"The Grim Phantasm, FEAR"

a conversation in late 1991, with Pete, Dan'l, Hunter, Sandi, John C., John M., Kurt, and Fiona

Hunter:   I've never really been scared by a horror movie. The good ones I've watched were lots of fun—like a good roller coaster. It's rare that a book has gotten me really worked up—though the end of The Silence of the Lambs did big time. I was caught up in that—but I wasn't truly scared like my wife gets. Of course, with her, all I have to do is say the word "alien" and she has nightmares that night. I've never had an experience like that.

Sandi:  I've seen and/or own a lot of horror movies and enjoy them immensely. But I don't find them scary either—just a heck of a lot of fun. Which leads me to wonder about myself: why am I not scared? Is it because I was brought up on this stuff and am just jaded? Or desensitized by reality? Lately I've been asking myself why I am a horror fan, and have been all of my life. I can't think of an answer.

Fiona:  That's great that you can't think of an answer—more power to you, is what I say. I'm chronically adverse to nailing things down. I'd rather dance with a question, than with an answer, any ol' day. Heck—I'd even accept a blind date with a question. That's the closest I'll come to giving an answer about why I love horror: because it stimulates so many goddamn questions inside of me!

For example: the question of being scared (or not) at the movies. Hunter says he's never really been scared. How do we evaluate being scared, though? One way is to say it's a physiological reaction: shuddering, hackles rising, heart beating fast. When my husband and I went to the opening night of American Werewolf in London, in a delightful old moviehouse in Houston that was packed to the rafters, we both had a startling reaction to the sequence where the guy is running away from the wolf in the underground train system—hearing it howling, getting increasingly unnerved, and finally going down the escalator—you remember. What happened to Bob and me was that our hearts started pounding in our chests—really hard and fast! Since we were fairly jaded horror viewers, I grabbed his hand and made him feel my pulse, and he nodded in the dark, pointing at his heart. It was wild. I was taking big gulps of air, feeling really excited—indeed, as Hunter says, as if I were on a rollercoaster.

On the way home we talked about a million things, of course, the way you do after such a film, but we kept getting back to that moment. We got all techy about it, and theorized that the sound of the wolf howl stimulated our limbic systems into a classic physiological "fight or flight" reflex. In the days of the early humans, beasties called "dire wolves" (not to mention cave bears) were a common threat to human beings, so it would make sense that we could have this response hardwired.

In retrospect, though, I thought of another possible biological explanation: the pheromones from all those people around us. Think about it. Most of them were not regular horror viewers, and even though we might be able to shrug our shoulders at their gasps and screams, what about all those volatile fear-pheromones they were releasing into the air all around us? It could well have been an example of a socially triggered reaction—like "hysteria" seen in crowds. I was pretty familiar with fear-pheromones and their effects at that time, since I was working in a county hospital emergency room, which stank so much of blood, sweat, and fear, it would literally start my heart thumping, when I walked into the corridor that ran nearby it. Even if I wasn't going to the E.R., that is: just the smell would get me all adrenalized. Doctors call this "the E.R. rush" or "the trauma room rush." It can be a real boon when you've been up all night and you're draggin' your feet, believe me.

What about it, y'all? What are the components of your "rollercoaster sensation"? Could it be a physiological response that some might label fear, while you label it fun? The animal response isn't called "fight OR flight" for nothin': the brain sets up the state, but once it's cookin', what you do with it is up to you.

Kurt:  Have I ever been frightened by a movie?

You betcha. When I was a mere stripling, a lad of six or seven summers, my parents failed to exercise proper parental oversight and let me stay up late one night and watch a double feature: The Nanny, and The Birds. Frightened? I was petrified. It's taken me years to overcome the psychic trauma engendered by that single evening's viewings.

Have I been frightened by a movie since I attained the status of a putative adult?

