by wjw on October 25, 2006

I recently encountered two artifacts. One was scary, the other wasn’t.

The first was Pulse, a Japanese horror film I’d rented thinking it was science fiction. The plot involved ghosts who were using the Internet to communicate, to creep people out, and eventually to transform them into more ghosts. It was basically Ringu, with the Internet substituting for videotape and telephones substituting for, well, telephones.

Despite the reuse of the Ringu formula, the low budget, and the obligatory scene in which the protagonists have to do something bone stupid in order to put themselves in jeopardy, the film was well directed and acted. Special effects were inexpensive but effective. And the final scenes, with the protagonists wandering around an empty Tokyo inhabited only by ghosts, had a poignancy that you generally don’t see in horror.

What the movie wasn’t was scary. There were some genuinely eerie moments, sure, and some disturbing visuals, but I don’t think my heart rate went up at any point.

If you have a couple hours to waste, those hours can be wasted with Pulse. It will do no harm. Just don’t expect to experience a fight-or-fly reflex at any point.

The genuinely scary experience came with listening to the audio book of Robert Kurston’s Shadow Divers. Which was surprising, because the book is nonfiction, about a group of East Coast scuba divers who discover a sunken U-Boat off New Jersey, who learn that there is no record of it being there, and who then go to extremes to learn its identity.

The wreck of the sub is at 230 feet, in very cold water swept by unpredictable currents. This puts it in very dangerous territory indeed, well outside the more shallow, tropical sport dives I’ve dived personally. (In fact I have told Kathy that if she ever hears me making plans to do a wreck dive at that depth, she has my permission to break both my knees.)

During the course of the narrative one diver drowns on the wreck. Two others, father and son, make uncontrolled ascents and die excruciating deaths from the bends. Another uncontrolled ascent shoots the diver out of the water like a Polaris missile, but he survives after some time in a decompression chamber. John Chatterton, one of the book’s protagonists, is caught on debris, pinned by wreckage, and runs out of air while on the wreck, but somehow survives..

When I was listening to this my heart began to race and my palms turned sweaty. I was scared to death.

Few die on scuba from just one cause. There’s usually a cascade of events, often beginning with something simple. Shadow Divers describes how one diver dies on the Andrea Doria because he reaches for his knife with his left hand instead of his right. This begins a catastrophic series of events that ends with the panicked, seriously narked diver wildly slashing at his friends with that same knife, then disappearing into the wreck to drown.

If he’d reached with his right hand, he would have been all right.

That one really got my pulse up. Chills ran right up my spine.

I don’t think I found the book scary just because I’m a diver. It probably helped that I could visualize a lot of what was going on, but the technical aspects of diving are very well described in the book, including the “hammer of narcosis” that requires deep divers breathing air to execute highly complex acts while, basically, raving drunk and with tunnel vision.

I imagine any reader would be subject to the chills when the author simply walks you through the sequence of events leading to the death of a human being, starting with the seemingly innocent act of reaching for the knife with the left hand.

So now I wonder why the artifact that was intended to scare me didn’t, and the one that was written as a factual account had me in near-terror.

Before proceeding I should confess my biases. I seem to be horror-deaf. The works of Stephen King leave me unmoved. I admire the classical structure of a Lovecraft story, but am untouched by fear of Cthulhu. I’m not afraid of werewolves or vampires.

What scares me is what real human beings do to other real human beings.

If I were in Hell, I’d be a lot more scared of my fellow inmates than of my demonic jailers.

I think that vampires and werewolves are things that human beings imagine because it’s more bearable than imagining the sort of thing their neighbors might be getting up to.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that I find nonfiction scarier than a horror film.

But still, it seems to me if you want to scare the wits out of your reader, a few concrete rules apply.

Details Matter. It’s scary when horror intrudes on the world you know, and that world is made up of concrete details. Even though Stephen King doesn’t ring my personal chimes, he did a useful thing when he moved horror away from the isolated old mansions, haunted graveyards, and eccentric aesthetes of Lovecraft and into the American suburbia of tract homes, Snoopy dolls, and mac and cheese. It’s a setting familiar not just to Americans, but (through the miracle of television) to audiences worldwide. It’s the world of Father Knows Best with a tentacle slipping past the door— and it’s the Snoopy doll and the macaroni and cheese that make the world real. (And besides, the macaroni and cheese may give an extra thrill of horror to a French audience.)

Decisions Matter. One reason I lost interest in Pulse is that nothing the characters did really counted. They were either going to get eaten by the ghosts or they weren’t. Whether they survived or not was entirely a matter of luck.

