The Art of Horror: Make Your Audience Shit Themselves Without Showing The Monster
A practical guide for the budding horror maestro who hates clean underwear.
A practical guide for the budding horror maestro who hates clean underwear.
It’s an article of faith in the horror community that it’s generally scarier for the audience to not show the monster in your story, to keep it hidden in the dark, its presence felt but never seen, like whatever the hell goes in my stomach after a session of Taco Bell and Jose Cuervo.
In fact, there are many practitioners who treat the idea that a monster should remain concealed as if it were carved in stone, that doing anything to reveal a grotesque antagonist makes you the corrupter of true terror, the enemy of taste.
This notion should not become law, as there are times when showing the monster can more frightening (that will be the subject of a future article). However, there’s no denying that the “less is more” approach is an effective way to creep out your audience, whether you’re telling your scary story on the page or for the screen. Or if you’re one of those bastard camp counselors who likes to put the fear of nameless gods into child victims around the campfire.
Why You Shouldn’t Show The Monster
Keeping your tale’s monster confined to the shadows is ideal for storytellers eager to engage their audiences in a more intellectual way, as it gives them the opportunity to use their imaginations to concoct an entity that truly terrifies them more personal level. In this way, you’re almost provoking your audience into giving themselves nightmares, which is great if you’re into that whole Inception thing.
Stephen King sums up this approach as “terror”, which he describes as:
“when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It’s when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there…”
Hiding your monster means that you can have your audience leave your story afraid of the smallest shadow, because you’ve now convinced them that even the most ordinary people, objects, and environments can be home to the most vile beings that not even a crucifix and a bottle of Raid can keep away.
And of course, the other reason to eschew showcasing your monster like a supermodel on a runway is if you’re aiming for a classier, more subtle type of scary story. This is especially useful for those looking to appeal to snobby critics; even the horror genre has its share of succès d’estime.
Examples Of Keeping The Monster In The Dark
The number of works of literature and cinema that keep their beasts in the dark are legion, but only a few are capable of doing so while also conveying an artful story that inspires people to unintentionally soil their undergarments.
Below are a few examples that had that very same effect on me (and explain my colossal receipt of Hanes products).
The main character in Guy de Maupassant’s classic short horror story “The Horla” is haunted and terrorized by an invisible malignant entity, to the point that he begins questioning his own sanity. De Maupassant’s choice of not showing the creature is effective, as it invites the audience to come up with their own interpretation of what’s really happening in the story; is the main character going insane, or is he really the victim of an unseeable creature?
Both outcomes are equally plausible and frightening. (I’ll let you kids bicker about the meaning of the story in your angry opinionated Reddit threads.)
Here’s an excerpt from “The Horla” that demonstrates how effective ambiguity can be in a horror story:
I was walking at two o’clock among my rose-trees, in the full sunlight — in the walk bordered by autumn roses which are beginning to fall. As I stopped to look at a Geant de Bataille, which had three splendid blooms, I distinctly saw the stalk of one of the roses bend close to me, as if an invisible hand had bent it, and then break, as if that hand had picked it! Then the flower raised itself, following the curve which a hand would have described in carrying it toward a mouth, and remained suspended in the transparent air, alone and motionless, a terrible red spot, three yards from my eyes. In desperation I rushed at it to take it! I found nothing; it had disappeared. Then I was seized with furious rage against myself, for it is not wholesome for a reasonable and serious man to have such hallucinations.
The original Blair Witch Project, while divisive in terms of how scary it really is, is a prime example of keeping the monster in the dark, only showing its effect on the characters. By explaining what the witch does to her victims early on in the film and presents it as mere backstory, it excellently sets up one of the biggest payoffs in the film when we see some of the characters showing those exact same signs. The witch’s existence is felt just offscreen, because she’s scary enough without being onscreen.
While the film may lack the explicit thrills seen in today’s mainstream horror films, try watching it alone in the dark, and see if you won’t be squinting in the shadows of your own home for an evil witch waiting to put a curse on your colon.
How To Be Scary Without Revealing The Monster
Believe it or not, I think I may have cracked the impenetrable mystic code of horrifying your audience without exposing your monster’s true appearance, and I am ready to impart it to you if you promise to wield with the utmost care and mischievous intent.
Clearly define what your monster is within the context of your plot and why it can’t be seen: Is it a spirit or demon? Is it something that takes the shape of ordinary people or common animals? Is it something that only resides in the dark? Is it invisible, or is it capable of camouflaging itself? Did it steal Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak?
Doing this early on will keep your audience on their toes for the rest of the story, and, if done well, will have them constantly searching your fictional environment for where the monster may attack from next. The closet? Under the bed? That demonic hobo who’s charging at the protagonists with a knife and sputtering hellish incantations? Who knows?
Next, emphasize the sounds your monster makes and the effect it has on the surrounding environment; something that has a presence that can be felt and noticed but not easily detected is terrifying. How can you fight or run away from something that’s unseen but always there?
Some ways of doing this include having the main characters’ personal items being moved around when they’re not looking; characters acting differently as if possessed; mysterious screams or cries that occur the same time every night; haunting flatulence that fills the room or phantom turds left in the toilet; etc.
When A Stranger Calls has a clever, scary, and believable premise: a young babysitter is harassed with troubling phone calls by an unseen, um, harasser throughout the night. Here’s the final moment from the film (spoiler alert, obviously); notice the tension and suspense that builds, and yet all that’s taken place was a phone call with an unknown antagonist:
Another way to include a monster without actually showing it is to feature some kind of depiction of your monster — like a drawing or sculpture — that’s crude yet hideous in your story. If the depiction is enough to give your characters — and hopefully your audience — shudders, imagine how incontinent they’ll become when the monster makes its presence known in the story.
A good example of this (from a bad movie) can be found in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, which tells a mediocre story of a family that moves into an old house that is inhabited by pissed off fairies. The scene below hints at what is actually terrorizing the family in the form of some authentically disturbing drawings. Of course, the film stops being scary when we, the audience, see the creatures in the flesh. And we never stop seeing them.
Like any creative technique, the success and failure of choosing to withhold glimpses of a monster depends on how well it’s applied by its author.
This is the alchemy of the art of horror.
Keeping the monster hidden can result in a subtly unsettling story that haunts your audience long after the tale is finished, or a story that falls flat from too much vagueness and a lack of genuine scares. Or it may result in a work that’s loved and worshipped by some, and hated and pooh-poohed by others, causing a neverending Twitter debate that none shall emerge victorious from.
Now that you’re in command of this ancient terror technique, it’s your turn to wreak havoc on audiences’ knickers the world over!
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Are you ready to be a tad terrified?