Maybe. But only if I was by myself and it was laaaaattte at night. The first time I saw Night of the Living Dead in its pristine black and white (on PBS, of all places), I was a wee bit unsettled. The finale of Freaks had me wincing a time or two. Now that I think about it, if I fall asleep during a movie, it sometimes gets incorporated into a dream in a fairly frightening way, even if the movie itself isn't all that scary. I recently rented Bergman's The Silence, for example, and all those Swedish voices and subtitles put me under in short order. There's apparently a scene (I say apparently, because I had to take it back before I could finish watching it) where a woman is dying, and she makes realistic death-rattle like noises for a long time. That noise made it into my dream, and frightened me enough to cause me to wake up and turn the VCR off. The boundary between sleep and wakefulness is a highly suggestive region, and it's an excellent place to scare yourself silly, if you can arrange it beforehand. If I'm wide awake and in the company of strangers or friends, though, it'll take more than what Hollywood has to offer to raise this boy's hackles or set his pulse to pounding. That's not to say I won't jump if I'm prodded—tricks like the head popping out in Jaws will get me every time—but that's the element of surprise, not the wages of fear. I went to see An American Werewolf in London with my brother, in a movie theater packed with thrill-seeking patrons. My brother, who has a thing about dogs, kept grabbing my arm during the scary bits while I remained coolly unaffected throughout—no pheromones need apply.

Pete:  I usually watch 2 or 3 horror films a night, and I've found that I am becoming more difficult to scare. That's why I've ventured into the obscure (and foreign) film territory. . . in hopes of finding something really different. I don't know if it's because I've become "jaded" or immune to horror, but most films I watch seem to be more fun or interesting than scary. What I usually have to do is to try to be scared. This may seem hokey, but it often works. I set a mood: I turn off all lights, remove all distractions, unlock all of the doors to my home, open all drapes, and watch by myself. Hopefully the weather will be eerie and the house will start to creak. If the screenwriter and director have done their jobs, I get "wrapped up" in a character and identify with him/her, so that when they are endangered or threatened, the scenes become more intense.

In fact, this is a technique (identification technique) which Hitchcock used freely in Psycho. We are forced by Hitchcock's technique to identify with Marion Crane (Janet Leigh). When she decides to steal the money from her company, the viewer feels a bit excited, as if he/she were actually stealing the money. During Marion's flight from town, when her boss crosses the street and glares at her through the windshield, Hitchcock has pulled the camera into the car identifying us with the camera so that when Marion's boss frowns, he is actually frowning at us. We, the viewers, feel guilty. Again this technique is used when Marion is confronted by a motorcycle cop. He peers at Marion (us!) from behind dark glasses, then again from across the street when Marion buys a used car in exchange for her old one. I can still remember how intensely I felt during these scenes, yet nothing really horrific happened. Finally, when Marion is stabbed to death in the shower, the emotions elicited are greatly augmented because we've identified ourselves with Marion; Marion and we have become interchangeable. The viewer is shocked 1.) because the lead character has been untraditionally killed, and not only killed, but offed at the the film's midpoint, and 2.) because, since we have identified with Marion, we have been "killed".

Once Marion is dead and we've recovered from the shock, Hitchcock forces us to identify with Norman (essentially our murderer!), and we want him to evade the authorities and get away with the crime.

Anyway, I guess my points are character identification and artificial mood are two methods which I use to get scared, now.

Someone made the comment that the mind can imagine things more horrible than anything you can be shown. I agree with that statement for the most part; but it is still fun and sometimes scary to "see" (on the screen) other people's perceptions and horrific ideas. For example, I love Roman Polanski films because it truly is horrifying to see a diseased mind at work. I could never imagine some of the twisted images he shows on film, and those which I could imagine are different than what he shows. Also, Dario Argento assaults his viewers with images that, if in written form, his followers may not be able to imagine in the same way. Film may take away from the creativity process your mind performs, but it may also shock you by displaying another's ideas in a totally different light (good example: Night of the Living Dead).

