Stop. Don’t move. Did you catch that?
That shadow that just scurried around the corner? That door that closed by itself? How about that soft whisper in the dark?
As I type this, it’s a warm, grey, early fall day. Looking out my office window, I notice some of the trees across the road just starting to turn. It is early afternoon, but it looks more like seven o’clock because of a darkening sky that just keeps getting darker.
I love it. I love it because it’s quietly ominous. Because of what it implies. Driving rain. Howling wind. Forks of lightning. Earth-shaking thunder. It doesn’t actually need to rain and howl and thunder; just the hint that it could is delicious.
The same applies to the shadow. The door. The whisper. In and of themselves, they’re not especially scary.
But in the right context — in a dusty corner, down a long hall, in an empty house — they imply something much more sinister.
As I thought about this blog post, ushering in my favourite month of the year, it occurred to me that when it comes to fear — truly skin-crawling, head-tucked-behind-the-pillow fright — less is more.
In my opinion, fear is more effective when administered subtly, in drip-drip-drip doses. Or, as is sometimes the case, brief, unexpected glimpses of… you’re not sure what, that are there one minute and gone the next, leaving you to wonder, “WTF was that?”
One of the best examples of this (and I’m assuming if you’ve read this far, you like to be scared, as I do) is the movie The Sixth Sense. In it, Bruce Willis is a psychologist who counsels Haley Joel Osment, a young boy who can see dead people. There are several scenes worthy of WTFs, but the best by far comes early on in the movie. It’s late at night, and young Cole (Osment) needs to use the loo. He fearfully pokes his head out his bedroom door; he obviously has been holding it, and now is bursting. He has no choice but to make the brave dash down the long hall to the john. An old bathroom… An old thermostat… And something that quickly shuffles past the camera between you and Cole that literally makes your stomach drop.
Another screen example — a little campier, perhaps, but subtly creepy nonetheless — comes in the first few minutes of George Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead. Barbara and Johnny have come to pay their annual respects to the their mother. As Barbara kneels before the headstone, Johnny stands above her, looking around. The place is deserted… or is it? The wind picks up, and thunder starts to roll. And there in the back of the cemetery lumbers a lone man. A few seconds later, he appears again… only to disappear a second time behind the headstones. You can see the whole movie — and fast-forward to 5:05 to see the scene I’m talking about — right here.
The granddaddy of horror movies, The Exorcist, is well-known for several nano-second shots that fill the screen suddenly and are gone just as quickly. To this day, they scare the shit out of me. Judging by comments I’ve seen on YouTube, I’m not alone.
My final example of less-is-more fear factor comes from a book. Books are, in my opinion, a little trickier than movies because there’s more left to the imagination. They’re also more open to individual interpretation. That said, I’m going to try to convey to you what I think is one of the eeriest sequences in what is the most haunting book I’ve ever read.
It is The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters. It takes place in post-war England, at a time when the country was undergoing a quiet revolution, the aristocracy turned on its ear by an emerging middle class. (Think Downton Abbey.) As a result, many big landowners were forced to sell off property, let their servants go, and generally “make do” in monstrous homes that sat cold and mostly empty and crumbling at the seams.
Such is the case with Hundreds Hall, a decrepit old mansion where the Ayres family lives, amidst leaky plumbing, weed-choked gardens and cold, drafty rooms, most of which are shut up tight because they’re too expensive to heat.
We meet the Ayres through the eyes of Dr. Faraday, a young country GP whose mother, in fact, was once a maid at Hundreds. Now, ironically, he’s been called to the mansion to visit a sick maid. The trouble is, she’s not really sick; she’s afraid.
And so we are drawn into a story where we soon learn that not all the inhabitants of Hundreds are living. (I will warn you now that while this isn’t an official spoiler alert, I do go into a certain amount of detail here that, depending on the type of reader you are, you may want to experience yourself. FYI, Stephen King called The Little Stranger, “The best book I read this year” — 2009.)
We learn early on in the book that Mrs. Ayres had a daughter who died as a child. When malicious things start to happen around the house, it gradually starts to become apparent that this ghostly child might be the one responsible.
One day, Mrs. Ayres ventures up to the old nursery on the top floor of the house. She has come to conduct a no-nonsense investigation of the rooms up there in the hopes of quelling the servants’ worries about “that nasty thing a-watching us!” Climbing the stairs, she becomes aware of “the thickening silence” and the voices left several floors below. Regardless, she presses on.
At last, finding herself alone in the day nursery, wandering the empty rooms, she becomes nostalgic. She recalls times long past when her children were young. She even remembers the nurse announcing her visits: “Why, mummy can’t keep away!”
As she stands there in the dim late-afternoon light, she looks out the dusty, cobwebbed window in time to see her older daughter walking across the yard. At the same time, right behind her, she feels a cold draft, while in the next room, comes a violent slam. There, she finds that the door she’d left wide open has slammed shut. She tries to open it, but it will not budge. She peers in vain through the keyhole, and can even see the shaft of the key. But she can’t get at it.
Then she hears it: the lightest pitter-patter of steps out in the hall. Softly they shuffle, pit-pat, pit-pat, past the door. They get more distant as they move down the hall. Then they stop. And back they come, pit-pat, getting louder as they pass by the door once again.
Then they fade. And back they come again. And again.
She puts her eye to the keyhole. Here come the steps once more. And with them, a dark shape flits by. She calls out the names of the servants — people she’d been talking with just minutes earlier several floors below. No one answers.
Now whatever it is that’s out there is coming closer, brushing against the door as it passes. And eventually she hears scraping: fingernails being dragged along the wall as the being passes by.
And suddenly the running and scraping stops — right outside the door.
At that moment, there comes a shrill blast from behind her. It’s the old speaking tube — a long-disused communication pipe running from the nursery down to the kitchen. Now beside herself with fear, she walks hesitantly over to it, and brings the earpiece to her ear.
“The sound, she realized with a shock, was that of laboured breath, which kept catching and bubbling as if in a narrow, constricted throat. In an instant, she was transported back, twenty-eight years, to her child’s first sickbed. She whispered her daughter’s name — “Susan?” — and the breathing quickened and grew more liquid. A voice began to emerge from the bubbling mess of sound: a child’s voice, she took it to be, high and pitiful, attempting, as if with tremendous effort, to form words.”
So simple. So understated. A few footsteps… a blurred shape. On their own, they’re rather innocent. Together, experienced in the top rooms of a lonely old house, they nibble away at the psyche — and reduce it to tears — one shiver at a time.
So too it goes with the aforementioned shadow. The quiet whisper.
In the right (wrong?) circumstances, the shadow becomes a stalker. The whisper, a ghost. And the closing door, your last chance of getting out alive.