Sometimes, the day job gives you pearls. I was sitting in a seminar on Childhood Anxiety when I realized I was looking at something important for me as a writer. Here was the dais upon which all the boogeymen and terror tales were based. Here was the essence of Lovecraft laid out in clinical terms….
Everyone has anxiety in life. Call it stress, if you like. Horror fiction, oddly enough, creates stress for its readers but in a safe dosage that is enjoyable (and ironically, again, can lower your stress level in a cathartic way). I know, personally, I never seek out horror fiction when I’m overstressed. I usually reach for a good mystery novel, then. But, as summer holidays lull me into a quiet calm, when days are long and the problems of life seem far away, I delve into a good horror tale. We all need some stress in our lives, or we would simply die of boredom. Anxiety in manageable chunks – an exciting film, a roller coaster ride, a hard-fought sporting event – is desirable. These are called entertainment. As is the horror tale.
True anxieties begin in our youngest days. Here is a chart that shows the progression of childhood fears from 1 month to 12 years old.
1-5 Months – loss of support, loud noises
7-12 months – strangers, fear of sudden, unexpected, or looming objects
1 year – separation, injury, strangers
2 years – loud noises, animals, dark rooms, separation, large objects, changes in environment
3-4 years – masks, the dark, separation, noises
5 years – “bad” people, bodily harm, animals, the dark, separation
6 years – monsters, bodily harm, thunder and lightning, the dark, sleeping or staying alone
7-8 years – supernatural beings, the dark, fears based on media events, being alone, injuries
9-12 years – tests, exams, performance, injury, physical appearance. Lack of social acceptance
Beyond this lies the terrifying world of adult psychosis based on these childhood fears. We either conquer them or become fearful adults. The area of phobias is not a childhood ailment but one of adult life.
Let’s take a look at each of these fears now, using examples from Mythos tales and ancestor tales, in movies, to illustrate how authors have used them. For many of these anxieties, I am going to speak of “primordial man,” the ape-like creature who lived in a hostile world of carnivores and environmental disasters. We think we are removed from this ancient ancestor, but all our instincts, our hard-wired anxieties, were developed in that dim age, and it lies just under a veneer of iPods and Starbucks. It’s there, even if you don’t see it.
#1) Loss of Support/Separation/Being Alone – These are all really the same thing to different degrees. Humans are gregarious creatures. We aren’t really meant to exist alone. That is why solitary confinement is a terrible punishment in a prison. This is an ancient instinct that goes all the way back to the trees. Our primitive ancestors knew they had a better chance of surviving with others than they did on their own. Natural Selection would have taken care of the solitary types.
The horror author uses this instinct by forcing characters to be separated. This device is called a “bottleneck,” where characters are separated from safety and are caged along with monsters. The cliché is the haunted house where the group splits up and gets ganked individually. A great example of an author using this was Scott Smith in The Ruins, where the victims are separated from civilization, first by jungle but also by culture, language and hostility, for the natives who surround the ruins do not speak English, understand city ways or follow the same code of laws. To step too far into the ruins is to separate yourself fatally, where you become fodder for the giant plant. Of course, Clark Ashton Smith did it earlier in “The Seed From the Sepulcher” (Weird Tales, October 1933). Another writer who used the bottleneck brilliantly was William Hope Hodgson. Hodgson’s stories often take place at sea, one of Nature’s bottlenecks, though, in The Nightland, he created a last refuge of humankind surrounded by monsters, the ultimate bottleneck, the Last Redoubt.
#2) Loud or Strange Noises/Thunder and Lightning – What is the first horror cliché? “It was a dark and stormy night.” (Paul Clifford, 1830) Lord Lytton knew his stuff. Every horror show since has used it because thunder is loud and lightning flashy. What does the predator do before it strikes, the volcano before it erupts? Loud and weird noises are usually the herald to bad things. They’re more evident in film than in fiction, movies like the first version of The Haunting of Hill House, where the unseen terrors assail the women’s door with loud, aggressive banging. The second version of the film is more visual and consequently far less scary. In prose, H.P. Lovecraft does this beautifully in “The Whisperer in Darkness.” Since his alien posing as a human remains hidden, HPL must convey or hint at what has happened. The buzzing noise that accompanies the speech is subtle but creepy.