Scary films I recommend . . .
Castle of Blood — leaves a lot to the imagination
The Haunting — also leaves a lot to the imagination
The Dead Pit
Blood and Black Lace
The Innocents
Black Sunday (1960 version>
Nightmare Castle
The Golem
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Deathdream AKA Dead of Night — not the 1945 anthology Dead of Night
Dressed to Kill — DePalma film; has its moments Blood on Satan's Claw
Burn, Witch, Burn
Horror Hotel
Blow Out — suspenseful more than scary
Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things
Don't Look in the Basement
Invasion of the Vampires
I Drink Your Blood
Last House on the Left
Twitch of the Death Nerve AKA Bay of Blood — directed by Mario Bava
Deep Red AKA The Hatchet Murders
Devil — Hong Kong possession/demon film
The Child
Dr. Tarr's Torture Dungeon
Burial Ground
House by the Cemetery
Gates of Hell — Lucio Fulci film in which the gates of Hell are opened by a priest who committed suicide
City of the Walking Dead
The Funhouse
Kill, Baby, Kill
The Murder Clinic
The Devil's Nightmare AKA Succubus
The Demon Lover

Fiona:  I figure: so long as we're talking about fear, why not go back, for inspiration, to someone whose obsession with the subject reached levels of intensity usually reserved for great spiritual conflicts or superla tive orgasms. This is from Edgar A. Poe's (he hated the name Allan) "The Fall of the House of Usher":

To an anomalous species of terror I found him a bounden slave. "I shall perish," said he, "I must perish in this deplorable folly. Thus, thus, and not otherwise, shall I be lost. I dread the events of the future, not in themselves, but in their results. I shudder at the thought of any, even the most trivial incident, which may operate upon this intolerable agitation of soul. I have, indeed, no abhorrence of danger, except in its absolute effect—in terror. In this unnerved, in this pitiable, condition I feel that the period will sooner or later arrive when I must abandon life and reason together, in some struggle with the grim phantasm, FEAR."
I've enjoyed the anecdotes about movie-watching, and I'm curious: can we examine the nature of fear itself? What strikes me—this connects to what I said earlier about American Werewolf—is not only the brute (lower-brain) universality of the fear/rollercoaster experience, but also the way it seems to overflow into other forms of heightened emotion. Is it possible that when we get charged up in that way, we can use that energy for active, even creative, outlets? Sometimes after watching a good horror film—and especially while reading a good book (David Morrell's The Totem comes to mind as one that had this effect on me)—I get so hyped up on the adrenalin, I'm actually "high"—filled with energy, eager to go running, or carry out a big project, or make love, or something, anything, but just sit there and be passive.

This seems very much opposed to the view held by critics of the horror medium, i.e., that it teaches us to wallow in despair, or to value violence. I don't experience that energy as an energy toward violence, but it does indeed feel aggressive. There's a big difference! Even Roderick Usher experiences fear as a struggle—which he, being freighted with guilt and mental illness, is not prepared to win—but those of us who are stronger, may well find a challenge in fear that can energize and strengthen us. What do you think? Must we be "bounden slaves" to this mental state?

Hunter:  I must have missed something big about The Totem. I've seen a number of people list it as one of their favorites. I found the book quite dull and only finished it because I kept thinking it had to get better. In fact, I didn't even keep my copy of it—I traded it right after I finished it.

Anyway, I agree that the adrenaline charge is the biggest kick I get out of some of this stuff. With other things, like Chet Williamson's Ash Wednesday, it's the immersion into some of the characters that gives me a similar charge, not necessarily the action in the plot (though they can be the same).

I can honestly say I've never wallowed in despair or felt violent after reading anything (though listening to Pink Floyd's The Wall or watching the movie comes pretty close to putting me in deep depression!).

