Unseen Terror: How uncertainty feeds our fear
On terror vs horror, the stories of Stephen King, and dancing with death.
If there’s one thing (though I’m sure there are many) that Stephen King knows, it’s what scares us. Putting it like that, however, under the umbrella term of “scary stuff”, is like saying Stephen Hawking knew a lot about “smart stuff”. King understands the source of our goosebumps and the chill along the spine, and can separate fear into its related but distinct elements of terror and horror. He’s my go-to when I want to study what makes us hide beneath the blanket and sleep with the light on.
In his non-fiction book on horror in pop culture, Danse Macabre (more on that title later), King reminds us of ‘The Monkey’s Paw’, that classic “be careful what you wish for” story by W. W. Jacobs. It’s a fine example of terror, which is the fear of anticipation, as opposed to horror, which is a fear of the actual. In the story, the reader never “sees” anything to be horrified by; instead, we conjure in our imagination things that terrify us, scared that these things might happen to our hero.
The story is about a man who is given a monkey’s paw, which is (in King’s description) “dried and mummified [and] surely no worse than those plastic dogturds on sale at any novelty shop”. The man wishes for money, which comes at the expense of his son’s life. In the depths of despair, he wishes for his son to return. But when there is a knocking at the door, the man fears that his son’s decomposing corpse will be standing outside. His wife frantically tries to unlock the door, the man uses his final wish, and the door swings open – to reveal that no one is there. King writes:
“What, the mind wonders, might have been there if her husband had been a little slower on the draw with that third wish?”
This is the essence of terror. It is the gut-deep dread of the awful possibilities. Horror, by contrast, is what we’d have if the story allowed the door to be open before the final wish could be made, to reveal whatever monster stood there. King offers us another example of unseen terror from Robert Wise’s 1963 adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. In the film (as in the book) we never see what haunts the house, although something certainly haunts it. There is a door in Hill House, behind which something scratches and bangs, but the door never opens.
My dad once saw this movie and told me about the scene that most chilled him, and I could never get his description out of my head. (How’s that for “meta” – I was haunted by an unseen thing in a movie I hadn’t seen.) Two women, Eleanor and Theo, share a bedroom with beds pushed together. In the darkness, Eleanor hears a child being made to cry, and she takes Theo’s hand in fear. She tries to force herself to speak up, and Theo squeezes her hand tighter and tighter, so tight that Eleanor thinks it will break her fingers. Finally, she screams, “Stop it!” The light goes on, and Eleanor finds that she has been moved all the way across the room. Theo was nowhere near her in the darkness. Eleanor looks at her empty hand and shudders. “Oh God ... Whose hand was I holding?”
We can imagine a modern version of this scene in which we see a demonic hand, perhaps grotesquely bloody and deformed, reaching up in the darkness for Eleanor. Some audiences would love this. It turns out that there are those who seek to confront the most horrific images that can be captured on film, and those who long for the thrill of the unseen monster lurking in the shadows. Whatever your preference, there does seem to be more staying power in the books and movies that tease us with terror rather than hit us with horror.
In Steven Spielberg’s 1975 blockbuster Jaws there are some moments of pure horror: the violent shriek of strings in the score as the water-bloated corpse of Ben Gardner appears, or when the shark rises suddenly out of the water behind Brody, who has been tossing chum out as bait. But it’s the masterful use of terror in Jaws that creates some of the most memorable sequences. Just recall the broken pier, attached to a chain in the sharks’ mouth, as it turns on the surface of the ocean, describing the shark’s change of direction, and the way it speeds towards the man swimming desperately for shore. We don’t get to see the beast, but are made to imagine its terrible jaws widening as they close in for the kill.
The finest example of terror in Jaws is the famous beach scene, in which swimmers and families playing in the water occupy all of Sheriff Brody’s attention. Through various cinematic techniques (which have been described in detail by countless others elsewhere) we are made to feel his anxiety, fearing the moment the shark will strike, wondering where and when it will happen. The moment the shark finally emerges, terror of the anticipated carnage becomes horror as a young boy is thrown around and the water fills with blood.