#3) Strangers/Bad People/Supernatural Beings – Lovecraft said it the best: “The Oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Strangers embody the unknown. The tribe of cavemen wandering the jungle suddenly comes upon another tribe. Are they friendly, better armed, more numerous, completely bent on your destruction? Only after people become known to you, friends or acquaintances, does this feeling go away. In Dracula, Bram Stoker uses Dracula’s strangeness masterfully. While he can pass for a human being, Dracula is his most frightening when we see he is not, such as this favourite scene in Chapter 4: “I saw the fingers and toes grasp the corners of the stones, worn clear of the mortar by the stress of years, and by thus using every projection and inequality move downwards with considerable speed, just as a lizard moves along a wall.”
The unexpected actions of the Count are what frighten us. Stoker uses this same idea in a second way. For an Englishman reading the book back in 1897, there was a second fear in the shape of Dracula, that being a Romanian, a foreigner, handsome, rich, he might come to England and carry away any number of English beauties. Drac’s biting of necks is most sexual, as Mina and Lucy welcome the Count with wet panties. Only the order of brave Englishmen led by the German (acceptable foreigner) Van Helsing can save them from such evil influence. The innate racism against foreigners is a second layer to Drac’s villainy.
Bad people are not always supernatural. Children often fear robbers as much as monsters. This fear is nebulous. Why should they fear thieves? Because they operate outside the Law; they do things no one else would. Later in adolescence, these rebel figures become attractive for the very same reason. The vampire romance craze in book, on film, whether Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Twilight, shows this same reversal. The monsters have become the heroes.
#4) Animals – Animals (and I would say plants could also be placed here, for there are many plant monster classics as well) can be as adorable as a kitten playing with yarn, a beautiful rose in a garden. Cuddly and cute animals, and flowers, are often a feature of children’s books. Children love natural things that pose no threat, but, given the right catalyst, Puss’ems becomes a creature of hell as in Stephen King’s “Cat From Hell.”
At its worst, this idea results in bad films like Day of the Animals (1977), where all animals go after humans. The idea was stolen from Arthur Machen’s The Terror (1917), in which the hatred from World War I collects and infects animals. At its best, we have “The Birds” by Daphne Du Maurier (and the film version by Alfred Hitchcock). No explanation is given why the birds decide to go on their rampage, which makes it all the more creepy.
The master of the animal monster was H.G. Wells. He gave us killer squid, spiders, ants, bats, and giant rats. While the use of spiders, snakes, insects, and sea creatures is an easy scare, Wells was so good at it he could make you afraid of a chicken. Wells understood that a monster that has no mental identity cannot be bargained with or persuaded to turn from its vicious intent to kill. The giant chicken in The Food of the Gods is poultry in all things but size, but its chicken-sized intellect makes such a massive creature extremely dangerous when you become the size of a bug. It is this same killer instinct that makes the aliens so frightening in the Alien movies, along with their snake-insect-spider physical similarities.
#5) Sudden, Unexpected, or Looming Objects – The Castle of Otranto (1764) is the granddaddy of all horror pieces. Horace Walpole created the physical character of Otranto from drawings by Pisanello that feature many classical sculptures at different sizes. Imagine if one of these gigantic helmets fell on you with all the suddenness of a Monty Pythonesque foot. This is how the Baron’s son Conrad bites it: “Shocked with these lamentable sounds, and dreading he knew not what, he advanced hastily, – but what a sight for a father’s eyes! – he beheld his child dashed to pieces, and almost buried under an enormous helmet, an hundred times more large than any casque ever made for human being, and shaded with a proportionable quantity of black feathers.”
