bosch hellscape
Image Credit-Wikimedia

Horror isn’t always easy to quantify, but most of us know what it feels like to be horrified in one manner or another. Whether it’s the way we reacted as children the first time we saw a dead baby bird, with its translucent skin and bulbous, unformed eyes, or later on as adults after witnessing some gruesome accident, most of us know horror when we see it. It can also be far more mundane in nature. It can be conjured while roaming the darkened halls of abandoned buildings, especially old mental asylums and hospitals. And who hasn’t felt a shiver up their spine when walking through the woods on a moonless night?

Horror can be elicited through our other senses as well. It doesn’t necessarily have to be visual to scare us. It can be triggered by something as simple as a weird sound in the night or a strange smell on the breeze. If you bit into a piece of unidentifiable meat and it was suggested that the taste you were savoring was actually derived from human sources would you not feel overwhelming disgust and horror (unless you’re a practicing cannibal, of course)?

We can even feel it when reading about the natural world around us. With our big brains we can extrapolate an abundance of horrific notions from the different ways that life thrives on our planet. Consider the life cycle of parasitic wasps, who lay their young in the paralyzed bodies of their victims for them to feed on.  We can imagine what it would be like if those tiny horrors were scaled up in size. I don’t know about you, but the thought of giant parasitic wasps, the size of humans, flying around and impregnating people with their voracious young gives me the creeps all day long. How about those ants in the sweltering jungles near the equator who are susceptible to a fungus that takes over their minds and forces them to attach themselves to the underside of leaves? After a few days they die and a strange protuberance thrusts through their skulls, forming a bulb from which fruiting bodies are released to drift away on the breeze and propagate new colonies of fungus elsewhere. What if something like that could happen to us?

Then there’s all the phobias and social anxieties we suffer from. Germs, contamination, threats of violence, and superstitions can leave us cowering in the corner. No matter how immune you think you are, everyone has a flaw in their mental armour and you can bet that there’s something out there just waiting to exploit yours. When it happens you’ll wonder how you got this far in the first place.

Whatever the cause, the end result is the same: elevated heart rate, sweaty palms, and racing thoughts—all part of the fight-or-flight response we’ve been conditioned to obey over the millennia of our collective existences. We have evolved these mechanisms to protect us from harmful situations, but what happens when the harm we imagine within our minds doesn’t really exist? We can’t escape our thoughts, no matter how ridiculous or preposterous they may seem to others. We fear what we fear.

It begs the question: if our goal in life is to live free of anxiety and distress, then why do we subject ourselves on purpose to horrifying ideas? Why do we like movies and books that scare the bejesus out of us? Maybe it’s a way of reconciling the fears we all have. We can cringe for awhile, but then we come out the other side none the worse for wear and we can laugh to ourselves after it’s over.

There’s so many things we can find to be afraid of too—so many fears to stand up to and conquer as we grow older. Chief among these must be the fear of death itself. What greater unknown will we face in our lives, after all? My biggest fear regarding death is that there’s nothing beyond it, and the thought of ceasing to exist altogether terrifies me more than anything else. I suspect that many others share this fear with me.

Everyone fears death or, more precisely, what may or may not lie beyond death’s door. Anyone who says they aren’t fearful is lying. Until you’re on your death bed it’s easy to act brave and talk big. Just wait until it’s your turn, though. Since no one has ever come back from the great beyond to tell us what lies on the other side, none of us can say with any conviction that it’s anything good. Many of the world’s western religions create motivation to be good by convincing us that we’ll suffer eternal torment from demons in a lake fire if we’re bad. If we’re really good we get to go to heaven, but is that even a good thing? Imagine the horror of being reduced to an invisible, incorporeal thing roaming a foreign plane of existence far removed from all that was once familiar? Eastern religions believe in different kinds of punishment and reward, like those espousing reincarnation and karma. Maybe if you’re cruel and you walk all over people in this life, you’ll come back as a lowly bug that lives out its life in fear of being trampled underfoot at any moment. Kafka knew something about that.

Regardless of what scares you, there’s one thing about horror that is very life affirming. As long as it isn’t happening to us we can observe it and then breathe a sigh of relief when it passes, thankful that we get to live to fight another day. Alas, no one lives forever, and the great unknown is out there, waiting for us with infinite patience and all the time in the world to get to know each one of us personally. Can we ever really be prepared for what it has in store for us?