While this is a defensible existential position, it doesn’t make for interesting fiction. It should matter whether the diver reaches with the left hand or the right. And even then— even if he reaches with the wrong hand— there are still options that will allow him to correct his situation. The cascade of terrible events can be interrupted, though perhaps at each subsequent point with greater and greater effort.

The lesson is that the horror must not be inevitable. If it’s inevitable it may be tragedy— it may even be real life— but it’s not particularly scary. The horror is in watching the cascade start, the dominoes toppling one by one, and knowing that they could be stopped if only someone knew how.

Suspense Matters. Alfred Hitchcock, who ought to know if anyone did, illustrated the difference between shock and suspense thus: Suppose you’re watching a movie, and a couple old fellows are sitting on a bus talking about football, and then the bus blows up. That’s shock. It lasts a second or two, and then it’s over.

Now in contrast suppose that you show someone planting the bomb under the seat of the bus. And then the old duffers sit down and start talking about football. And you cut from the duffers to the bomb and back. That is going to be the most suspenseful football discussion you’ve ever heard. (And Hitchcock did in fact put that scene in Saboteur, his adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, which Hitchcock couldn’t call The Secret Agent because he’d already used the title for his adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden.)

Suspense and its close cousin, terror, depend on careful control of information. In order to be scared, the audience has to be told what the scary thing is, and how it operates, and why they should care. If you write, “the diver reached for his knife with his left hand, and then he died,” the reader isn’t going to be able to make the connection, and isn’t going to give a damn. Explain how the dive gear works, and how using the left hand started that fatal cascade, and you’ve got your audience in the palm of your hand.

Let The Horror Grow In Its Own Time. Say you’re watching a home movie. A couple children are deliberately skidding their bikes in the oil that’s been freshly applied to a dusty street. It’s suburbia: the sun is shining, the lawns are green, the kids are carefree.

This movie is not scary.

Now it’s twenty years later. It’s revealed that the kids grew up in Times Beach, Missouri. The oil was poisoned with dioxin and PCBs. The kid is grown up and is waiting in the doctor’s office for the results of his biopsy.

Scared yet? I am. I got chills just thinking of that illustration.

The moral is: horror creeps. Possibly on little cat feet, possibly on tentacles, but it creeps. It’s a miasm, an atmosphere. It builds.

Let it build.

Let’s all be scary. It’s Halloween.


Eric Blair October 25, 2006 at 2:52 pm

Yes, you’re right. That is creepy. I saw that book in print, and it bothered me too, not that I read it, or that I scuba dive (I don’t) but for some of the same reasons you cite.

However, I think you missed one. Its not just the details. But its the reality of the thing. You know that the sub is real, what happened to the divers is real, and so on.

So whether its that town in Missouri, or the Love Canal, or thalidomide, its the horror of reality that scares the bejesus out everybody.

dubjay October 25, 2006 at 8:18 pm

That’s a very good point.

Yet it’s the job of the fiction writer to make it real for the reader. As real as reality itself, if not more so.

The reader doesn’t care about words on paper. But the reader will care about the people and things those words conjure in her mind. So it seems to me is that the trick is to create just enough real so that the reader can take over from there.

Coherent October 26, 2006 at 12:41 am

So does this mean you’re thinking of doing a horror novel? Sounds like it 🙂

Not having heard the story of the divers and the U-boat, why, exactly, did it matter that the diver used his left hand or his right? The left hand was the ‘evil’ hand, or something?

S.M. Stirling October 26, 2006 at 8:37 pm

Since I’m mildly claustrophobic, exploring underwater wreckage is not exactly something I’d do for fun… 8-).

I did some caving once to prove to myself that I could. Never wanted to do it again.

(We had a person along who wasn’t claustrophobic but did have a _very_ bad phobia about spiders. We got through a narrow crack into a large chamber whose ceiling started to move as we shone our lights on it. Hibernating spiders awoken by the heat of the lamps…)

dubjay October 26, 2006 at 10:48 pm

“Hibernating spiders awoke from the heat of the lamps.”

Now =there’s= a good opening for a tale of terror.

No, I’m not planning on writing genre horror— I mean, why get started in a field that sells even worse than SF?

But I have written stories that were scary, like “Media Star” or “Prayers on the Wind” or, for that matter, Hardwired. But all the scary bits fell into the category of what real people do to other real people.

What happened with the diver was that reaching with the left hand accidentally tripped a valve that released air from his dry suit. So he lost buoyancy and began to sink. (It’s easy to lose buoyancy when you’re wearing about 300 pounds of gear and lead weights.) As he sank the nitrogen narcosis got worse, so he got more insistent about using the left hand, which released more air, which caused him to sink even further, which increased his other problems, etc.

