Stephen King divided up the realm of horror into three categories in his indispensable book of essays Danse Macabre. There is terror -- the large sense of the universe never being the same again after the events told in the story, of inescapable personal threat as the aim of the story: nameless dread finally has a name. There is horror: a more removed sense of sympathy and pity for some victim of supernatural violence. And, as King concluded, if you can't get either one, there's always the good old reliable gross-out. Well, the gross-out is king in current horror. It's a lever is pumped 'till the handle breaks, and no one ever tires of it. The jack in the box pop-up followed by the explosion in the strawberry jam factory ... not that I'm complaining, mind you, but a more rarefied sense of terror is what floats my boat. Using some examples from America's first horror master Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-64) I'd like to try to describe easy ways to get it ...
1. Compulsion through prophecy; death or misery foretold
Students who get dragged through The Scarlet Letter can pick up a lifelong hatred of Hawthorne. Try to overcome this, since Hawthorne's short stories, filmed (ineptly but ambitiously, in the style of the Corman/Poe movies), are the work of a man brooding over the most effective way to scare a reader. His "American Notebooks", excerpted in The Portable Hawthorne, includes many ideas for a never-completed story, including this one: "A steam engine in a factory to be supposed to possess a malignant spirit; it catches one man's arm, and pulls it off; seizes another by the coat tails, and almost grapples him bodily; catches a girl by the hair, and scalps her; and finally draws a man, and crushes him to death."
This is anyone's definition of a million-dollar horror idea, and of course it has been filmed, via King's short story. I'm not at all crying plagiarism. Hawthorne's unfinished ideas are there waiting for any writer, and with a mind like King's, he could have come up independently with this idea during his days working at an industrial laundry. In real horror, a truly million-dollar idea will still be fresh more than a century later. Similarly fresh is the idea of some inescapable fate, never to be averted despite the good efforts of the hero and heroine. This is the engine in my all time favorite horror film Dead of Night (1945), and has been used in some of the most elegant films of the genre. One of the simplest tales of terror is the legend "Appointment in Samarra", a story certainly relayed in some movie or another: Omar the merchant goes to the market place and sees Death there. Death gestures at him threateningly. In terror, Omar races home and tells his servant to prepare a horse; he will hide from Death in Samarra, a day's ride away. He makes the ride in half a day. In Samarra, Omar is walking toward an inn, but Death intercepts him.
"Why were you threatening me this morning?" Omar says. Death replies, "I wasn't threatening you. I was just surprised to see you in the marketplace so far from here, when we had an appointment in Samarra today."
2. Misbehaving pictures and photographs.
The best story of the haunted painting is doubtlessly The Picture of Dorian Gray; Ivan Albright's portrait (above) is from the MGM version of 1945. (Oscar Wilde's novel is still attracting more current film adaptations, though.) Hawthorne's "The Prophetic Picture" is a forbear of Wilde's novel, in which a wedding portrait manifests clues of a murder to come in years afterwards. The idea of a painting or a photo changing in some slight degrees ... particularly as we're watching it ... is a reliable shocker, and easy to carry off technically. The bad video tape that watches you (in The Ring) leads to the evil cell phone that gives you the sound of your death (next year's One Missed Call), but the essential horror is based on the inanimate claiming unholy life: an image mutating when it ought to stay still.
It may be too much to say that children, like clowns, are evil incarnate. And yet: The Innocents. Village of the Damned (parodied as "The Bloodening" on The Simpsons), Damien, Rosemary's Baby ... as spies, blackmailers, placers of toys on steep staircases right where your foot will find them ... as regular communicators with the unseen--whether "Captain Howdy" or the angry spirits through a staticy TV set ... children are almost essential to a real horror film.
Hawthorne again: "The sunbeam that comes through a round hole in the shutter of a darkened room, where a dead man sits in solitude." When the smarter priests used to try to scare me into behaving, they conjured up Hell as a vast eternal plain upon which there was one lone figure. Absolute isolation and abandonment, the prelude for #7 below, is essential to fear. Almost the scariest movie I saw this year was a documentary called Deep Water, which dwelt on an immeasurably horrible true-life case of a man caught in solitude. In some vast empty space, the mind can run wild and create entities that aren't there. T. S. Eliot's lines from The Waste Land: "Who is the third who always walks beside you? When I count, there are only you and I together. But when I look ahead up the white road/There is always another one walking beside you/Gliding, wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded." Eliot wrote in the footnotes that this verse came from a true story: "...the account of one of the Antarctic expeditions. ...it was related that the party of explorers, at the extremity of their strength, had the constant delusion that there was one more member that could actually be counted."
5. What's behind the door?
"The Monkey's Paw" does this the best, because we never see what unearthly thing is knocking; it also works in The Leopard Man (1943), when the frantic knocking ceases, and blood leaks through the doorsill. Here's Hawthorne's idea: "In an old house, a mysterious knocking might be heard on the wall, where had formerly been a doorway, now bricked up."
6. The knife
Always worse than a gun. At Fort Knox, Kentucky, there's a museum dedicated to General Patton. One display case contains his cavalry saber and Patton's typically bloodthirsty comment about it. I'm paraphrasing, but it was something to the extent that "nothing really puts the fear in a man like the thought that his guts will be explored by cold steel." In movies, knives are aesthetically effective -- the gleam of moonlight on metal always works. But directors should remember the targets in order of horror movie effectiveness: the eye, the fingers, the hand, the throat and the belly. Going for the genitals? Don't. It just makes people laugh.
The best ending of any terror tale, and that's because the story doesn't really end. It loops back, guaranteed to echo in the hero until death. This year's Inland Empire by the one and only David Lynch had everything on my list except for the children. And it was one of the few films this year that achieved anything like real terror. In essence Inland Empire is Lynch's notebook of ideas, and the potential for some unique kind of terror can be followed through any of the film's tangled threads. Here, every road leads to disorientation, depersonalization, other dimensions, darkness, solitude, madness.