copyright 2014 by Gary Pullman
WHO?: A motel owner; the devil; a writer—what is scary about some is what they are by nature, in and of themselves (the devil); what is scary about others is what they are secretly (Norman Bates), what they are incipiently (Jack Torrance), or what they become (Seth Brundle). Human beings gone bad, in other words, are frightening. The selves we present to others are our personas, masks that we wear to appear normal and rational and acceptable; horror fiction shows readers or audiences the true face behind these masks. We do what we are.
WHAT?: Madness, evil, experiments gone awry—what is scary about some is that they represent loss of control (madness); what is scary about others is that they represent helplessness in the face of merciless cruelty (evil); what is scary about still others is that they represent the unintended harm that can come of good intentions or mistakes (experiments gone awry). Actions are frightening because they show that human behavior is not insignificant, but causal. We are what we do.
WHEN/WHERE?: An isolated motel, a house in Georgetown, a vacant hotel in the middle of nowhere. Some settings are scary because they isolate (Bates' motel); others are scary because they show that evil can occur anywhere—and, therefore, everywhere—including the nation's capital); still others are scary because they combine two or more sources of fear, such as isolation and familial dysfunction). Places are frightening because they are the sites in which human behavior and its consequences are displayed. In building places, we reveal ourselves: the architect is visible in the buildings he or she designs.
HOW?: Rental, possession, experimentation. A motel room can be a motel room—or it can be a Venus flytrap-like chamber of death; the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, but it can also become the devil's pig sty; scientific instruments can deliver us into evil as well as good. The means we use to achieve our ends depend upon our ends—or, sometimes, they have unanticipated results too horrible to have imagined. We are not only what we do, but we are also often the victims of what we, or others, do.
WHY?: To appease another, to assert the self or to defy God, to discover new possibilities or to control nature—what is scary about appeasing others is that, in doing so, we subject our wills—indeed, our very selves—to the wills of those whom we seek to appease; what is scary about one's assertion of will is that, as Shakespeare observes, “one can smile and smile and be a villain”; what is scary about attempts to discover new possibilities is that some possibilities are better left alone, and what is scary about controlling nature is that doing so subverts or, at least, alters the effects of natural law. The “why” of behavior is, at bottom, a mystery, and this, too, makes motive and cause frightening in themselves; the unintended—or, sometimes, intended—consequences of such motives and causes make the whole cause-and-effect chain of events potentially even more horrible yet.