish con artists. These dangerous men mean business, and a number of lives are lost before the final curtain falls. None of that is where the real terror is, though. What is truly frightening is that Susy Hendrix is completely blind. There is something horrible in the audience’s being able to see the obvious dangers which are shrouded from her in eternal shadow. Men are laying traps and drawing weapons right in front of her and she doesn’t even know it. The reason why this is so affecting is because it speaks to a core fear we all hold, a fear that even in broad daylight there may be unrecognized threats lurking right before us.
In fact, both The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Wait Until Dark can be considered as examinations of that same core fear: the fear of disguised danger. If we tally all the things we do to keep danger at bay, we realize that safe-living is a truly herculean effort. We lock our doors, buckle our seatbelts, look both ways, check expiration dates, phrase things carefully, wear thick boots, apply mosquito repellant, put the cover on our pool, discharge static electricity, turn off circuit breakers, signal each turn, apologize quickly, brush our teeth, back away from stray animals, have regular check-ups, stretch before we run, and so very, very much more. And we do all of this before anything bad has even happened. Even so, there lurks in all of us the sense that there are dangers we cannot account for. We realize that no matter how vigilant we are, threats remain in every place and every hour, things we do not see, forces we cannot quell. We become paranoid, consumed not by a fear of what is lurking in the dark, but simply of what might be. However, with the help of stories that give us insight to this unpleasant aspect of our lives, we may come to accept the uncertainty of life. That reality may still unsettle us, but it does not have to paralyze us. We can just live, and let come what may.
Truly frightening tales will always have a unique quality of being as fascinating as they are unnerving. Next Thursday I’m going to take my own stroll down a haunted path and hope you’ll be willing to join me for it. My purpose will simply be to draw out a root fear or two that applies to all of humanity. If I am able to succeed, the story will be discomforting in how it holds a mirror to the most basic human fears. Whenever this happens, it leaves a sensation that the tale somehow knows each one of us on a personal level. So you’d better watch out, those monsters aren’t just going for Mina Harker and Dr Jekyll, they’re coming after you!