What Is Horrifying to Me
By Ron Vitale
I woke up startled from a noise. It was the middle of the night and I had been sleeping. I opened my eyes and floated between consciousness and sleep, my mind reeling. Still in bed, I saw lights in the hallway. The lights appeared to dance in the air and I heard an odd noise that rushed toward me. The sound, distant yet constant appeared to be coming from the strange lights levitating in my hallway. My teenage body froze in fear. The lights grew in size, moving closer to my doorway and increased in their intensity. I tried to move again and could not. Trapped in pure horror I remained paralyzed and could not speak and I tried thinking but my brain refused to work. The rumbling noise faded and the lights faded back.
And then I knew it, a ghost or an angel had come to visit me. Torn between which it might be, I desperately pushed aside the thought that a ghost had come to haunt me and take my soul. In my compromised state, an angel seemed the better option. But this ethereal being sounded more like Gabriel coming with his sword to wreck havoc on the unjust than to help a poor soul like me. I had wasted too much time as the rumbling sound increased in volume, shaking ever so slightly the apartment we lived in, and the lights flared up, angry and brilliantly white. With seeming aggression, they floated toward the door and I begged them to not hurt me. The horror of my predicament left me powerless. The angel of death had come for me and instead of being asleep as it had intended I would see my last few minutes on this Earth before being taken and dragged into the chute of hell, to writhe with the rest of the unfortunate souls who had not done God’s will. I would suffer for all eternity, cast aside and adrift from the light, only to be in utter darkness and fear—forever.
I cannot tell you how many minutes my run in with the angel of death lasted, but I can tell you how I woke from it. Having heard the sound again, my sleepy brain began to put two and two together. The “roar” and “rumble” were trucks and cars passing by our apartment. The sound of their passing was echoing off a wall and coming in through the bathroom window. Similarly, I then realized that the light from their headlights was reflecting off the bathroom mirror and then onto the full length hallway mirror creating the illusion of floating balls of light. I logical answer for my other worldly experience was simply that I had been in a dream state and a large truck rumbled by. I wasn’t quite awake and saw the lights, thinking that they were some spirits coming to get me. When you’re 15 years old and have an active imagination, that’s all it took to instill that dreadful horror into me.
But what is horror? Truly, what does it mean? For our edification, I looked it up on Wikipedia and learned that horror is defined as:
1. an overwhelming and painful feeling caused by something frightfully shocking, terrifying, or revolting; a shuddering fear: to shrink back from a mutilated corpse in horror.
Now that we know what horror is defined as I’d like to expound a bit on what horror means to me. I’ll be honest: I’m a scaredy cat. It doesn’t take much to frighten me but there is power in horror and I’d like to propose that the anticipation of an event or action is so much more powerful and horrifying than any monster that Hollywood can put on the big screen. I love CGI, but it pales in comparison to my imagination.
A few examples. Remember, the movie Jaws? There’s a scene in the beginning in which a young woman is swimming at night. She feels a tug at her leg and a confused look crosses her face. Then it happens again and she’s pulled under the water. She’s scared, it’s dark, you can’t see much and then she’s dragged around and pulled under. Many minutes go by in the film until you actually see the shark. Granted, with the limited technology at the time, the shark isn’t much to look at. In 2010, who would be afraid of that mechanical monstrosity? But re-watch the film and take in what Spielberg does to build suspense and fear. Granted, Jaws is not a horror film, but, as a little kid, it was my first understanding of how powerful my imagination could be.
A few years later Alien came out and as I was only 8 at the time so I didn’t get to see the movie until it was on VCR a few years later. But I’ll never forget the stomach bursting scene and Ridley Scott’s use of the camera. How many long, smoking corridors does he bring us down as the crew searches for the creature? How many times do you think it’s going to pop out and instead it’s a cat or nothing? Building that suspense and then, when you least expect it the creature would come out scare the crap out of my pre-teen self.
And my third example will be a controversial one. I’ve learned that there’s a split camp on this one. I’ll break the argument down as such:
I saw The Blair Witch Project before all the hype. My brother waited until the movie had been blown up into being something that would scare God Herself. There’s a scene at the end (I apologize for the spoiler but the film came out in 1999 so stop reading this if you haven’t seen it) in which Mike is standing facing a wall. You know something’s there (the witch creature thingy) and Heather falls down and the camera is knocked on its side. There’s screams and the camera fades out. Boom. The End. Now I saw the film, thought it was good and came home and that night I had nightmares that freaked the hell out of me. Why?
I could not stop replaying the ending of the movie in my head: Mike is standing in the corner, hunched a bit like he’s a little boy, immobile and trapped by the witch. She/it is there in the room waiting to get Heather. With the darkened, grainy video, you don’t see much. I didn’t need to, but my imagination filled in the rest. In my dream, I replayed that ending scene and was horrified at the potential for evil in that room. My psyche can dredge up the most imaginative creatures, places or events that will tear at my mind, enabling me to live in that moment. I had not been more terrified and frightened from a movie’s ending in a long time.
My brother laughed at me. “Dude, there’s a guy standing in front of a wall. The bitch trips and drops the camera and then she screams and the camera fades. What’s up with that?”
I understand his point. I do. But, for me, true horror isn’t what we see on the screen or read on the page. It’s the anticipation, the implied horror that can take your feeble human mind and break you down into the puny little kid you once were—afraid of lights dancing in the hallway in the middle of night.
I would argue that the best horror masterpieces embrace that human weakness of ours: We want to know and put explanations to the unknowable. An odd noise or sight: We will think it’s a ghost, a creature or a UFO. And to me, finding the intersection between what we think we know and try to anticipate what we know is the true horror. It’s hearing the odd noise in the middle of the night in a darkened house. Is it the house settling or is someone there, waiting for you?
By no means am I saying that my definition of horror is the “right” one. No, that’s not true at all. But I would ask that if you are, like my brother, loving the exploding guts and mindless zombies eating the intestines of hapless teenagers on the screen or in books, I’d recommend trying a different type of horror. Explore what you can’t see and let your imagination fill in the gaps. I wonder: Will what you dream up be more horrifying? There’s only one way to find out…
Ron Vitale is the author of the fantasy novel Dorothea’s Song, the creator of The Magic Sock and co-creator of The Podd couple podcasts. Learn more at http://www.ronvitale.com and follow him on Twitter @ronvitale.