Sandi:  I have a book, published in 1968, entitled Hauntings: Tales of the Supernatural, edited by Henry Mazzeo. This book has stayed with me for nearly 24 years—through cross-country moves, flood and fire. I wouldn't part with it for anything. Some of the authors represented are August Derleth, Lovecraft, Robert Bloch, Conan Doyle, Henry James, J.B. Priestley and H.G. Wells, to name a few. It contains some of the best short fiction I have ever read. Interestingly, one of the stories, "Levitation" recently showed up on "Tales of the Darkside", which shows that good stuff never dies. The original was first published in 1958. Anyway, some of these stories have stuck in my mind for nearly a quarter-century, while I find much of the current fare is forgotten as soon as it's read. I was reading some of the stories in this book on the way into work this morning (it's a long commute), and I was delighted by the shivers that still ran up my spine. Lifetime favorites include "The Lonesome Place", "The Man Who Collected Poe", "Thus I Refute Beelzy" and "The Grey Ones", although all of them are excellent. They've put me in a great mood for the rest of the day.

You who sit in your houses of nights, you who sit in the theaters, you who are gay at dances and parties—all you who are enclosed by four walls—you have no conception of what goes on outside in the dark. In the lonesome places. And there are so many of them, all over—in the country, in the small towns, in the cities. If you were out in the evenings, in the night, you would know about them, you would pass them and wonder, perhaps, and if you were a small boy you might be frightened. . . frightened the way Johnny Newell and I were frightened, the way thousands of small boys from one end of the country to the other are being frightened when they have to go out alone at night, past lonesome places, dark and lightless, somber and haunted. . .

          opening paragraph of "The Lonesome Place"
          by August Derleth, copyright 1947

John M.:  Just a personal observation, but for me the effect I hope for from horror is the opposite of the adrenalin high. The good ones (and this happens much more often with books than with movies) stun me into a state of awe where all I am capable of is just sitting there. I would like to argue that my mind is racing, so what we may be talking about here is merely different modes of activity (physical versus mental), but to be honest, with the really good ones, my mental activity mostly consists of "Wow!" For me, horror seems to deliver this effect more often than any other genre.

As for whether I've ever wallowed in despair, well, I confess I have thrown a few books across the room in disgust and wallowed in despair at the declining standards in the publishing industry.

Dan'l:  I have never been frightened by a book, and only once, in my adult life, by a movie. (As a kid, I was frightened of everything.)

I have been at the wheel of a car that spun 270 degrees and wound up hanging over a 100' drop; I have fallen down stairs; I have been confronted by someone who thought my face would look better with less teeth and the nose concave. If the emotion I felt on those occasions was fear, then the only works of art that has ever instilled fear in me were Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights and the film Wait Until Dark.

Horror is not about fear; it is about revulsion.

The first time I recall truly feeling horror was when I read H. P. Lovecraft's "The Call of Cthulhu" at the age of 14 or so. When that squid-thing reconstituted itself, I felt what I now call horror: a gut-twisting revulsion; a feeling that such things should not be, should not be allowed to be—a feeling all the more curious because I knew perfectly well that I was reading a work of fiction and that such things were not.

Revulsion comes in many forms. The kind I enjoy most is moral revulsion. For this reason, I'm quite fond of the works of William Burroughs and Clive Barker. The former postulates a universe that is morally repulsive; the latter, creatures (usually human) that are morally repulsive in a universe that is ultimately moral. Which is, I suppose, why I finally prefer Barker to Burroughs.

Barker's philosophy of horror seems best summed up in two lines from Hellraiser 2: Hellbound. The first is the Doctor's line when asked if he's sure he wants to go through with his experiment: "I have to see; I have to know." This is, I think, his description of the average horror reader. Surely the revulsion, the horror is not in itself what we seek?

We are fascinated with what repulses us. Why, I do not know. I only know that, like the Doctor, I have to see; I have to know.

The other line is Pinhead's first line in the move: "Stop! We not called by hands, but by desire."