The terror of this sequence lives in our not knowing where the shark is. Once his location is known, there is a sense of relief even amid our horror, because at least we know now where the animal is. Our uncertainty has been relieved, and uncertainty is something the human mind struggles to cope with. Most of what we do is an effort to exert control over our surroundings, our lives, and ourselves. Our worries are all about the unknown future, and anxiety is the result of believing we can control the future if we simply get things right in the present. In this sense, the short-lived and more manageable experience of horror (all one needs to do to avoid it is look away) can actually present a respite from the deeper, more troubling experience of terror.
It’s often said that the unseen monster is scarier than the monster shown on-screen because our imaginations are far greater than any special effect. That’s undoubtedly true, but I don’t think that’s the whole story. What powers terror is ambiguity itself. It is the potential that our imagination taps, conjuring countless possible things behind the door. It’s not merely the fact that it might be a ghost banging at the door; it’s that this possibility opens into other possibilities – whose ghost? what does it look like? what powers does it have? in what ways can the ghost harm me? and so on – and of these seemingly endless prospects, we have no way of knowing which is actually the case. Humans don’t like to live with so much uncertainty. Show me the ghost, our terrified subconscious begs, so I can be done with this tension.
There are many genres that build up our anticipation, and most of them elicit excitement rather than fear. There is, of course, the poorly defined genre of “thriller”, which keeps the reader or viewer on the proverbial edge of their seat in anticipation of what comes next. In some sense, all of storytelling relies on tension of this kind. But it’s in the horror genre, in scary films and books, where it becomes terror, and terror is something that speaks to us in its own way, and speaks to a deep part of us not accessed by mere excitement. Why this entanglement of fear and anticipation should be so fundamental can be explained by the title of King’s book:
The Dance of Death. An allegory from the Late Middle Ages on the universality of dying. Representatives from various walks of life, from children to lawyers to popes, are summoned by Death himself and they dance to the grave, a disturbing and yet irrefutable image that reminds us of the most inescapable fact: No one gets out of life alive.
This fixedness of the fact of death is the only certainty we ever have about it. We spend most of our lives ignorant of when and where and how we will die. Even a terminal diagnosis is no guarantee that you won’t step incautiously into a road and be hit by a truck before the disease can kill you. And all of that is about the uncertainty about this side of the line; only the dogmatic claim to know what happens afterwards. The rest of us must imagine a land from which no one has ever reported back.
Existentially, we are living our lives in a perpetual state of terror. We fear nothing like we fear death, and we can’t reassure ourselves with the certainty of what it will look like. Life is a great door, and death is the thing clawing at it from the other side. Our dread is like that faced by the man in ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ – it might be his son knocking, healthy and alive, or it might his reanimated corpse. Something joyful might await us on the other side of the door of our lives, or something awful. How do we live like this, every minute of every day until it ends?
The honest answer is that we don’t. We find ways of avoiding looking directly at what we can only look at askance and for brief periods of time, or (in the case of religious dogmatists) by pretending we already know what’s on the other side of the door and that it’s wonderful. We fill our days with wonder, with happiness, with meaning, so that the question of our mortality isn’t the only question we have. And at other times, we glance at the door when others dress it up for us in the guise of a scary movie that hints at the great unknown, at the uncertainty about what comes after, and brings us just close enough to thrill us.
We turn out the lights, watch a scary movie, and in doing so we conquer our fear. You could call it a form of immersion therapy: our existential dread is faced down by throwing ourselves into the midst of movie-made dread. Our doubts and anxieties about our finite condition remain, of course, but in making it through the film and its frights, we gain the consolation prize of overcoming lesser anxieties, which is as much as we can ever have. In the Middle Ages, they had paintings of death leading popes and peasants to the grave. Today, we have an unending fascination with horror films. Some things don’t change. We are always dancing with death.
• Danse Macabre, Stephen King (1982)
• The Haunting, dir. Robert Wise; written by Nelson Gidding; based on a novel by Shirley Jackson (1963)
• Jaws, dir. Steven Spielberg, written by Peter Benchley & Carl Gottlieb; based on a novel by Peter Benchley (1975)