What’s that? Corner of your eye… no, don’t look. See. That’s it. Over there, at the very edge of your field of vision, in that fuzzy zone between colour and shadow. It’s gone now. But it was there, wasn’t it? You believe your own eyes, don’t you?
What about that noise? The little rustle from the far side of the room. Just rubbish settling, plastic uncurling in the wastebasket. Or is it?
I grew up on Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark? Every night after school, I would rush in, get changed out of my uniform, grab a plate of Jaffa Cakes from the fridge, and settle down in the living room to be scared.
Not every tale scared me.
So I started reading the books, harassing the librarians for more every week. The books did scare me. Not just when I was reading, but long after I’d put them down. Alone in my room. As I turned the lights off. It was my own imagination that scared me the most. I was hungry for more.
So began my love affair with all things dark and macabre.
These days, I still get scared. I sometimes scare myself, late at night when writing. Getting too caught up in your own little worlds is a hazard of the job, I suppose. It’s not the buckets of blood and gore that scare. It’s the sudden movement you think you saw a moment ago. The sound that you don’t recognise. The strange coolness that makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck when you realise you’re the only person in the room, in the house, but the door is open to the landing and the stair just creaked and at any moment something will walk or crawl or shuffle or lumber through the door.
Our imagination, given enough fuel (by enough I mean: very little), can wreak havoc on our vulnerable nerves. When Ofelia (Pan’s Labyrinth) eats two grapes despite the Faun’s dire warnings, it is not the grotesque image of the Pale Man, eyes-in-hand, that frightens us. It is the thought of what he will do to us if he catches us that makes our hearts hammer and our knuckles bite deep into the arms of the chair. We get that not from him, but the sketches on the walls of children ripped apart and eaten.
The opening of Jurassic Park still sticks in the mind long after the film is over, a fierce yellow eye and a flash of teeth are all that hint at the poor worker’s fate before Bob Peck orders his men to “Shoot her!” A serene lake dissolves into view to the sound of gunshots, while we breathe deep and try to calm ourselves.
A trope of theatre for centuries, the worst violence almost always occurs off stage. Only the bloodied daggers are testament to the atrocity that Macbeth has visited upon King Duncan, yet in our minds eye we play over and over every cut and thrust of the blades as they pierce Duncan again and again.
Good horror, in my humble view, uses scares that we cannot see, forcing our own imagination to do the work. Even with modern CGI effects bringing every little drop of blood and viscera to the lens, the best scares are when something appears for only a moment. I’m not talking about that overused cliche ‘jump-moment’ either. That tactic is a tired, pathetic excuse for horror. Give the audience a clue, the slightest one. They are intelligent, they will scare themselves easily enough.
But why? What does horror set out to do, other than just scare people? After all, the blood, gore, monsters, death and jumps are all capable of inducing fear.
These aren’t enough, because they don’t get people to think.
There are many horrors in the world today, real, tangible. From Gaddafi’s bloodied face on the front pages of the tabloids, to the bodies falling from the World Trade Centre towers, through mutilated corpses of women and children online. These things are terrible. But people easily form detachment from them. I’ve seen young teenagers reblog gore-fest pictures right alongside fluffy kittens and cute topless girls on Tumblr as if they’re just texting their mates a ‘hey’. To them, it isn’t real.
Horror has to be real, to remind people of what is good and bad in the world. Good horror does that by scaring us deep in our hearts and souls, with the creepy sense that something is not quite right in the world. Everything is not okay, you are not okay. I am not okay, I promise. And we need to do something about it.
Now, what was that? Over there, corner of your eye…
You can find out more about A W Marsden at http://terrierandy7.com/