Note that Kirsten escapes from both movies (physically) unscathed and you have a sense of Barker's morality. Note, too, that the real monster in Cabal/Nightbreed is human, while the "monsters" are merely trying to live their lives.

Stephen King was wrong when he stated (in Danse Macabre) that horror is an intrinsically conservative genre; it does not, as he suggests, necessarily show us that "we're all right, normalcy is good." I think, though, that it is an intrinsically moral genre; every horror story worth its salt is based on some moral presumptions, which may be conservative or liberal or just weird but must be there for the good and evil to play against.

The alternative is the amoral universe of William Burroughs; but even he, finally, makes moral presuppositions. The distinction, and the reason he is not generally classed with horror writers, is that Burroughs places himself above the universe, finds it amoral and judges it. The horror writer posits a universe with a morality.

This is true even of H. P. Lovecraft with his "cosmic pessimism" and all, by the bye; there are in fact two moralities lurking in the Cthulhu mythos—the human morality by which we are finally horrified and the morality of a larger universe, which we cannot understand but perceive to be there. In HPL's best work, such as At the Mountains of Madness, that morality stands above the human; in most of his work, however, it is finally subordinated to the opinions of the humans who narrate the tales and judge the universe by their own morality.

John:  What Dan'l says about being at the wheel of a car that spun 270 degrees and wound up hanging over a 100' drop. . . Myself, I've been in a car which almost hurtled off an icy mountain pass road over a cliff. Was it fear that I experienced then? It was over so quickly that I felt only a sort of wide-eyed emptiness. Perhaps a type of fear.

On the other hand, I have flown in a little four-seater Cessna twin-prop through the heart of a thunderstorm. The plane moved steadily and slowly through an opaque and endless cloud, illuminated periodically by bursts of lightning, and buffeted by frequent turbulence which resulted in momentary weightlessness. That probably caused me more anxiety than anything else I've ever experienced. There was plenty of time to think about all the things that could happen. Plenty of time for regrets. Certainly a type of fear.

And on the third hand, I happened to be walking down the street in Cheney, Washington, in May, 1980, when suddenly a huge black cloud orders of magnitude bigger and blacker than anything else I had ever seen appeared on the distant horizon and almost immediately bubbled over and encompassed the entire landscape—I'm not exaggerating in the slightest. What was it—a signal of a distant nuclear blast? A volcano? Was it a signal that the streets would soon crack open and swallow me whole? I considered all these things, and became resigned to awe. I was not particularly afraid, but I suppose this is a type of fear. White flakes began to fall and blanket the streets. Shortly I learned that the cloud had been ashes from the eruption of Mt. St. Helens, some 200 miles distant, and that the ash cloud had reached 30 miles into the sky.

So what am I saying here? I don't know yet. I'm trying to work it out. But it seems there are many shades of fear.

Dan'l also says, "Horror is not about fear; it is about revulsion," and cites the squid-thing in "Call of Cthulhu" as an example. I appreciate what he's saying there. I don't know what it says about my li'l brain, but the climactic scenes of The Nightrunners by Joe Lansdale had me wide-eyed and shaking. Even as I reacted, I could hardly believe the extent of my physical/mental/emotional reaction.

Was I afraid, or was I revolted, or both, or what?

It seems to me that fear is a multifaceted creature (a perverted metaphor, I realize), some form of which might encompass revulsion.

But still Dan'l draws a legitimate distinction. Maybe the shades of fear are not well served by generality, and deserve their own names.

And perhaps horror can produce more than one of these shades of emotion.

A dark pastel . .. .

I'll quote Dan'l again: "We are fascinated with what repulses us. Why, I do not know. I only know that, like the Doctor, I have to see; I have to know."


Pete Correnty  <>
Hunter Goatley  <>
John McIntyre  <>
Kurt Svihla  <>   The Court of the Pumpkin King
Fiona Webster  

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