The Ritual
Image Credit-Netflix

Adam Nevill is a writer I’ve been following for some time now. He is the author of a number of excellent horror novels, but my favorite among them is The Ritual. It’s a story about four British friends who decide to go on a hiking trip in the forests of northern Sweden and encounter some seriously evil stuff in the deep, dark woods. Recently Netflix released a movie version starring Rafe Spall, so I sat down to check it out.

All in all it was better than I thought it would be. The acting was good, they stuck to the book fairly closely, the locations were suitably foreboding, and the mythological creature that stalks them throughout was visually interesting as well (at least while they kept it obscured—more on that in a bit). In addition, the sets and visual effects were very well done, with everything being created on location according to the director.

Since they spend most of their time lost in the woods, the film was shot in real woods—with the forests of the Carpathian Mountains in Romania standing in for northern Sweden. This lends the proceedings a chilling air of authenticity. These woods are dark, old, and deeply isolating as the characters struggle to escape them after taking a shortcut when one of their number becomes injured. Soon they are hopelessly lost as they begin to find dead animals hanging up in the tree tops and strange runes carved into the trunks.

The highlight for me was when they take shelter in a creepy old cabin they find during a storm. Inside they find strange effigies and evidence that the people who once lived there were into some pretty freaky occult stuff. They all have terrible nightmares that night and when morning finally comes they get out of there as fast as they can. As their numbers dwindle and desperation sets in for the remaining characters, they eventually find a weird commune of people who offer human sacrifices to the mythological creature that roams the forest in exchange for long life.

Here is where we see the creature clearly for the first time and it’s at this point that the movie loses its way a bit. Though the monster doesn’t look like anything you’ve seen before, when you see it up close it kind of looks ridiculous. Watch and you’ll see what I mean. It’s a minor stumble in an otherwise good horror movie but it reminds me of the old adage: the unknown is always more frightening than the known.

Overall, if you’re a fan of horror movies and you have Netflix, I would recommend that you check out The Ritual.  It’s brooding atmosphere and authentic locations more than make up for the less-than-terrifying monster at the end.

Alien
Image Credit-20th Century Fox

In 1979 I was a little too young to go to the theater with my brother to see Alien when it came out, but that didn’t stop me from obsessing over it. Whenever the trailers came on TV, I dropped whatever I was doing and ran to watch. I peppered my brother with dozens of questions after he’d seen it and even got him to draw me a picture of what the beast looked like. I remember sitting in horrified fascination as he made a crude sketch (which really looked nothing like it—my brother was a terrible artist). I was both attracted and repelled. I wanted to see the movie, but I was also terrified at the prospect.

Two years later it came on TV for the first time. My parents were going out that night, but before they left they gave my brother strict orders that I was not to watch it. While he was watching it on the small color TV in his bedroom, I sneaked into the living room and turned on our other television—right at the scene where Ripley is talking to Dallas about his decision to allow Ash to keep the facehugger specimen. Dallas was telling her that standard procedure is to do whatever the hell the company tells them to do. He also didn’t care about being blind on B and C decks (“Oh, now that’s a bunch of horseshit. We can take off without that.”), he just wanted to get out of there.

My brother caught me a few minutes later when Kane gets a bad case of indigestion at the dinner table. I was petrified by then and didn’t really mind when he shut it off. I didn’t even mind him giving me shit about it. I felt like I’d crossed a line and seen something dark and terrifying that I couldn’t have imagined otherwise. When Mom and Dad came home later on my brother didn’t say anything to them about it (thanks Bro), but I had nightmares for weeks afterwards.

I didn’t see Alien in its entirety until I was fifteen, when it came on late night TV. We had two channels back then and one of them played movies uncut after midnight, with only a few commercial breaks. I watched it with something approaching rapt uneasiness. Right away I loved the concept of working stiffs in space. These men and women weren’t swashbuckling rogues like Han Solo or dehumanized automatons like Dave Bowman. They were like real people, who just wanted to get their boring job done so they could go home and party. I could dig it. The plot evolved slowly at first, taking its time. They wake up and have breakfast. After they get their shit together they find out there’s a distress call that needs to be investigated. If they refuse it’ll cost them their shares, so they follow the beacon down to the surface of the tiny planet in their space tug. When they land, their crappy old ship blows a shield and sucks a bunch of shit into the intakes, fucking up the engines. Now they’re stuck there until they fix it. While the engineers start making repairs the others go out on foot to look for the source of the signal.

