Painful Truth: Nothing scarier than unknown


The darkest holiday of the year is almost upon us. 

No, not Thanksgiving, not unless you plan to battle zombie turkeys over a pit of flesh-eating cranberry sauce.

Halloween, Dia de los Muertos, All Souls Day, and Samhain are all part of a collection of festivals that acknowledged a turning of the year, and of the mingling of the worlds of the living and the dead. There are a few signs that the season is nigh – pumpkins turn full and orange, frost covers the stubbled fields, and Netflix adds a whack of crappy slasher movies.

This season gets me thinking about what actually scares me. 

What leaves me quaking in terror is very different now than when I was a little kid. When I was very young, footie-pajamas young, I remember being convinced that there were monsters living in my closet. None of those cute Pixar critters, but gigantic troll things that liked to eat children. I was scared of the dark in general. Like a lot of kids, I was freaked out by certain movies. Apparently The Wizard of Oz sent me to hide under a chair, although whether it was the witch or the flying monkeys that did it I can’t remember.

I stayed scared of the dark longer than I stayed scared of movies. 

In the past few years, horror – and especially horror movies – seems to have divided into two main streams.

The first is the one often derided as “torture porn.” I’m not saying that movies with really graphic scenes of sustained violence can’t be good – I’m sure there are movies that use violence to make a point or tell a good story. But I’m not interested in wading through the rest of the schlocky exploitation movies covering the same ground to find a couple of good ones. It’s just not my thing.

The second trend is to lean on mysterious supernatural forces, with demons and ghosts the most popular. Re-makes of Japanese and Korean horror movies, found-footage films, and tons of novels of slow, creeping dread have been mining this vein in recent years.

This actually works pretty well at scaring me. And I’m curious as to why it works so much better than gore. 

Technically, shouldn’t I be more worried about a semi-realistic madman in a hockey mask than about a dark room with a creepy doll? Why do I reach for the popcorn and wonder how many people Jason is going to off for the former, but I can get genuinely engaged in the latter?

Remember all those TV specials and books that used to explain how “movie magic” works? Those were widespread when I was a kid, and I learned all about fake blood and latex skin by the time I was 10. After you’ve absorbed a few of those, it’s hard to be alarmed by buckets of gore. When I watch a movie like Friday the 13th, mostly what I’m thinking is “Wow, how much of the budget did they spend on red corn syrup?”

The stuff that still scares me is the unknown. Scary movies, or books, or tales told around the campfire work best when we don’t know exactly what’s out there.

What’s in the dark hallway lined with dust-coated mirrors? What made that noise in the basement, in the corner where the light from the faint bulb doesn’t quite reach? Didn’t you put all the knives away yesterday, and why is one missing from the rack right now? 

I don’t know why we celebrate fear, unless it’s to make us feel a bit more alive. So as the skeletal shadows of the leafless trees clutch at you, let yourself shiver a little. 

Then go inside, turn on the lights, and make yourself something hot to drink. Nestle into your bed, and don’t worry – I’m sure nothing’s waiting quietly in the closet.

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