We know that we are mostly afraid of the unknown. We aren’t too keen on unpredictability. So, we have learned to cover our fear of these terrifying things by substituting legends and lore, fictional terrors with familiar qualities and habits we recognize as signals of danger. Our only problem with this coping mechanism is our failure to understand that the bogeyman rarely looks like Freddie Krueger but more often like Ted Bundy. Let’ face it, pretty white boys don’t set off our alarm bells until it’s too late. That’s why they make the most frightening bad guys. Our terror slams us like a charging bull because we never saw it coming. It is, after all, just a matter of taste if one prefers the scary, familiar looks of zombies and aliens or the suave, catch-you-off-guard appearance of vampires and serial killers.
There is this division within creative circles as to whether your evil monster, bent on the destruction of nice people, should have a repellent visage or be alluringly attractive. Think the alien in Alien vs Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), American Psycho. You may adore hideous aliens for their ugly countenances because if it’s ugly and obviously going to kill its prey, you basically know the plot of the story from the get-go. You may even give its intended victims some advice from the relative safety of your living room. My husband tends to yell, slap his forehead and groan over the stupidity of entering the haunted house alone. We love being terrified by knowing what’s going to happen next because we would certainly never challenge an alien being to a show-down nor go chasing after a vampire in the dark.
Like delving into a book without the slightest idea of what it’s about, learning of a character’s evil intention after not having a clue through much of the story is the most fun way of being horrifyingly surprised. At first it seems unfair, a cheap plot twist, a Deus ex machina ploy. Then I have to concede that I missed the subtle indications (at least if the story is well-written), in scenes disbursed here and there, which I dismissed as trivial and not so important to the development of the plot. My indignation gives way to admiration. He’s a werewolf! How did I miss that!! Because he is a well-behaved, good-looking dude on the darkest of nights. Then the moon rises.
My favorite new tv show is called Ghosts. Spectral spirits are supposed to fill us with dread. If they exist, why would we be so afraid of them? A ghost is the spirit of a dead person who lingers within our realm, so if I see my grandmother standing in the foyer at midnight two years after she died, must I, by convention, be afraid? Ok, maybe a bit creeped out at first, then delighted, especially if she turns out to be the kind of ghost that can hold up her end of a conversation.
Ghost stories take many forms. The ghosts in Ghosts all died on the same earthly piece of real estate over centuries and haunt the place in a kind of MeetUp group sort of way. They might be prankish sort of spooks (aren’t they all?), but once a relationship with the living is established, are darn helpful apparitions. Whether friendly poltergeist or longing spirit, there are many examples in literature and cinema of beneficial close encounters with the dearly departed. Ever since my childhood introduction to Casper, I have been attracted to ghost stories that confirm the goodness of the human spirit post mortem. Who says they have to be frightening? But of course, we have formed our opinions about restless souls returning from the afterlife through countless creepy tales of revenge and retribution by pissed-off former persons bent on taking out any still-living individuals and dragging them to their own personal hell. Because, after all, it is never grandma’s ghost we see, is it?
Long after chuckling over the antics of Casper, I discovered Shirley Jackson. I had nightmares after reading The Haunting of Hill House when I was 12. Walls that bulge and invisible hands that grip build up into the inevitable question. Why did you go there in the first place you stupid, stupid person? Years later I saw The Blair Witch Project, which terrified me. Mostly because the filming was nausea-inducing and I was already afraid of getting lost in the woods—I still am! There are countless books and movies about the evilness of dead people who return to wreak havoc upon the good people still legitimately wandering this earth.
Speaking of the non-dead—zombies. Just like aliens and ghosts, the zombie genre is split. Did they rise from their graves ala Night of the Living Dead, or succumb to a nasty virus (worse than Covid apparently) only to gain some fascination with eating and/or recruiting the unaffected humans by amassing in droves as depicted in World War Z. The best zombie stories end with the afflicted expunged or adopted. 28 Days Later explains how the sheer stupidness of zombies brings about their own extinction and The Girl with All the Gifts predicts zombie/human next generations. Oh, to be handed the way out of a zombie invasion certainly softens all the carnage one just witnessed in word or film. Many zombie stories are humorous. We need to laugh at the ridiculousness of the concept, which is merely a metaphor for the power-hungry assholes encased in human form who constantly prey upon us nice guys.
Now we come to the king of horror—the vampire. Vampires past have been depicted as creepy, mysterious dudes who roam the streets at night looking for “appropriate” victims, i.e., those who won’t be missed. But as luck would have it, they sometimes want to snag an important lady because of her sexual desirability. I’m just guessing sinking one’s fangs into a stupored gal’s neck is the vampire equivalent of getting off. So, they either drain a person of all their blood til they die or they somehow make the victim into another vampire. I don’t see why they would do that too many times since that would create competition sustenance-wise. However, I do see the need for community. Good looking vampires are all the rage in movies now. All the hunkiest actors have (ahem) sunk their teeth into these sexy roles. What woman wouldn’t long to be siphoned off by Tom Cruz… I mean Vampire Lestat.
On this week leading up to Halloween, the library has the creepiest novels on display and the streaming services on tv have loaded up their menus with the best of the worst. I plan to divert my attention from the horrors of real life by reading about a vampire in South Carolina and watching at least a few of my favorite terror-inducing movies on Netflix. There’s a long history of people enjoying stories of the macabre, the gory, the sweat-inducing terrors of the season. At the end of October, the trees are nearly bare and the wind howls through the neighborhood–a gloomy backdrop for that evening when the veil between the living and the dead is thin enough to transgress. But, I’m pretty sure Halloween is celebrated in this country to ward off all those shivers leading up to Election Day. The unknown is the scariest thing in town.
Are you frightened yet?,