I’ve been thinking lately about horror, and about how best to create it in the course of telling a story in some medium. I’ve been aware of this for a while but it’s only recently that I’ve been articulating it to myself. So I thought I’d write it down now while I’m thinking about it again.
The most potent forms of fear are internal. It’s not the adrenaline panic of being ambushed or pursued. It’s the fear your own mind creates out of an ambiguous situation. When you’re alone in a dark house and you think you hear a noise, the fear you feel is what your mind comes up with out of that ambiguity. There’s nothing objectively wrong or threatening. It’s your own mind that threatens you by attempting to map a coherent pattern onto incoherent data.
In role-playing games, I’ve seen this work…especially on the very excitable. Let’s say that you have assembled a set of clues to a mystery. You’re sitting there at the table and nothing in particular is happening, so you’re sifting through these pieces of paper and trying to put it together. Suddenly, you make a connection between the clues and you have a realization. It isn’t spelled out anywhere. There isn’t a sentence you overlooked that explains the mystery. It’s just that you’ve made the connections and suddenly an explanation appears in your mind that’s frightening. You start to panic a little, and you wave your arms or say something to get the attention of the other players, and you start babbling, trying to explain what you’ve just realized. That terror, that sudden vertiginous feeling of plunging into the dark heart of a mystery is a tremendous sensation. It works because you scare yourself, not because the referee scares you outright.
I got an inkling of this idea a long time ago, when I was in high school. There was news of a tropical storm, and the newscaster explained how storms are named alphabetically starting at the first of the year, so the first storm is named something that begins with A and then the second begins with B and so on–Anna, Bartholomew, Cheryl. And I thought: what if you were watching the news and you heard about a tropical storm named Wanda. And it’s just another storm, no big deal, but then you realize that means it’s the 23rd storm of the year, and that’s a weird and terrible thing that there have been so many.
If you want to scare someone in a story, I feel that it’s best if the audience makes a realization that the characters don’t. This may be because you’ve been privy to information they haven’t witnessed, or simply because you’re thinking about things in a way they aren’t. So the story gives you A and B, and you put them together and get C and that’s what scares you.
Good horror storytelling is all about C, I think. I need to cook up a good spooky Halloween story.