“I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But 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. ”
That is Stephen King classifying the different types of scares in his book Danse Macabre. I find it’s difficult for me to get a visceral, gross-out kind of reaction from reading. I typically need an aural or visual stimulus to generate those kinds of responses.
Uncle Steve rarely has to go that far down the totem pole with me.
King describes terror as the “finest emotion” and at its core, his brand of horror is real terror. This is also a reason that his works are sometimes problematic for film and television adaptations. Terror is such a cerebral emotion that it’s difficult to translate into an audiovisual medium. Books, as Carl Sagan said, are “an author […] speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you.” I’ve read many of King’s works, and there have been a handful that left me exceedingly freaked out. While I read these stories, King became equal parts telepath and mad surgeon, beaming into my brain and playing around with the gray matter.
The first story that filled me with a sense of lingering dread was The Boogeyman. It’s a story about a man relaying to his psychiatrist his experiences with the boogeyman coming out of his children’s closets and killing them. It sounds like such a inane premise, but King really dishes out the dread. It’s in the short story collection Night Shift, which was one of my earliest introductions to his work. I haven’t read it in years but my skin still crawls even thinking about it. I recently discovered there is a short film adaptation that was made in the 80s, so I’ll have to watch that. In like twenty years.
The other story that embedded itself in my reptilian hindbrain is The Road Virus Heads North. Again, I haven’t read this one in years, but I seem to recall it becoming very meta as the story progresses. It’s about a man on a road trip who buys a painting at a yard sale only to notice that its subject is changing as he proceeds on his journey. The changes coincide with grisly news alerts for locations the man – and the painting – has already visited. It’s a story I started late one night and couldn’t put down. I finished it as the sun was rising and I couldn’t bring myself to close my eyes after I was done, so it literally kept me up all night.
Most horror fans get asked this from time to time: “Why would anyone enjoy being scared?” Because we’re already scared. We have fears, anxieties, our very own boogeymen we deal with day to day. Sometimes those get overwhelming simply because they’re in response to abstracts. Stories, movies, games that engage us in a frightening way give us something to direct that nervous energy toward. We see the hero come out on top or we see the realization of worst-case scenario and we ourselves emerge from the story unscathed.
I mentioned before that I don’t usually get a visceral gross-out from reading, but my brain clearly does, because when those words travel from the page through my eyes, up my optic nerves and into my brain, I imagine the white-knuckle, nail-biting, sweaty palm, wide-eyed terror I feel is just my brain being grossed out and vomiting adrenaline all over the place.
What are some of your favorite scary stories? Movies? Games?