copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman
What constitutes the horrific? While the answer to this question may depend to some degree upon the individual and may vary from one person to another, most people would agree that some features are horrific in general by their very nature. As an aspiring horror writer, one should be familiar with these elements. This post will consider some of things that most people believe to be horrific.
Anything that is subterranean or submarine is frightening: basements, caves, crawlspaces, hell, mines, the ocean bottom or river bottoms, submarine vessels, and tunnels. We know not where (and to what) they might lead. They are paths to mysterious regions that are yet unexplored and uncharted, where there may be monsters. Were we to follow their lead, we might become irretrievably lost. We might die of hunger and thirst and exposure, alone and far from friends, family, and the culture and civilization which, in large part, give meaning to our lives. Even our corpses might be lost, remaining unburied and, worse, unmarked and unremembered. It might be as if we'd never lived at all.
Anything that is close is frightening: narrow spaces of all kinds, many of which overlap with the ones mentioned in the previous paragraph: basements, caves, crawlspaces, submarines, and tunnels. To this list, in “Premature Burial,” Edgar Allan Poe added the grave itself, as a place of absolute confinement, in the case of one who has been buried alive. We might add engines of torture in which the victim is confined, such as the iron maiden or walls that press in upon one, as they do in Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum.” We might also add cages, cells, dungeons, and collapsed mines.
That which is of a hideous appearance alarms. Deformities and birth defects and mutations top the list in this category, but those whose faces have been destroyed by acid, disease, or fire are also ghastly and unsettling to those whose own countenances, if not lovely or handsome, are at least of normal appearance. The deformed body is as horrific as the misshapen face, as pitiful stories of the Hunchback of Notre Dame and the Elephant Man attest.
Mementos mori frighten us because of what they are: reminders of our own looming deaths. The skull and the skeleton spring to mind as such reminders, but so also are catacombs, cemeteries, coffins, graves, headstones, morgues, mortuaries, tombs, and worms. As John Donne shows us, even the pealing of a bell can recall to us our imminent demise: we need not send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for you and me.
Vast spaces can be intimidating, as cornfields, deserts, forests, icebergs, jungles, mountains, oceans, pastures, planets, and outer space suggest. Many of these places are also isolated, which cuts characters off from society and culture and the defenses that each provides against both brutish nature and the animal nature within humanity. However, smaller places, such as total installations (boarding schools, camps, colleges and universities, forts, hotels, military installations, nursing homes, outposts, prisons, research facilities, resorts, or even trains) can also be remote and, therefore, can be not only lonely but also cut off from the larger world and its comforts, resources, and protections.
Some animals’ appearance is repulsive. Most amphibians and reptiles are, by nature as well as by their looks, abhorrent to many. God himself used a plague of frogs against ancient Egypt in his campaign to force pharaoh to release Moses and the Israelites from bondage. Insects are, likewise, revolting to many, as are worms and many other creepy crawlies. Some contend that amphibians and reptiles (and their eggs and spawn, especially) remind us of sex; others say they are mementos mori.
Wild animals, especially when their strength and abilities are magnified by conferring gigantic size upon them, frighten most people. Think of what the world would be like if it were still populated by dinosaurs and one was as likely to encounter a tyrannosaur as a hamburger at the golden arches.
Wildernesses are frightening, because they tend to be remote. Moreover, most such places are not only inhospitable in themselves, but they are also likely to be home to wild animals that will attack and, quite possibly, eat humans who, for whatever reason, trespass upon their domain. In addition to deserts, forests, islands jungles, mountains, and underwater environments, wildernesses may include the arctic, the Antarctic, hidden valleys, lost worlds, and swamps. Some may also offer dangers peculiar to themselves, such as animals that were thought to have become extinct but have somehow managed to survive in a remote area, pools of quicksand, or tribes of headhunting cannibals.
Anyone who is not only a danger to him- or herself but is also a danger to others, whether intentionally, as Leatherface or Jason might be, or unintentionally, as many teenagers tend to be, are also people to fear. Some people, just by their attitude or behavior, seem to dare the monster to spindle, fold, and mutilate them, and, of course, any monster worth the name is going to be more than happy to oblige.
Instruments of torture and death are also frightful devices, to be avoided at all costs. The number of such devices is many, and they needn’t be listed. Suffice it to say, if something looks as of it could cause pain, suffering, and/or death, most likely it can and it should, therefore, be avoided.
Of course, in a horror story, none of these persons, place, or things should be avoided forever or even for very long; if they are, the story won’t be horrific or even suspenseful. Sooner or later, characters must suffer one or more of these fates before succumbing, at last, to a hideous and ugly death:
- Being bound or fettered
- Being chased or stalked
- Being eaten alive
- Being hit over the head with a blunt object
- Being flayed alive
- Being lost
- Being roasted or otherwise cooked alive
- Being shot with a pistol or a rifle (or even a crossbow)
- Being smashed by a falling boulder or other heavy object
- Dislocation of joints
- Live burial
- Sexual assault