“A Pleasing Terror” – When (and How) Horror Truly Does Its Job

Well, October has come and gone, and Halloween, my favorite holiday, is now just a recent memory. Unfortunately October, which I love dearly, is also always my busiest month of the year – and this year was no exception.

So before I knew it, Halloween was upon us. I didn’t dig out my beloved Halloween decorations until the same afternoon, and was barely able to decorate the front of the house and the yard before the neighborhood kids started hitting the streets and it was time to take our own out (as Eeyore and Tigger) for their brief, enchanted evening. But I did get it done, and was even able to spend the late night after everyone else went to sleep watching scary movies. Yet knowing I’d missed my chance to enjoy the weeks leading up to Halloween still saddens me.

And now, as luck would have it, I find myself suddenly caught up with work and able to write, read, and watch movies again – in the second week of November. So I’ve decided I’m going to make the best of it. There are still some red and gold leaves on the trees (despite the freak blizzard last weekend), and apple cider is still well-stocked at Giant Eagle. I’m not willing to let the holiday go just yet. It’s a state of mind, after all – just like Christmas or Thanksgiving. So tonight I’m going to heat me up some cider, steal some leftover Halloween candy from my kids, and catch up on some scary movies.

For me, this can be a challenge, because very little by way of film or writing gives me what the great ghost story writer M.R. James referred to as “a pleasing terror.” I love horror movies and I love ghost stories – but they, like everything else, are bound by Sturgeon’s Law: “ninety percent of everything is crap.”

It’s difficult to examine all the things, both great and small, that make horror movies (and, by proxy, horror stories) work. But the greatest mark of success is how well the writers and directors in the genre understand and act upon H.P. Lovecraft’s famous statement: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

Working under the general assumption that what applies to film also applies (or at least translates) to the written word, I’ll focus on movies from here on out to prove the point.

In film, what we don’t see is universally scarier than what we do. Suggestion is all it takes, coupled with well-placed, short moments of revelation…usually toward the end. There are exceptions to the rule, but they are very rare.

Why? Because the imagination is humanity’s greatest gift as well as its greatest enemy. In horror, the merest suggestion of the uncanny allows our minds to fill in what we don’t see with the worst things we can possibly imagine. Hence, our intrinsic, genetic fear of the dark.

In Japanese culture, supreme horror is felt not through blood, guts, violence and a great slathering of special effects. Instead, to see someone simply standing in the corner of a room – someone who shouldn’t be there, or who couldn’t be there – is enough to create the “pleasing terror” of which James spoke.

The best example of the effectiveness of this “less is more” approach can be found by comparing two movies, both released in 1999.

The first is The Haunting, an hour and a half of big-budget eye candy that, on first glance, would seem likely to have everything going for it. The film is based – loosely based – on Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, perhaps the greatest haunted house novel of the 20th Century. That, coupled with a solid cast including Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Owen Wilson, gave horror aficionados hope.

It was not to be…Literally ten minutes in, a fountain fills with blood and a cheesy CG hand reaches out to grasp one of the characters – and that’s all it took. The mystery was dispelled, the ghosts were campy; the unknown was known and the audience wasn’t scared.

The next 80 minutes were no different. The movie hit us with every CG spook its writers and effects team could devise. These included, among many others: talking wooden heads; a bed that comes alive; an enormous, animate fireplace; and, finally, the big baddie himself, all CG darkness and writhing vapor.

No one so much as gasped. It was unbelievable, it was overkill, and most importantly, it left nothing to the imagination. Famous actors and a mountainous budget couldn’t save this film…in fact, they killed it.

At virtually the same time, a small underground film began making itself known through word of mouth, a few scattered magazine articles, and a then-new viral method: the Internet.

Stephen King has gone on record as saying that he walked out of the theater during The Blair Witch Project…not because he disliked it, but because it disturbed him. And that’s a very good sign.

I saw Blair Witch in the theater, after the initial buzz had died down and viewers were already firmly divided into two camps: those who felt the movie was a cheap, overrated mess about nothing; and those who felt the movie was a cheap stroke of genius that had single-handedly revitalized the mainstream horror genre after a decade-long slump.

As you can probably guess, I fall in the latter camp.

The Blair Witch Project, like its descendant Paranormal Activity franchise, cost next to nothing to make, and ended up grossing hundreds of millions of dollars – giving it one of the greatest cost-to-profit ratios of any film ever made.

More importantly, as a horror movie it works.

Nothing is ever seen. Nothing. No witch. No monsters. No ghosts. No spirits. And there are certainly no special effects. The creepiest moment (besides the ending) is when the increasingly unhinged and desperate trio see little hands beating on the outside of their tent and hear the haunting laughter of children – deep in the woods, in the middle of the night. And, of course, when they open the tent flaps, what do they see?

You guessed it.

Suggestion is more powerful than direct presentation. The imagination is more powerful than any special effect. And it is this example of contrasting horror films that proves it, although there are dozens and dozens of others that support it too (perhaps not as dramatically).

M.R. James also believed in the “slow build” – providing a normal setting with a normal, even boring character, and then slowly, ever-so-slowly, pulling the rug out from under him until before he even realizes what is happening, he’s fighting for his life against a malevolent supernatural force. At that point, it’s either fight or die, so he has to accept the reality of the ghost – and often even that isn’t enough to save him. We relate to such stories because they are convincingly mundane…and then quite gradually not, until the final blow falls and the screamer of an ending knocks us happily sideways.


One film that fits this mold perfectly is the 1989 made-for-television adaptation of Susan Hill’s classic ghost story, The Woman in Black. Shown only a few times on TV, released for just a short time on VHS before being yanked, it has since garnered a large and devoted following of horror fans who feel it ranks among the best horror films of all time. Again…no special effects, no gore, a PG rating…but it delivers some of the scariest moments ever put to film, simply because we can relate to Arthur Kidd’s circumstances and aren’t smacked in the back of the head with too much, too soon. Eventually, like in the best M.R. James stories, we see enough to leave us palpitating…but only when the time is right, and never before.

I’ve shown this movie to my high school students as a study in mood, foreshadowing, suspense, and character development, usually after we read The Great Gatsby (which, believe it or not, shares many story-telling devices with it). And this coming February, all my former students who have watched the original version with me will get to sit down in a theater and watch the new version, starring Daniel Radcliffe. I’ll be there too. Judging from the trailer, this second adaptation is more atmospheric, more graphic, more intense…more everything than the original. But will it be more scary? I really, truly hope so, but it has a very fine line to walk.

I could go on, but after a three-month silence I’m eager to post this and let everyone know I’m still alive. Next time, if anyone is interested, I’ll include a list of what I consider to be some of the most effective ghost stories ever written – and a list of some truly creepy (pleasingly creepy) movies, too.

Now I’m off to raid the kids’ candy again…

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4 Responses to “A Pleasing Terror” – When (and How) Horror Truly Does Its Job

  1. don’t be too long in posting about this again.

  2. Shane Dougall says:

    You’ve completely hit the nail on the head in this post Greg. I couldn’t agree more.
    My wife and I have had discussions in the past on the ‘less is more’ approach, with both books and movies. We both hands down agree that the threat of an unseen force is much scarier than something visual – especially when the visual is so poorly done.
    Like the Japanese, I think the British also do a good job of leaving more to the imagination, rather than too much Hollywood style effects. It also tends to leave you with a more believable, realistic scenario, that could happen to you.

    Ps. Im a big fan of the movie A HAUNTING IN CONNETICUT, and just found out that they’ve got two more planed for thefranchise

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