With October upon us, it’s finally that enchanting time of year when the general public embraces flannels, pumpkin-flavored things, and being freaked out.
As a writer who feels most at home in the creaky corridors of the horror genre, the subject of “scare” is obviously a dear one to me. The autumn season usually triggers creepy content, and as the leaves begin to turn, I’m happy to return to my theme of writing about fear.
If you saw the recent film adaptation of Stephen King’s It, or at least read one of its many clickbait critiques lurking online, you probably have a sense of how powerful a narrative device fear can be. Digging through a dark plot, whether it’s read or watched or heard, allows the audience to unearth something personal to them. Certain tropes, such as Its notorious clown, will not always resonate with everyone, but the unsettling feeling of effective horror has that opportunity to morph into what bothers a person most, taking shape in the depths of their own imagination.
That personal terror is what sustains Pennywise the Dancing Clown through generations of tormenting the townsfolk of Derry, Maine. While a razor-toothed hell-clown is Its default getup, Pennywise’s supernatural capabilities allow It to manifest into the form of Its victim’s worst nightmare. Its constant metamorphoses range in severity, from an ominous red balloon to a decaying leper, giving the reader plenty of space to ponder what “It” would become if It showed up in his or her bedroom late one night. In this sense, Stephen King gets to play a (hopefully less malicious) version of Pennywise’s game, by crawling into the minds of his audience and striking a very personal chord.
It isn’t a typical example of “quiet horror,” a popular subgenre known for its use of creepiness rather than carnage. There are plenty of scenes in the story that feature dismemberment. However, the subtleties that channel unease and dread are what also give it a softly scary gleam.
Personally, I’ve found that quiet horror creates a sense of fear that lingers longer than its slasher-type counterparts. Of course, I don’t mean to put down jump-scares. They’re the scare equivalent of taking a shot—immediate and effective. They’re reactionary. This is easy on screen. On the page, a quick transition to graphic detail can mimic that sudden feeling. However, these abrupt, in-your-face scares can have a tendency to fade as quickly as they appear. While there are certain explicit depictions of gore and terror that won’t slip from the mind so easily (a gratuitous shout-out to writers like Jack Ketchum and Lucy Taylor), quiet horror can mutely shrink down beneath the skin of their audience and leave an unshakable chill.
Despite its name, “quiet” horror doesn’t always mean the absence of sound in the medium. There are instances when the literal sense certainly can apply (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 5 episode “The Body,” which is eerily soundtrack-free), but the term generally refers to a situation when the focus is heavily on atmosphere. Outright gore is downplayed, and unrest is turned all the way up. It’s the disturbing notion of “something just isn’t right about this,” the tense gut feeling, the prickling on the back of your neck. To do this effectively, you must tap directly into the imagination of your reader, instead of spelling out the details.
This article in the Lovecraft eZine discusses the definition of quiet horror from a variety of perspectives, but maybe it’s easiest to learn by example. The Monkey’s Paw by W. W. Jacobs is a classic tale of quiet horror: by tampering with fate, a wish-hungry couple unwittingly causes the gruesome death of their beloved son. This is followed up with the “rational” decision to resurrect him, since it’s not like ignoring the natural order of things had fatal consequences or anything.
The most crucial element of the story is that, when their zombie son shows up at the door for a snack (brains?), we never see him. His parents never open the door and his horrifying image is never written into the text. Still, Jacobs does a fantastic job of conjuring up a nauseous sense of suspense and dread in a very subtle, almost quiet way. And it works.
Like It, It Follows is a prime case for quiet horror in cinema. If you haven’t seen the latter, It Follows is an allegorical thriller set in ghostly Detroit, where a young woman is relentlessly pursued by an ominous presence after a sexual encounter with a guy she thought she could trust. Both films maintain a troubling tone from start to finish, relying on atmosphere and background details that constantly remind the audience that something is off and something else is coming.
An interesting thing about both of these films is their shared use of the very generalized pronoun “it.” This denotes the unknown, the entity that cannot be classified in any other way, a creature that is more of a concept than a tangible thing. While Pennywise has a name when he wears his clown suit, the children of Derry never refer to him that way, instead calling the object of their fear “It,” as It is an ever-changing mass of evil, something that can terrify them all individually. They never do It the justice of giving It a name, even though It offers one. In It Follows, the “it” in question is a series of ghosts; but again, the protagonists never give any of these beings a name. The “It” is a metaphorical depiction of trauma, the dread and unrest that stalks and plagues a victim long after the moment has passed.
Have you ever heard someone blame their fear of the dark on the fact that they don’t know what could be lurking around, shrouded and unseen? Quiet horror has a similar effect. There’s a large void of not-knowing, an uncomfortable feeling that flourishes in silence. This month, put your ear to the wall. Listen for the strange sounds you didn’t hear before. Write something sensory. It’s the perfect time of year to don a sweatshirt, delve into the dark, and disturb your friends. Happy Halloween!