I love thinking about the nature of horror stories. What is it about them that manages to thrill us, to scare us, to make us grow tense and nervous? I just finished reading chapter V of Coraline to my girlfriend, and there came a point when Coraline was returning to the other mother’s house that we grew tense and worried and, if not actually scared, at the very least concerned. As we both agreed when I set the book down, Coraline wasn’t a very scary book, but it had a delightfully creepy edge to it.
Why did we get creeped out? Because we knew she was returning to something bad. We knew she was going to a bad place, and that it was necessary but horrible that she had to do so. Our very knowledge of what she was going to face – complimented by the mystery that still surrounded the other mother – made of her return a dreadful thing. And the longer and more drawn out that return took, the more nervous we became as the tension built.
It’s interesting to realize that sometimes fear of what we know can be, if not equal, at least sufficiently powerful in its own right to warrant attention. I think Coraline blends them both perfectly – we know enough about the other mother to find Coraline’s return disturbing, but not enough to know what the worst could entail. Our imaginations take the crumbs that have been offered and run with them.
This reminds me greatly of Steven King’s Pet Cemetary, where at the end the return of the prodigal son becomes inevitable, a gruesome reality that King draws out and which scared the bajeesus out of me when I was 13. I was reading the book alone in our apartment, in the middle of the night, and the tension was ratcheted up so high by the last 50 pages or so that I couldn’t stand it and flipped to the last few pages to see what happened. Probably the only time I’ve ever done that, but I simply couldn’t take the tension any longer. I knew that the son was going to return, I knew that it was going to be ghastly and horrible, but that knowledge only made it worse. The longer King delayed in actually having it happen, the worse the tension grew, till I snapped.
I’ve always thought that showing the source of horror lessened it’s ability to scare us, since our imaginations are always able to conjure up boogey men that are infinitely worse than any tangible and defined enemy. But I guess there are exceptions. When you know the axe is going to fall, but not when – that can be as equally nerve wracking.
Horror. It’s all about the psychological horror, it’s all about the finesse of wracking up the tension, of driving the people to the edge of their seats and holding them there and holding them there, breathless and teetering till you finally bring down the axe but oh, look, it’s a different axe, it’s not the axe you thought it was at all, no no no, it’s something different, something completely different.