A highly important rule in horror is not showing the monster. Or a ghost. Or whatever it may be that terrifies the characters. Although this is perhaps a bit of a mislabeling, what we are looking for is the tasteful showing of said creature, paired with a respect for suspense throughout the story. The reason why some horror films work while others don’t is due to this factor of ambiguity. The ones that do work, work because the story plays with and cause us to question things that we know to be true. A successful horror story needs to combine some element of fear of the unknown. The audience should be left questioning if what they have just experienced or observed the characters experiencing, is even real, or just inside their heads. This ambiguity creates a level of realism in us as an audience, because if we can’t tell whether the ghosts or demons or whatever other creatures populating the story are external or nothing but our imagination, then it begs the question whether or not that even matters, whether or not a monster is any less of a monster if it exists solely inside our heads. The Master of Horror, Stephen King has described horror as the following: “(there are) three types of terror: The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs. It’s when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm. The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around. It’s when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worst one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own has been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It’s when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there…” The problem all too common with film and TV horror is that writers, directors and producers tend to focus more on the gross-out and the horror than they do the terror. Now, gross-outs and horrors are great! There’s nothing wrong with them, but they collapse without the undercurrent of terror to keep them fresh and interesting. Terror is the life blood of horror. Terror is about creating an atmosphere through ambiguity and fear of the unknown, an atmosphere so volatile that it animates your characters. In the 2007 movie Zodiac there is a brilliant example of terror. In one scene, the Zodiac killer ties up two victims by the bank of a river, and then we are shown him stabbing them repeatedly in the back with a knife. The terror of this scene is realizing not only that a person is capable of these atrocities, but that you are a person as well, and wondering, could you be pushed to be capable of that in the right circumstances? And now we come to that all important rule: Don’t show the monster. Returning to Stephen King, in his important work, Danse Macabre he writes about what often occurs when creatives ignore the rule: “The audience holds its breath along with the protagonist as she/he (more often she) approaches that door. The protagonist throws it open and there is a ten-foot-tall bug. The audience screams, but this particular scream has an oddly relieved sound to it. ‘A bug ten feet tall is pretty horrible,’ the audience thinks, ‘but I can deal with a ten-foot-tall bug. I was afraid it might be a HUNDRED feet tall.” And therein lies the understanding, the true importance of ambiguity is all about leading the audience up to that door, building suspense and tension with every step towards it they take, and once they arrive at that old terrifying thing, the writer’s or director’s job is to cause a gust of wind to blow it open. And in that instance, as you stare out into the joylessness, you think you see something enormous, full of tendrils and fangs and clicking maxillae, moving in the gloom. The trees rustle and all of a sudden that thing is gone. Your heart is beating fast in your throat, a cold sweat runs down your back, and you are compelled by your own god-forsaken curiosity, to follow the creature towards another door in the distance, behind which, something even more hideous resides. Or worst of all – is right behind you.
Story by Astrid Buck.