What scares you? The repeating themes in Poe’s short stories show that he was fixated on the thought of death by lingering diseases — both his mother and his wife/cousin Virginia died of TB — and of being trapped in a confined space or buried alive. His stories take these realistic fears and ratchet up the tension with Gothic gloom and elegant language.
Right now, anything you fear — snakes, drowning, fire, terrorism, homelessness, insects, an upside down mortgage, zombies, rats, flesh-eating bacteria… has already been the subject of a scary book and an even more graphic scary movie. The fear envelop had been pushed and pushed and pushed to ever more frightening heights (or depths).
Are people actually growing immune to less frightening stimuli? Do we need scarier and scarier fixes to feel that perfect level of fun/fear? I’m not sure. I think that, in general, we are becoming inoculated against the impact of certain kinds of scary images and text. The sheer bloodiness of some fiction is overwhelming. I have to look away or flip quickly through pages on my Kindle. For me, a little blood goes a long way. But that’s me. I’m on the end of the scale that frightens easily. I remember jumping out of my seat during ‘Carrie.’
Even with my feet firmly planted in the ‘fraidy cat’ end of the spectrum, I know that some of the fear fodder that puts virtually everyone on edge is not the bloodiest, most obvious imagery. It’s the careful suggestions that lead the reader, or movie fan, to fill in the blanks from their personal stock of crazy-making materials.
All the classic horror stories use this approach. For me, one of the scarier parts of Dracula is Jonathan Harker’s journey to Transylvania and his initial encounters with the Count. There are more vivid, and more dramatically scary, parts of the novel, but Bram Stoker tells the reader just enough to get the reader’s imagination going full speed.
Hitchcock did this in his classic films. He tore the fear envelope to shreds during the shower scene in ‘Psycho’ because he invited the viewer to fill in the missing pieces. Something to think about the next time I’m hiding behind my hands during a graphic, bloodbath scene.