They find it just as Ripley figures out it’s not a distress signal at all—it’s a warning to stay away. From there everything just gets crazier. The source of the beacon turns out to be a another ship, but it’s the weirdest ship ever. It looks like a giant knobby horseshoe designed by Hunter S. Thompson during an acid frenzy. Inside they find the pilot, who’s growing out of the chair—as if it and the ship are fused together. To make matters worse, the ship looked like it had been grown, not manufactured. Kane, being the boy scout that he is, goes into the cargo hold and gets french kissed by a thing that’s mostly composed of long, bony fingers and a distinctly vaginal underbelly.

It’s here that the movie escalates past regular craziness and goes straight on to bat shit craziness. A phallic baby alien with jaws and a tail bursts out of Kane’s chest at dinner, shortly after Parker talks about eating something other than the food (we see the smirk from the navigator, Lambert, letting us know she’s in on his crude bit of innuendo). The little creature runs away and grows into an eight foot tall psychosexual penis monster from Sigmund Freud’s most paranoid coke-fueled nightmares. It uses its pneumatic inner teeth to bash a hole through Brett’s skull and then later does the same thing to Parker. Hapless Captain Dallas disappears while looking for it in the air shafts, leaving behind only his flamethrower and a puddle of slime. Afterwards there comes the revelation that Ash is really a corporate stooge who’s been protecting the thing all along (and he’s a goddamn robot as well).

One by one the demonic alien kills them, but it was Lambert’s death late in the proceedings that haunted me the most. Before it kills her, the alien comes on to her like a lover, caressing her with its tail as she trembles in fear. I realized that it’s not just going to kill her; it’s seducing her as a prelude to something else, before it kills her. Some kind of sick mating ritual perhaps? The camera cuts to Ripley as she rushes through the dank corridors. We hear what she hears over the ship’s intercom as the monster does terrible things to the navigator off-camera. We listen to Lambert’s muffled gags, whooping gasps, and final blood-curdling scream, and we can only imagine what horrors the thing is visiting upon her body. Her anguished death throes still reverberate in my nightmares to this day.

I could hardly breathe during the last fifteen minutes of the film as Ripley played a desperate game of cat and mouse with the lethal biomechanoid. With everyone else dead she sets the ship to self-destruct, then finds that the corridor to the escape shuttle is blocked by the resourceful alien. When she steals a brief glance around the corner and the alien leaps to its feet—sensing her presence in an instant—I almost fell out of my chair. The strobe lights, wailing klaxons, and blinding jets of steam assaulting the POV camera as it prowled the corridors made me want to hide my eyes. After trying and failing to turn the cooling units back on, Ripley returns to the shuttle corridor, but this time the alien is nowhere to be seen. She boards the shuttle with Jones the cat in tow, having barely a minute to spare before the ship explodes. As she was told by Parker before his untimely death, if she doesn’t get out of there in a hurry she won’t need a rocket to fly through space. She launches the shuttle and escapes the destruction of the Nostromo, but I knew it wasn’t over yet. That thing was going to make one last appearance.

Her final confrontation with it inside the cramped confines of the shuttle, with the drooling rapist creature pistoning it’s teeth out at her as she slips into her spacesuit (that gratuitous crotch shot will never be forgotten), was both grotesque and sexy at the same time. The sexual metaphors and imagery almost induced a hallucinatory feeling within me, like I was seeing something that shouldn’t exist. Something that I could never unsee. When it was finally over I was speechless.

Everything about it was absolutely amazing: the gritty set design of the Nostromo’s utilitarian interiors, the cold and inhospitable nature of the tiny backwater planet they land on, and the bizarre derelict ship that awaits them with its cargo hold full of leathery objects. Then there was the sheer other-worldliness of Giger’s walking insectoid penis-headed monster and the sexually suggestive forms that constituted its life cycle: the swollen labial openings at the top of the eggs in the derelict alien ship, the vaginal crab-thing with it’s skeletal fingers—affectionately known in fandom as the facehugger, and the blunt dildo-shaped baby alien that births from Kane’s chest in a shocking spray of blood. All of it was like some terrible dream, similar to the one a confused Kane described when he awoke in the infirmary after the facehugger had impregnated him.

