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10/29/2014 08:47 am ET Updated Dec 29, 2014

The King Of Terrors

In Fitz-James O'Brien's classic tale of terror "What Was It?," the narrator finds himself musing on the nature of horror: "There must be some great and ruling embodiment of fear -- a King of Terrors -- to which all others must succumb. What might it be?" As someone who has spent much of my professional life -- in fact, much of my life -- thinking and writing about horror, I get asked a variant of this question all the time: What's the scariest movie ever made? What's the most terrifying book you've ever read? Come clean, Professor -- what really, really scares you?

Well, Halloween is upon us, so here's my utterly subjective guide to what does, and does not, make for successful horror:

Childhood is terrifying
As is adolescence, and most of us devotees of horror begin at a young age. As I type this, my desk is strewn with DVDs of TV programs and films I first saw as I was growing up in the 1970s: "Dead of Night," "Supernatural," "Thriller," "Robin Redbreast," "The Owl Service." On my shelves, I have a complete set of Herbert Van Thal's The Pan Books of Horror Stories, which I devoured aged about 11, and which were very much my way into the adult world. On Saturday nights across the 70s, the BBC would show a Horror Double Bill, generally a Universal classic starring Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff, followed by something newer and racier, like a Hammer film. My parents always went out on a Saturday night, and so I watched all these films. In the early 80s, we got a video recorder, and our local video store seemed to stock nothing but horror movies. I watched them all, even (especially!) the ones subsequently banned under the 1984 Video Recordings Act -- the so-called "video nasties." Any book or film able to tap into this connection between childhood and horror has already gone a long way towards succeeding -- just ask Stephen King.

Atmosphere is all-important
This is why ghost stories are inherently more frightening than, say, zombie movies. This is also why horror fiction is uniquely suited to the short form, where old-fashioned unities of time, place, action and reading-experience are paramount. Under the right circumstances, M.R. James is the most terrifying writer in the world -- if you're alone in the house, late at night, preferably in front of an open fire. What's important here is what Freud called the uncanny, the ability to create a mood of uncertainty, in which we can no longer be sure of our own senses and interpretation -- did I just see that, or didn't I? What's that noise? Is someone outside? I could've sworn that door was closed last time I looked. Am I alone in the house?

Shocks are not frightening, and neither is gore
Anyone can sneak up behind you, shout "BOO!" very loudly, and make you drop your ice-cream. I won't deny the effectiveness of the occasional well-timed shock, but these only work in the context of an atmosphere which has already unsettled your audience. They should be used sparingly. Likewise gore. There are two risks here. The first, and most significant, is that you're in danger of making your audience laugh: the line between gore and giggling is a very fine one, which many splatter movies and zombie movies exploit to great effect. But a film like Peter Jackson's Brain Dead is funny because Jackson set out to make it funny; as a film-maker, the last thing you want is an audience tittering at your film's most shocking moments.

The other danger is cheap nihilism -- using gore and nastiness to cover up the fact that you have nothing to say. There's nothing particularly new or clever about nastiness -- as the audiences for Euripides's "The Bacchae" or Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus" will testify, it's been part of the writer's arsenal for centuries, if not millennia.

Genre is your friend
One of the great advantages a writer or film-maker has is their audience's familiarity with and love of the horror genre. This genre-literacy can produce specific kinds of aesthetic pleasure - the very real pleasure to be gained from knowing precisely where you are, and where this work is going. Audiences often go to see films or read books precisely because they've encountered this kind of thing before, enjoyed it, and want to experience it again, perhaps with a few subtle twists and differences. Nobody went to see "Friday the 13th, part 8," or "Saw 6," expecting a whole new cinematic experience from the one they got when they went to see "Friday the 13th, part 7," or "Saw 5." Sometimes, this genre-familiarity can lend a ritualistic or even a participatory experience to the work or art, as we go self consciously through the conventions of the genre while experiencing it (that's why the Scream franchise was such fun, at first), or even start to take part in the work ourselves (like the audience for "The Rocky Horror Picture Show").

Your audience is smart
And so should you be. If you have nothing to say, don't bother saying it.

Darryl Jones is the editor of Horror Stories: Classic Tales from Hoffmann to Hodgson.

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