(Design & illustration by Robert Roxby)
By Will Klein
Ask me what scares me and I’ll tell you.
I’ll tell you a lot of things. I’ll talk about werewolves and witches, ghosts and ghouls, and waking up back in school (college or high school; pick one) realizing it is the end of the year and I’ve missed every science/math class since orientation…
But these are abstract fears that are frightening only because of the concept, not the reality. I graduated from my last academic endeavors back in the 20th century, and (for me at least) monsters reside where they belong—on screen, on the page, in our imaginations.
Spiders are OK. A spider scuttling out from under the coffee table will make me jump back with a yell—but I get over it, grab a glass, and capture the little bugger (and if it is a bigger bugger I might suffer the heebie-jeebies for a while, but it won’t haunt me that night).
Ask me what really scares me and I’ll laugh a little. Because everything can be a nightmare: Fox News, unpaid bills, death and disease, Oh-My-God-Road between Idaho Springs and Central City in Colorado—these have all featured on the nightmarish end of the spectrum.
Ask me what nightmares have scared me; specifically, no abstracts. I might shudder a bit.
My psyche (or subconscious, or inner-storyteller) works in Terror, not in Horror. Despite this, I am a lifelong horror junkie. People rarely say they enjoy “terror fiction” or “terror movies”—this sounds like a genre of post-9/11 stories that incorporates Homeland Security and shoe bombs.
OK then—the infamous separation of terror and horror (early 19th-century novelist Ann Radcliffe is usually credited with this as well as with the pioneering of the Gothic novel): Terror is a slow build where atmosphere and apprehension build a certain delicious excitement.
Think of Terror as being on a roller coaster. Up that first climb the cars go, slowly ratcheting along the chain to the top. Is it a chain? It sounds like one, like chains should sound: ominous. Slowly that clank-clank-ratchet sound and the cars inch their way up to the crest and then—you knew it was coming, you could gauge the amount of time it would take you to hit the peak (unless you clenched your eyes shut, hands gripping the bar in front of you, wishing you hadn’t gotten on in the first place and wishing the damn thing would just GO already) and then it DOES go, and that wonderful frisson of panic and excitement…
Well, that last part—that sudden jerk from Terror into action—that is Horror.
Horror is the little (or bigger, or big) spider scuttling out from under the coffee table (or from under your pillow, moo-hoo-ha-ha!). Horror is a moment of “GAH!” It is exhilarating and relieving.
Horror is why scary movies (let’s just call them that for now since “horror” and “terror” are taking on specific meanings) have the spring-loaded cat. You know; the sequence where the girl or guy is looking for their friend (or the light switch, or the circuit breaker, flashlight, etc.) and we the audience think that the monster/killer/bill collector is going to jump out of the shadows at them and then—WAAAUGH! The cat startles them (and us).
The more devious storytellers will use the spring-loaded cat to release a little tension. Too much tension can build up uncomfortably for the audience. But the best scares, for me, aren’t the jump scares (there is a zombie bashing through the door!) but the ominous wait.
The house is quiet, the night is dark, the only sound is the ticking of the clock. And the wind, that living wind, blowing against the eaves.
When I have nightmares (different from bad dreams—bad dreams are fights with my wife, losing my job) they are all about the Terror, with very little of that release and relief that Horror can provide.
I have one recurring nightmare that has haunted me since I was seven or eight. My family was preparing to move from our home in Denver to Washington DC and I dreamed that I was in the house (the Denver house) at night. Alone.
It was cold in the dream then. It still is when it resurfaces now and again. I believe that kicking off the blankets summons a lot of my nightmares. Anyway, I walk to the top of the stairs and look down—and despite the landing being over the front door, I just know it is open.
Maybe the faint yellow glow of a streetlamp is cast on the floor opposite where the door should be safely shut. But always I can hear dried leaves slowly scuttle across the tiled floor like uneasy crabs.
The house is empty of my family. When I was a kid, my parents and sister should be asleep in their rooms but I know those are empty. Now, my wife and children are nowhere to be found—not that I look, I just know that the house is empty.
That’s it, that’s the dream—sometimes there is more to it, sometimes lots more—but that realization that the house isn’t secure, that someone (or something) has let the night in…
That is usually enough to make me wake up. And it isn’t the reveal of a ghost or a ghoul or a goblin or a ghastly thing—it is just the fear, the knowing that the house isn’t empty. At least not totally. There is me, and… well, whatever it is.
So while I enjoy a scary movie with lots of horror (and even some Revulsion—as in “I couldn’t watch; it was revolting”) I am more impressed by terror. Terror is that slow burn, that continual escalation. Masochistically, I relish it. In movies or books. In real life I fucking hate it—I can barely stand to go on a roller coaster because the anticipation is too much.
Trying to find that particular emotional-physical response is walking a very fine edge. Scary movies and books are an addiction, and like with any chemical dependency, I’ve built up a tolerance.
Nowadays, I often don’t watch the movies I think might scare me. I like knowing that they exist, but I don’t seek the Horror. I like living in Terror more.
(Man, I really wish it was “Fear and Horror” because then the last line would be “I like living in Fear more.” And that would be totally boss.)
Will Klein is an unrepresented, unpublished, unrepentant storyteller. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two children. Halloween is a very beloved holiday and the decorations go up earlier, and stay up later, than any other.
Visit Will at oslowe.noirbettie.com.
Follow @oslowe on Twitter.