One of his dive buddies tried to grab him, and pumped up his own buoyancy to counter the first diver’s negative buoyancy, at which point the first diver developed a problem with his air supply and panicked, and the second diver lost his grip and, now being very buoyant, commenced a rocketlike trajectory to the surface. Except that he miraculously encountered the anchor line at 100 feet and managed to grab it, thus saving himself an agonizing death from the bends.

The first diver finally got the knife and slashed at anyone else who tried to help him, and eventually got turned around and dove deeper into the wreck here he drowned.

If you want the really scary version, read the book.

dubjay October 26, 2006 at 10:50 pm

I bow to the Master of Horror, Terry Goodkind.

Doesn’t this passage about the Chicken of Evil just give you chills?

“Hissing, hackles lifting, the chicken’s head rose. Kahlan pulled back. Its claws digging into stiff dead flesh, the chicken slowly turned to face her. It cocked its head, making its comb flop, its wattles sway. “Shoo,” Kahlan heard herself whisper. There wasn’t enough light, and besides, the side of its beak was covered with gore, so she couldn’t tell if it had the dark spot, But she didn’t need to see it. “Dear spirits, help me,” she prayed under her breath. The bird let out a slow chicken cackle. It sounded like a chicken, but in her heart she knew it wasn’t. In that instant, she completely understood the concept of a chicken that was not a chicken. This looked like a chicken, like most of the Mud People’s chickens. But this was no chicken. This was evil manifest.”

Coherent October 27, 2006 at 1:50 am

Ahh, that’s what happened. It sounds like they were right on the bleeding edge of survival… and then made a teeny tiny mistake. When you’re that close to the edge of your abilities and equipment, you can’t afford even one misstep, one accidentally twisted valve.

That’s why most people like supernatural horror better, when reality doesn’t play by the rules.

When you’re doing something extreme, and make a inconsequential mistake that gets you killed, it’s not quite horror-ish. People die from little mistakes all the time, whether crossing the street at the wrong time or sleeping with the wrong person. In modern society we’re kind of used to it. It’s sad, but it happens every day.

Eric Blair October 27, 2006 at 12:57 pm

I must disagree with coherent on the ‘used to it’ meme. Its exactly that sort of ‘inconsequetial mistake’ that is such a horror, which I think, is one of the reasons people can be so freaked out by near-misses of any sort. Especially if they think about it.

Lots of people don’t, or are simply oblivious, but if they knew…(now I’m sounding like Lovecraft)

Anyway, as WJW said, if the writer makes it real, the reader takes over.

HaloJonesFan October 27, 2006 at 5:05 pm

As eric said…you have a lot of experience with scuba diving, but when was the last time ghosts ate your brain? No, the thing with the mushrooms doesn’t count.

S.M. Stirling October 28, 2006 at 12:48 am

That’s why “keep it simple, stupid”, “overkill” and “overbuild” are military maxims, at least among reasonably competent militaries.

(And why a rhinocerous is a millspec mouse. And why the longer it is between wars, the worse most armies are prepared for one when it comes around — when all the stuff has to do is look shiny, there’s an overwhelming temptation to skimp.)

When things are evenly balanced, you don’t have enough margin to recover from a mistake — and there will always be mistakes.

Or as the Friherr von C. put it, in war everything is very simple, but the simple things become very very difficult.

Same holds true in most very dangerous and highly-stressed situations.

Calculate what you need, double it, then add 50% for margin, and hope you’re not being hopelessly optimistic.

And never go into the woods alone!

Craig Horizon October 28, 2006 at 4:07 am

When you’re doing something extreme, and make a big mistake that gets you killed, it’s not quite horror. People die from little mistakes all the time, whether crossing the street or sleeping with the wrong person.

Bibi November 3, 2006 at 7:19 pm

“The lesson is that horror must not be inevitable. If it’s inevitable it may be tragedy— it may even be real life— but it’s not particularly scary. The horror is in watching the cascade start, the dominoes toppling one by one, and knowing that they could be stopped if only someone knew how.”

How different people are.

To me, only the inevitable is true horror. Only things that I can not control truly scare me. I’d say that is rather typical – most common phobias have as a component fear of losing control.

If I can control it, whatever it is, and I fail to, than whatever happens as a consequence is only punishment for my incompetence. And what can be more just and natural? What can be more known and expected?

You are right, of course, about inevitable being tragedy. I do not distinguish between tragedy and horror, though. All tragedies are horror, and all horror is a tragedy.

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