Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Thoughts on Horror Fiction: Can Words Scare the Crap Out of Me?

I've got to hand it to Stephen King. I've never read one of his books, and bits and pieces of Carrie, The Shining and Dolores Claiborne and all of Stand By Me and Misery aside, I've skipped the film and TV adaptations of his work, possibly because being scared has never been my idea of a blast, even when it's someone else whose life and limbs are in danger.

Although I've had such minimal exposure to the best of King, I now have a newfound appreciation for what he does best. It started with an offhand comment by my friend Marcus, who, at my request, had just read the synopsis for my book. He enjoyed it (much to my relief), which, he pointed out, was not necessarily a given beforehand because he tends to like to read, in his words, "physics and horror" only.

My first thought was that there can't possibly be anything scarier than reading a book about physics. Even more so than chemistry, my second-worst subject in school, physics always went straight over my head. I couldn't imagine reading a book about it for fun, much less understanding it, but I'm glad that Marcus does. The knowledge gleaned from his leisure scientific reading -- like, I imagine, all that arcane stuff about the properties of AC adapters that stopped me from having to buy a new one for my laptop yesterday -- occasionally comes in handy in my everyday life.

But horror? The horror! I knew that scary books existed, but I'd never before really stopped to think about it as a literary genre, particularly from a writer's point of view. What a frightening undertaking that must be! I've spent the last year trying to master the art of writing narrative non-fiction, foreign territory for a journalist trained in news and feature writing. That was difficult enough, but I can't even begin to imagine how tough it must be to scare the shit out of someone with only words at your disposal. What would Wes Craven do?!

I recall a scene from The Golden Girls in which Rose was trying to frighten the girls in her Sunshine Cadet troop by telling them a spooky story during a camp out. The girls were thoroughly unterrified. It was possibly because the camp out was actually a camp in, taking place in the middle of the Golden Girls living room, but I always thought it had more to do with this: In order to be scared by something in a story, you had to see it -- or not see it, since onscreen, what's implied is often far scarier than what actually happens -- to be afraid of it.

I've always considered horror to be primarily a visual medium, one that's never really appealed to me in movie form -- and with the exception of Curve's "Horror Head," Bobby "Boris" Pickett's "Monster Mash" and David Bowie's Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), but not Michael Jackson's "Thriller," a song whose appeal I never really understood, not in music form either.


It's not because I'm a film snob or anything (though I admit that I am). It might not be my thing, but I have complete respect for the horror genre. Still, I can live without ever having to spend another 90 minutes to two hours watching a screen through my fingers, terrified of sudden slashing movements and things that go bump in the still of the night.

I'm such a wimp when it comes to fright flicks. I once had to call my friend Dave and tell him to come over while I was in the middle of watching Looking for Mr. Goodbar, which isn't even a horror movie, because I was certain things wouldn't end well for Diane Keaton. I couldn't bear to see what Richard Gere or Tom Berenger or some other scary monster (and super creep) might do to her while I was sitting alone in my New York City apartment on a sunny Saturday afternoon. I was a grown man in my 30s at the time, so imagine how traumatic it must have been for me to be 7 years old and watching The Omen for the first time in 1976 on HBO. To this day, it still qualifies as the scariest thing I've ever seen onscreen.

It might be the reason why the only true horror movie I can recall ever going to see in the theater was A Nightmare on Elm Street (directed by the aforementioned Wes Craven), which I went to see eight years later with a group of work friends from the Publix Supermarket at Mill Creek Mall in Kissimmee, Florida. Mostly I went for the honor of sitting in the dark next to a colleague I had a crush on named Barbara. She's the only reason why I got to see Johnny Depp in his first screen role.

But now that I think about it, would The Omen (and the less horrorfying Damien: Omen II two years later) have had the effect it had on me if I'd skipped the movie and just read the book, which was written after The Omen was filmed but before its June 1976 release? Sure the Biblical Book of Revelation was always good for jolt when I was forced to read any of it in church as a kid, but its words would have been far less scary had I not bought them at the time as the future of the world. I'm not sure that The Omen would have given me terrifying nightmares well into my teens had I just read about Damien's antics instead of seeing them played out in full color onscreen.

I'll probably never know. I have no intention of ever reading the book, or any other book that's intended to frighten me into a state of extreme entertainment. If you're looking for me, I'll be over here where it's safe, re-reading The Great Gatsby before diving into the new Leonardo DiCaprio movie.

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