It blew me away then and it still does now. Even though special effects have evolved by leaps and bounds since then, I wouldn’t change a single frame of it (not even the laughable low-res displays—arguably the only thing about the film that dates it). Only later in my life did I see the connections to other works that came before it—Lovecraft’s cosmic horror tales and A.E. van Vogt’s Voyage of the Space Beagle being prominent literary examples—as well as the movies Planet of the Vampires (1965) and It! The Terror From Beyond Space (1958). What made Alien unique was how it was able to distill the best elements from those influences and turn them into something that was more than the sum of its parts. In addition, the cast and crew decided they were going to make an A-picture on a limited budget and the craftsmanship they achieved in every aspect of the production is still nothing less than exemplary. Ridley Scott rightfully gets a lot of the credit, but there were tonnes of people that contributed to its success. Everyone from the set painters to John Mollo and his samurai-inspired space suits to Dan O’Bannon and his original script. Even the revisions that the producers (David Giler, Gordon Carroll, and Walter Hill) made to the shooting script added value (making Ash a robot always pissed Dan O’Bannon off, but it was a great twist). The fact that I can still enjoy watching Alien all these years later is a testament to it’s quality.

Alien is an art house film and horror movie hybrid, combined with science fiction trappings. It’s slow and it takes its time getting to where it’s going. Once it gets there though, it’s a hell of a ride. It is, in my humble opinion, the greatest movie of its kind that’s ever been made, and almost forty years later it has yet to be topped. To this day, its fever-dream sexual monstrosities, creeping sense of dread, brutal bursts of violence, low-key acting, and stellar art direction sets it apart from everything else. Back in 1979 there was room for smaller, darker pictures. The age of the blockbuster was just dawning and a movie didn’t have to make hundreds of millions of dollars to be considered a success. I miss those sort of films and I hope they make a come back some day. The dismal state of the franchise as it stands right now doesn’t lend much hope, though. In space, no one can hear you scream, but on earth everyone can tell an all-time classic when they see it.

horror-2156302_1280
Image Credit-Pixabay

When I was a boy I devoured those choose-you-own-adventure series of books. There was a sense that anything could happen when reading them and often my choices led to the main character’s violent and painful death. As I became more familiar with them—and learned which choices led to doom—any lingering sense of danger evaporated. They no longer jolted that part of my brain that loved being creeped out. In my teens I moved on to the likes of Stephen King, Peter Straub, and Dean Koontz. For a long time their stories satisfied my itch for that wonderful sense of dread I craved. When I got older and started reading more widely I learned who their influences were. I discovered the early luminaries of weird fiction such as H. P. Lovecraft, Arthur Machen, William Hope Hodgson, Algernon Blackwood, and others. This was my awakening, if you want to call it that.

The sort of horror they wrote was different. It didn’t rely on brutal violence or wild spectacle. Stories like William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland were subtle and established a foreboding sense of dread from their outset through careful establishment of atmosphere, descriptive details, and deliberate pacing.  They were like nothing I’d ever read before. These stories crept up on you and made you feel like shedding your skin and crawling into a dark hole somewhere. Obsessed now, I delved into the newer practitioners of the weird such as Laird Barron, T.E.D. Klein, and Thomas Ligotti. Somewhere along the way I realized that all of these authors have something in common—a profound sense of the uncanny and the ability to flesh it out on the page without resorting to parlour tricks and cheap gore.

Horror for me has never really been about medically visceral descriptions of mayhem and carnage. For those who love wallowing in gore: fill your boots. There’s value in that sort of thing when it’s done well, but it’s not really scary. Shocking, yes. But scary? No. What scares me the most is the unknown. It’s that noise that wakes you from a dead sleep in the middle of the night—probably just the cat, but you can’t be sure as you lie there in the dark. It’s the giddy sensation of imminent danger when you’re walking alone in the woods at night and smell something foul on the wind. It’s the feeling you get when you discover an ominous new lump somewhere on your body. Those things are far scarier than some ragged zombie shambling after you, smacking its cracked lips at the prospect of eating your brains.

The best horror stories unnerve readers because they reproduce those primal feelings as you read them. You are transported to a place where you don’t feel safe or comfortable and there’s no guarantee that anyone will escape the ensuing horror, whatever it may be. Sometimes even just the inference of the uncanny is enough to do the job. H.P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu is all build-up, and we only get a wink at old Cthulhu himself near the end, but you’re hooked because Lovecraft knew how to wring maximum effect from his use of phrasing and mood building. As his characters are pushed inexorably towards their fates you realize they were doomed from the outset, and maybe the rest of the world along with them. There’s a profound sense of inevitability about the proceeedings. As Jim Morrison once said: “No one here gets out alive.”

As a writer, then, I strive to achieve two things: to honor those who paved the way before me, and to carry on the tradition of crafting stories that wrap around your heart like icy fingers as you read them. I don’t always succeed, but I’m getting better at it with every word I commit to the page. If you read one of my stories and find yourself thinking about the implications of it afterwards, then I’ve done my job right. That’s all I can hope for.