The looming aspect of the tsunami is part of its horribleness. Drowning is terrible in any case, but to have a wall of water loom up over you and grab you like a giant hand makes it that much worse. Such natural dangers must have been part of life for our ancient ancestor. Living in a forest, you would have to watch for deadfalls collapsing on you, flash floods, mudslides, volcanic eruptions, any number of physical threats. To make matters worse, there are also leopards and other predators that might come at you from above. The gigantic cave bear rears up on his back legs, making him a wall of killer flesh. Later in warfare, the Chinese exploited this fear, along with #2 (Loud Noises), by adding whistles to their arrows, so you could hear that barrage of deadly missiles coming up and over the ranks.
#6) Injury/Bodily Harm – This is another easy one to understand. None of us likes to be hurt. Pain, injury, disability are all bad enough, but horror writers exploit these fears by making us imagine the unimaginable. What would it feel like to have your hand cut off, your eye gouged out, your throat ripped out? Making the reader feel such visceral sensations (by proxy) is the goal of that branch of horror called “Splatterpunk.” Splatter ventures into areas most of us would prefer to never explore. Clive Barker exploded onto the horror scene with his Books of Blood in 1984. The stories collected there often include graphic sex and violence in an attempt to get past all the barriers, to experience the scene without the veneer of civilization. For instance, in “How Spoilers Bleed,” a man’s body is made so fragile that a mote of dust can cut into his skin.
On film, the Saw films have taken this style of horror to the bank, lately. No monsters necessary, evil humans force others to make sudden and gruesome choices, to live or die, to let the other man die in your place. This blood-soaked variety of horror is not to everyone’s taste (not to every horror fan’s taste), but it is not new. You only have to read the Penny Bloods of the 1800s or see a Grand Guignol play to know this kind of spectacle dates back to the Roman gladiatorial arena.
#7) The Dark – Fear of the dark is easily remembered from infancy. We can all recall being terrified to be in a place, once familiar, now turned instantly strange with darkness. It comes as no surprise that much of the horror genre exploits this fear on a regular basis. Dracula’s castle is not a well-lit establishment. By association, certain kinds of places are also terrible because they are dark: old wells, caves, abandoned buildings, graves, ruins, and swamps. All these are classic examples of the Gothic locales of horror fiction. (This was one of the great achievements of Fritz Leiber, Charles Beaumont and other Unknown writers – to make us feel the same way about the shopping mall, schools, the post office, the bank, etc.)
The fear of the dark is probably so old it goes back to before we were even considered human. Imagine your ancient primate living in the jungle. During the day, his binocular vision and sense of depth perception help him keep dangerous predators at a safe distance: A python, run away! But at night, these tools become much less useful than good night vision, which the leopard possesses. In the dark, we must rely on stealth, on hiding, on numbers for our survival. The thrill of the monster that catches and kills one of the stupid teenagers in the haunted house is playing a riff so old it gets right into our limbic system. It is almost too easy.
Culturally, we have come to associate darkness and the color black with evil. In Poe’s classic tale, “The Black Cat,” it is an animal of that color. Poe is using the superstitious association of bad luck in his choice. In modern times, the term “blackout” conjures up fear, as cities such as New York are filled with looters when the electricity fails. This is because our culture is descended from Hellenized Christians. We associate black and blood-red with the Devil. White is the color of purity and the angels.
The ancient Celts did not feel the way about black that we do now. To them, the terrifying color was white. Black was associated with death/rebirth and sleep. Only the total destruction, from which you were never reincarnated, was white. In non-Western cultures, it may be different, too. Writing horror fiction has been largely a Western activity, usually with a Christian worldview. This was one of the innovations for which H.P. Lovecraft is justly famous. He went beyond good and evil, and said that the universe is nasty, and it doesn’t give a fig for you and me.
#8) Masks – One of the best exceptions to horror being a Western activity is the ghost stories of Japan such as those in Ladcadio Hearn’s Kwaidan. The ending to the tale called “The Mujina” is a game of masks: “He! Was it anything like THIS that she showed you?” cried the soba-man, stroking his own face – which therewith became like unto an Egg…And, simultaneously, the light went out.
Masks at Halloween or at a party bring an element of dangerous fun to things. We can never be entirely sure that someone is what they appear to be. For the primitive tribesman, this tactic was exploited to frighten enemies. When warriors encountered new groups they would make themselves appear fierce, monstrous, even psychotic. Inspiring fear in their opponents gave them the advantage.
