Having recently tried my hand at a Lovecraftian Weird Tale (which will hopefully be available to you soon), I picked up the Kindle edition of Stephen King’s “Danse Macabre,” a review of the horror genre’s recent (in 1981) history and meditation on its conventions. It’s an engrossing book, written in the signature breezy and familiar tone that makes King’s nonfiction such a quick and comfortable read, and its peppered with synopses of classic horror (and, often, sci-fi/horror) books, movies, and television programs. I wasn’t allowed to watch many scary movies as a child, so most of my early experience with movie monsters was reading anthologies of movie capsules (for example), which in hindsight was probably better for my imagination. My experience with the Venusian Ymir (one of my favorites, pictured above) came not from watching it ransack Rome in Ray Harryhausen’s splendid (but still limited) stop-motion, but from the action in my mind inspired by a still image.
In a similar way, I experienced the grotesque monster movies of the 1980s (the Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the Thirteenth series, Hellraiser, Puppet Master, and all their gruesome rubber-faced kin) by studying the back of VHS tapes in the grocery store video rental section while my mother was at the checkout. Unable to view the actual movies, I was left to imagine the circumstances behind the tiny still images and sparse plot summaries. Years later I’d finally watch the movies in question and, invariably, find that they paled in comparison to the scares my mind conjured.
All of which relates to a concept discussed in King’s book, in fact, and one rather essential to the crafting of horror: it is the difference between terror and horror (a classical distinction in literary discussion) and what King labels “Revulsion.”
Terror refers to the anticipation of seeing something scary. That scene in the horror movie where the protagonist slowly climbs the dark stairs to the scary attic (there’s a great example in Insidious, a solid work of horror that I saw fairly recently) is terrifying – the audience is on the edge of their seat, muscles tight, because they don’t know what is lurking ahead, they just know that it’s bad. Horror refers to the experience of seeing the scary thing. Insidious has plenty of these moments as well – one such, shown in every preview, is an encounter with an evil shadow in the corner of a child’s bedroom, but there are better.
King remarks that terror is the more elegant form of fear, and that which he strives to maintain most in his own work – something I whole-heartedly agree with. In any really scary work, the scale tips solidly to the side of terror, and it is in this balance that many works of horror (The Silence of the Lambs, Ringu, The Blair Witch Project, Se7en, and most of Lovecraft’s writing) succeeds, and where others (Hannibal, The Ring, Saw) fail. As King observes, no matter how horrible your monster is, it becomes manageable to your audience as soon as it becomes defined. When the door is thrown open and the origin of the horrible scratching sound turns out to be a ten-foot tall bug, the audience screams, but ultimately relaxes. “Thank God,” they think, “a ten-foot tall but is pretty scary, but I was afraid it was a hundred feet tall.” The longer you can keep the monster in the audience’s imagination, the scarier your work will be.
King also identifies a third scare, not traditional to the discussion, which he labels Revulsion. This is, simply, the gross-out. It is a cheap, artless scare, but it is effective. My favorite example is Un Chien Andalou (An Andelusian Dog), Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí‘s surrealist film from 1927 that still packs a mighty wallop today. In one scene, a man on a balcony sharpens a straight razor on a moonlit night. As he smokes a cigarette, he approaches a woman from behind, using two fingers to hold her left eye open. Just as he begins to draw the razor across her eye, the film cuts to a thin cloud cutting across the moon, then back to the eyeball as it is cut, a glob of vitreous humour spilling out. IT is terrifically effective film making, and even today’s desensitized film-goers will gasp and recoil.
I would posit that this sequence gives us examples of terror, horror, and revulsion, albeit briefly. Terror results when the man picks up the straight razor and approaches the woman. The audience feels edgy because they know he is up to no good, though they don’t yet know what he has planned. As he draws open her eye and places the razor, the audience experiences horror – the scare now has a defined source, and it is horrifying. When the camera cuts away and cuts back to the blob bursting free from a split eyeball, the audience experiences revulsion.
All three have their place, though it takes more skill and art to create terror, less for horror, and less still for revulsion. As King says, “…if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud.”
By the way, you can view the short sequence from Un Chien Andalou on YouTube – though I’m betting many of you will still skip it.