Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Fear Factor: Four Ways to Scare Them!

A post for Halloween Eve. How could I not discuss what scares us? Thinking about scary scenes from books and movies, brought back a vivid memory of a movie my cousins introduced me to when I was eleven. “The Beast with Five fingers” was made in 1947 and it was the last movie Peter Lorrie ever made with Warner Borthers. A famous pianist dies, his hand is severed and the hand commits murders. When the hand is thrown into a fire, it manages to crawl out and still strangle its victim!  And at the sound of piano music, the audience knows the hand is on its way to the next victim.  For months after seeing that movie, I made sure my covers didn’t touch the floor. I knew the hand could climb, but I was pretty sure it couldn’t jump. What scared me was the most was the possibility of what that hand could do. 

While I don’t write horror, I do have scenes that I create to scare my readers, so I’ve spent some time analyzing what makes a scary scene work.  

Build dread through details:
A scene that terrified me as a young reader was in The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper. She builds an atmosphere of dread word by word. On mid winter eve Will Stanton is alone in his room. He lies awake in the dark listening to every sound, recalling the strange events of the day, certain he is going mad. Up to this point, she’s seeded the story with foreshadowing...The walker is abroad..this night will be bad…. Her description of the moaning wind, the strange behavior of animals, the palpable presence of the dark increases our tension. We don’t know what will happen in that room but when the snow crashes through the skylight and a single rook feather lands on the bed, we are as startled and horrified as Will. 

Master of horror, Stephen Kings says:
“Making people believe the unbelievable is no trick; it’s work. … Belief and reader absorption come in the details: An overturned tricycle in the gutter of an abandoned neighborhood can stand for everything. Or a broken billboard. Or weeds growing in the cracks of a library’s steps. Of course, none of this means a lot without characters the reader cares about (and sometimes characters—‘bad guys’—the reader is rooting against).” 

Focus on character response:
Cooper builds dread not only through the details, but in Will’s response to them. If Will’s response isn’t real fear, ours won’t be either. Our heart rate escalates, our palms grow sweaty along with the protagonist if the author shows us what the character is risking. The reader’s response is in proportion to the protagonist’s. Which leads me to…
Make it worth the sweat
The dark  must be worth fearing. Readers gauge their fear by understanding consequences. If the antagonist isn’t a credible baddie, if the reader doesn’t understand the potential of the night in the woods, the severed hand, the discarded revolver, the scene loses power. Think about Hannibal Lecter who “once ate a census taker's liver ‘with fava beans and a nice Chianti.’”
Leave it to the imagination:
What scares us most is in our own imaginations, the possibility rather than the actual. The unknown is scarier and more enticing than the known. The skillful writer will already have cranked the tension up with foreshadowing. Fear comes from the tension of not knowing the outcome, but expecting the worse. Perhaps the protagonist is about to do something stupid: go into the cellar, spend the night in a haunted house. Readers know bad things are coming, but we don’t know how those bad things will play out. Our own minds can be scarier than a graveyard on Halloween night. It’s the author’s job to lead us there and then blow out the candle.


What’s your favorite scary scene from a book or movie?


Jordan Dane said...

Omg, I remember seeing "the hand" movie. Really creepy. Ha! Love this post Maureen.

Hitchcock talked about suspense and said fear had less to do with and was more about "the anticipation of something bad about to happen." The minute the babysitter opens that front door, after everyone in the theater screams DON'T OPEN THE DOOR, the suspense is over. I love the details of the build up. Wonderful descriptions in your post.

Desn Koontz is a writer who really knows how to scare me. His book THE BAD PLACE scared me so bad, I had to stop reading him while I was on business trips. He had me looking under my hotel beds and in closets, making sure his teleporting killer boy hadn't found me. *shiver*

Maureen McQuerry said...

You are the first person I know who's seen "the hand" movie! I need to rewatch it and see if it still scares me.
I think the anticipation in a scary movie works like sexual tension in a romcom. In a book it keeps us turning the pages!

Stephen Wallenfels said...

I'll go with a classic scene from the movie, Alien. When the facehugger mysteriously disappeared from the crewman's face, and they were eating dinner (spaghetti, of course), chatting about this and that, and then the unfortunate crewman starts shaking and you can see something moving under his chest. It was one of those sweet/sour moments when you're so scared you can't turn away even if you want to. The fear factor--yeah, great post, Maureen. s

Maureen McQuerry said...

Steve, you once told me that fear is intensified by the balance between hope and fear. Now I'm trying to analyze stories that way. Good insight!