This uncertainty remains the mask’s horror appeal. In mystery, suspense and even horror fiction, characters can appear to be one way then, at a crucial point in the story, “strip off the mask” and reveal their true nature, as does the soba-man in “The Mujina.” In mystery or suspense, this often means finding out a character is actually insane. In horror, this can be true, too, but we can also use the device with monstrous abilities, such as turning into a wolf, Mr. Hyde or an alien.
Much has been made about this in psychological terms – the grosser impulses we all have, but keep under control with a thin veneer of civilization. But things go to hell and off comes the mask and the real monster lurking underneath comes out. This mask can be an actual mask, as with Eric in The Phantom of the Opera; a body part, as with a werewolf who bursts from his human body into that of a wolf; or a social or figurative mask, as in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” where ordinary townfolk become rock-wielding givers of sacrifice.
#9) Changes in Environment/Media Events – In my days of youth, the early 1970s, this one was all about the Bomb. I can remember being about eleven or so and realizing what a nuclear bomb strike would really mean. I didn’t understand politics, Communism versus Democracy, or any such thing. I just imagined a bomb flattening my house and each of my family members turning to ash. No doubt I’d seen something on TV. These days, it might be closer related to 9/11, or some other world event. At that age, you begin to perceive that your parents aren’t gods who can protect you from anything. It’s the slippery slope that will have you thinking your parents are complete idiots by the time you’re 17. Eventually, as I learned more about politics and mutually assured destruction, I became blasé enough about nuclear war to think, What can I do about it? Until it happens, I might as well get on with my life…. Still, every so often, I’d have a nightmare that relives that 11-year-old’s fear.
Writing horror fiction with this fear can be quite hit-or-miss. It also dates very quickly, as technology and history change. There was quite a cottage industry in the 19th Century in writing about future war. The Battle of Dorking (1871) by George T. Chesney is a perfect example. Germany vs. England, the Yellow Peril, and so on. A few World Wars and several others later, these tales seem quite silly, though oddly prophetic. Their appeal was entirely based on mining current fears within politics. Lovecraft’s own fears about the muddying of English blood in America in the 1920s and 30s fuel his own phobias about race, giving us tales filled with hereditary disease. The underpinning to these tales seems racist or silly to us, now (Oh, my god, you’re…Italian!), but they were very real in turn-of-the-century Rhode Island.
#10) Performance/Social Fears – By the time we reach 12 years of age, we are now most frightened of failing to perform well around others. For our ancient caveman, this might have meant going hungry in the case of hunting, but, socially, it could be disastrous, as well. The caveman who was a poor hunter could not expect much attention from the ladies. No women, no kids, no continuation of your genes. For the female, this would be a reproductive inability. What hunter wants a woman who can’t bear him strong sons? Without children, no protection in later life and a dismal future.
All that survival instinct still exists today, but the goals have changed. Who would not want to be the football star in high school, bang the hottest cheerleaders, and then have great opportunities in the old boys network, and ultimately retire rich with a hot wife and all the goodies? The American Dream. This is just the most successful caveman in modern dress. And for those who fall short (basically, everybody, with only a few exceptions), there is anxiety. How can I attract prettier girls? Make more money? Own a better car, house, education, etc.? The fears haven’t changed, only the battleground.
Horror fiction, often bordering on science fiction, has used this most sophisticated group of fears. Unlike the physical monster, social pressure cannot be held off with a wooden cross or a holy relic. Richard Matheson’s masterpiece, I Am Legend (1951), explores this theme on so many levels. The role of the outsider, the monster, how society destroys those thrust out. Like Frankenstein’s Adam, Robert Neville can never find companionship in society, his end preordained to violence.
So, there they are. All the things you were scared of as a kid. Now, as a writer of horror, of Mythos horror, it’s up to you to find ways to push these buttons. The more subtly the better. It’s a toolkit. Use it. Refine it. Go scare the crap out of people.