Growing up, I couldn’t stand anything scary.
I even cried when I saw the beginning scene of the movie Monsters, Inc. I’m fairly certain it got so bad my family left the theater. Then again I was only five years old, so it’s a hazy memory.
As a result, I effectively swore off anything scary for most of my childhood and teenage years. I wouldn’t watch horror films or read scary stories, and I regarded anyone who liked or talked about scary tales with confusion and distaste. There was a sense, both in my family and in the Christian subculture I grew up in, that scary stories were just sadisism.
By the time I was seventeen, I was questioning this philosophy a little. I was a young writer trying to learn everything I could about how to manipulate readers – to write things that would make people laugh, things that would make them cry, and so forth. Learning how to write things that would scare people seemed like an important skill for effective writers.
More than that, I was curious. I understood now how a darkly comic or a gothic tale could be fun, but horror stories just seemed immoral and I didn’t understand why horror stories fascinated people. For that simple reason, I wanted to know more – I had never been able to stand things which I couldn’t understand. I had to learn what made them tick, I had to learn the reasoning behind things even if I didn’t agree with it. This time, I wanted to learn what made horror interesting to people and if it was really as immoral as I thought.
So, hesitantly, like a toddler inching closer to a dark lake and putting one foot in the water, I began asking the question, “Can I write horror stories that are also morally responsible?”
I began to do research. I started with the classics, watching Universal horror films like The Wolf Man and Creature From the Black Lagoon, with paper and pencil nearby to note what seemed to work and what didn’t.
When I moved onto the moderns, I decided they were too still graphic for me to handle but that wasn’t really a problem. Thanks to the Internet, I didn’t have to actually to watch a modern horror movie to learn its plot; I just needed Wikipedia, Top 10 Quotes sites, and YouTube clips. On top of that, textbooks will occasionally reference horror films like Paranormal Activity, so with a little selective research, a collection of film reviews, and Stephen King’s book Danse Macabre, I was on my way.
I researched on and off for about two years. I learned everything I could about horror archetypes and the seminal stories. I learned plots, I learned characters and themes, I was so well-versed in horror I could name-drop horror films with the best of them. I didn’t actually know any horror fans, so this just made me look weird. But I had the information I’d wanted.
In the end, my research only took me halfway there. As far as I could make out, good horror movies were more than fancy makeup and gore, they played on primordial fears all humans have. Some of the early horror stories used these fears to talk about moral questions like “what is the nature of evil?” (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) or “is there a point where man attempts to be God himself?” (Frankenstein). So, I had a vague idea one could use these principles to write a scary story that wasn’t a gore fest or torture porn.
But how do I use this? I asked myself. I was still no closer to answering my question.
The answer finally came to me from an unlikely source. It was Halloween night, I was in my college dorm lobby, and on the spur of the moment, I had decided to write a scary short story. I found a quiet corner, opened my laptop, turned on my copy of the Batman Returns soundtrack and started working.
An hour later I finished my story and looked it over. It seemed alright – no gore, no sadism, just a frightening tale about a man in a hospital. But I still didn’t know if it was morally okay or not. Could I justify this?
I had no idea. I saved the story, returned to my room. After wrestling with whether I should feel guilty or not, I finally did what I should have done years before – I really thought about what my objection to horror was in the first place. I realized then that I was working on the assumption that scary stories always promote evil, which made writing them evil.
I decided to test this assumption by doing something I hadn’t done yet in all my research: I needed to watch a truly scary film. I searched YouTube for “A Night On Bald Mountain,” a cartoon from Walt Disney’s 1940 film Fantasia.
Then I sat back and watched as a dark mountain above a little European town filled the screen. Modest Mussorgsky’s sinister score started to play, and a demon with massive wings and sinister yellow eyes rose from the mountain. Then he threw his talon-like hands out over the village, their shadows reaching all the way to the local graveyard, and they summoned all the dark and ghostly beings to come and dance before the demon’s throne.
5 minutes into the cartoon’s 11-minute running time, I discovered I was having a hard time telling myself this cartoon was damaging. Yes, the cartoon was frightening and dark, but it also never once made me admire the evil creatures in it.
If anything, the images of the strange monsters forced to dance for a demon who toyed with them before dropping them into a fire pit convinced me I never wanted anything to do with evil.
The cartoon’s climax, where the ringing church bell makes a demon cringe because it means daylight is upon him, and the dark and ghostly creatures flee to their hiding place before dawn breaks (and the next music piece, Ave Maria, starts to play) really drove home the idea that evil is not supreme.
This is how I learned to the secret to writing horror as a Christian.
Horror can be instructional. A scary story can be dark and creepy, but if it isn’t making evil look good, if it’s making a point and the point is morally good, then a scary story is a very, very good story.
Copyright 2016 By Gabriel Salter