I am a self-proclaimed scaredy-cat. I can’t watch any horror movie trailer, much less a movie. But recently, I’ve become a bit braver in the name of discovering new ways to write; unfortunately for my cowardly, weak heart, horror is too interesting a genre to pass up.
I started with reading a bit more scary fiction (I was still way too afraid to try movies yet), like short stories with creepy undertones. I picked up a Stephen King book from a local library book sale, but when a co-worker said that it scared her so much that she hid the book, I decided it wasn’t time to go straight to King just yet!
Instead, I read a lot of Flannery O’Connor and other creepy little stories, some of which appear in the 2019 Best Sci-Fi and Fantasy (ed. Carmen Marie Machado). Eventually, I worked my way up to reading horror comics on Webtoon; a lot of these comics had interactive qualities, like visual and sound effects. Sudden scary noises. The pictures start moving on their own. I admit, I had a tough time getting through it at first.
Black Swan: Something Off
And then, finally, I watched Black Swan, which is more of a psychological drama than a horror, but hey, it scared me so it counts!
I don’t usually watch horror films, but Black Swan was different in that it uses psychological horror instead of the typical gory imagery I so often associate with horror movies. I especially enjoy the question of what is real and what is not, as the main character breaks with reality in favor of delusion.
There are many moments in this film where the audience is challenged by one detail in a scene that is wrong. Some are subtle. Others are more prominent, such as Nina seeing a dark version of herself on the subway or in place of other people.
Even the dialogue hints at something off. As Thomas watches his group of dancers to pick which ones should audition for the role of both the White and Black Swan, he says:
Virginal girl, pure and sweet, trapped in the body of a swan. She desires freedom, but only true love can break the spell. Her wish is nearly granted in the form of a prince. But before it can declare itself, the lustful twin, the black swan, tricks and seduces him. Devastated, the white swan leaps off a cliff, killing herself and in death finds freedom.Black Swan, 2010
Not only are Thomas’s lines a type of foreshadowing, but as dialogue, it sounds strange. Something’s off.
Nina’s mother presents an interesting illustration of these little wrong things. She always emerges into a scene from the shadows of a corner or another room. At one point, we get a quick glimpse into the mother’s painting room; almost too quick to notice, one of the paintings’ eyes moves.
Later, Nina’s mother accidentally cuts her finger while clipping her nails so she can’t compulsively scratch herself. In an attempt to help and protect Nina, who she refers to as, “my sweet girl,” Nina’s mother ends up hurting her daughter.
Nina has very little privacy in their shared home and, and her room is bright, pink, and full of stuffed animals that bring to mind a much younger girl. Later, this identity of being possessed by someone else is further explored when Nina is in the middle of a psychological breakdown and enters her mother’s painting room again. This time, the paintings are all screaming, “my sweet girl.” What’s most interesting about this scene, however, is the inflection in the voices of the paintings: the emphasis is on “my,” so that the delusions are screaming, “MY sweet girl.” The possessive characteristics of Nina’s mother are on full display in a horrifying way.
Each little wrong thing adds up to a greater horrific payoff, making Black Swan a treasure trove of unfortunate thematic horrors. Sometimes you don’t even notice the little wrong things until it’s too late.
Pitcher Plant, Adam-Troy Castro: Second Person Horrors
Next, I read The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2019. I’ve always been a lover of fantasy and anything stemming from fairy tales, folklore, or mythology. But reading “Pitcher Plant” by Adam-Troy Castro made me realize just how easily science fiction and fantasy can turn scary.
Castro pulls the reader into the story by introducing the second-person “you” narration in the first paragraph and then giving a description of the trials that the mansion represents. It is not apparent at first that the “you” in this story is Death and that the living maze of the mansion is a more abstract obstacle that Death must solve in order to finally take the architect’s life. At first, Castro describes Death first going into the mansion and then facing the difficulties of the ever-shifting structure of the house.
The mystery of the mansion draws the reader in, as does the use of “you”: This closeness with the character of Death places the reader in a rather vulnerable position. From the very first paragraph, the reader has assumed Death’s character and will continue to more deeply feel the effects of the story.
When other characters are introduced, the horror of the mansion begins to present itself.
So you stand still and listen, focusing past the sound of daggers to the even more distant sound of a woman crying. It’s not close, but the acoustics of this house have protected the sound…just soft enough to be subliminal. You might have missed it. You could have been forgiven for missing it. But it’s there, and the closer you listen, the more you hear.Adam-Troy Castro, “Pitcher Plant”
This concept of the need to be “forgiven” and the foreboding sensation that comes with “the closer you listen, the more you hear” does not just solidify the reader as the character of Death, but gives the reader a certain burden; it fills the reader with a sense of backstory, that they have done something that might require forgiveness. This type of horror is more within the mind, not so much a fear of danger to the self, but rather danger from the self.
The idea that the reader could have done, and is still doing, a morally questionable deed is presented by the introduction to the other characters who exist within the mansion, who remind Death of his perceived crimes. The architect, speaking from somewhere far away and in the shadows, explains his plan to Death as you move throughout the mansion, a trope seen mostly in film and television in scenes that are tense and oftentimes scary. Now, the reader is faced with dual fear, of the architect (external danger) and Death, or the self (internal danger).
But perhaps the most horrifying moment of this story comes at the very end, after the architect has lured Death into the most twisted maze of the mansion. Death, having been confident this whole time, faces the architect and takes his life. Immediately after, the way out closes behind Death and traps him inside, maybe forever:
You might very well figure out an escape route sometime before the world above recognizes the disaster of your absence, but you might never. You might spend forever staring up at the darkness, unable to fathom the way out. You might try and fail. And you might succumb to a despair greater than any ever felt by merely mortal prisoners: because even those have always known that escape, of a kind, was inevitable, and never beneath the stars has such a merciful end ever been planned for you.Adam-Troy Castro, “Pitcher Plant”
This realization of Death’s fate hit me, as a reader, harder than I thought possible. I was a little relieved to come out of the story, but even after this last paragraph has ended, I had the lingering sensation of dread: That somehow, a small part of me was still trapped in the mansion and would always be wandering in the darkness.
The second-person might remind a reader of their own existence (which isn’t always helpful because such a reminder could bring the reader out of the story’s immersion), but in this case, Castro uses the hyper-aware second-person narration to give the reader a sense of ownership, burden, and fright.
There is no way that a reader can escape into this story because second-person bestows a sense of responsibility on the reader. Castro has used the second-person “you” to the best of his ability, creating a horror unlike any I’ve read before: The horror of the self.
They say curiosity kills the cat, and as a curious scaredy-cat, I figured the positives outweighed the negatives. I did scare myself many, many times exploring scary stories, and I haven’t even skimmed the surface yet.
A while ago, I experimented a bit with the romance genre and learned a lot. Experiencing all these scary stories makes me want to try my hand at horror…and I might do just that someday soon. There’s always more to learn from broadening your horizon.
Even if you have a couple nightmares along the way. (ʘᗩʘ’)
Photo by Adam Gonzales on Unsplash