Pushing the Scary Envelope

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.


  1. This is a question that has been asked for many generations now. I think one of the things we run into is the growth of our knowledge base. We have debunked many of our myths and legends so they do not hold as strong an influence on our imaginations.

    Now, for me, I can be of the sorts that my imagination will run wild with most scary stuff. Sublte horror tends to dig its claws in and crawl under my skin.

    I do enjoy brutal and visceral horror when done well. Stuff from Clive Barker really digs into my brain. But the stuff that does little for me is the splatter punk horror that shows up in movies. That stuff is bloody for the sole purpose of shock and awe. There isn’t anything behind it to base a strong scare on.

    • Candy Korman

      I think you’ve hit on an important point. There’s a difference between SHOCK and the more lasting fear. Blood splattering all over the place, has the power to inspire a scary moment. A vivid, and yet subtle, description of a horrific event has the capacity to creep into your dreams.

      Once we’ve debunked all the big, scary monsters of our childhoods, it’s easier to fall for the shock value of a frightening moment. Most of those films, and to a certain extent books too, rely on repeated incidents of blood shock — the bell has to be rung again and again because it doesn’t linger.

      I prefer my horror in the lingering style. The kind of story that’s scarier the next day when you are still thinking about it.

  2. lol – I don’t scare that easily but I really, seriously don’t like scary movies, and horror leaves me cold. Then again I also won’t get on any of those scary rides at fairs. Hmm….

    • Candy Korman

      I won’t go on scary fair rides either — another thing we have in common.

      I had a interesting experience a few months ago when a dear friend/former boyfriend was in an Indie Film. I went with him to a special screening and sitting in an audience of devoted horror/slasher fans was amazing. As the film was an amalgam of science fiction and horror, I wasn’t entirely out of element, but I was likely the only one in the audience closing her eyes at the blood. The energy in the theater was fantastic. They LOVED the blood. They LOVED the shocking moments, the wild roller coaster ride feeling. It was educational. It helped that it was well made and there was thoughtfulness in the writing. But the audience experience was extraordinary and it’s the closest I’ll get to a BIG SCARY ride at the fair. LOL…