HORRORSTÖR, the nifty and quite clever new book by Grady Hendrix, drops on the 23rd, and I’m thrilled to be part of the tour (or, Horrortor) of the book! Today, Grady writes about the lure and myth of ghosts, and I’ve also got a copy of the book to give away to one lucky winner (US only-winner will be chosen on 9/26 ). Be sure to visit Quirk for the entire Horrortor schedule and a ton of great posts and features about the book!
“What was that?” someone whispers. “Did you hear that?”
And the camera (on nightvision mode, of course) whips around wildly as things thump against the microphone and then they’re running and out of breath.
“I felt that. Did you feel that?”
Later, the audio from the camera is analyzed using Laptop Technology™ and played back while everyone looks at the floor. It sounds like static, but then they all look up at each other very, very seriously.
“Play that again.”
“I heard it,” the Laptop Technician™ says. “It said, ‘Bagels are meat’.”
“No,” someone says. “It sounded like ‘Nagel is great’.”
“Finagle my treat?”
“Either way,” the leader says. “There is no doubt that it is clearly the ghost of Elbowbreath Bowelcluster.”
This is a scene that’s been played out over and over again on shows like Ghost Adventures, Paranormal State, Most Haunted, Destination Truth, Ghost Lab, The Haunted Collector, Haunted Highway, The Dead Files, Ghost Hunters, Ghost Hunters Academy, and Ghost Hunters International. And it’s a scene that has been played out, with minor variations, for over 300 years, because horror is the one fictional genre that’s supposed to be true.
Fairy tales and folk tales were, on some level, supposed to be “real” and that’s what gave them their frisson. As small children got more sophisticated, those old tales morphed into ghost stories, then urban legends, and now creepy pasta — complete fabrications that happened “nearby” to “my cousin’s friend” or “a guy I know from work.”
Almost all the foundational texts of modern horror are presented inside a frame of “Holy shit! This really happened!!!!!” Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764), considered the first gothic novel, is introduced as papers that were “found in the library of an ancient Catholic family in the north of England,” printed in 1529 and based on true events. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) is, in part, conveyed as letters and opens with a preface that acknowledges it’s fiction but within one sentence is backtracking on that claim, stating that people such as “Dr. Darwin, and some of the physiological writers of Germany” believe it relates events which are “not of impossible occurence.”
Bram Stoker’s Dracula is practically the Blair Witch Project of its time, told in diary excerpts, letters, transcripts of wax cylinder recordings, long lectures on the made-up biology and geneology of the vampire, and that favorite found footage stunt of all, the really boring shot that lulls you into a stupor before springing a scare (Mina Harker natters on for about 65 pages of weather reports, naptime schedules, vague illnesses, nice dinners, and pretty country scenery before anyone mentions that her best friend is probably a vampiric child killer).
Henry James’s Turn of the Screw is framed as the reading of a manuscript written by an actual governess that these actual events actually happened to, many of J. Sheridan LeFanu’s horror stories are presented as actual case notes from a Doctor Hesselius, and H.P. Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulhu bends over backwards to sound like a factual recounting of true events, ending with a carnival barker’s sentence worthy of William Castle: “Please, god, I hope no one else ever reads this story for their own sakes!” Although Lovecraft goes one better in “The Haunter in the Dark” where the narration implodes in a wet splat of unrelated words, “…hell-wind — titan blur — black wings — Yog-Sothoth save me — the three-lobed burning eye…”
Early horror movies played jump rope with the line between real and fake, like Todd Browning who cast real circus freaks in his Freaks (1932), and recounting the spooooky happenings on set has been a part of movie publicity from way back. The Exorcist (1973) got a lot of marketing mileage out of being “based on a true story,” as well as several accidents and deaths among the crew during production, and a “mysterious” fire that destroyed the sets. The fact that four cast members died in the six years the three Poltergeist movies were in production even spawned an E! True Hollywood Story about the Poltergeist “curse.”
Horror movies and books are designed to produce an actual involuntary physiological reaction (elevated blood pressure, stimulation of the adrenal gland, increased metabolic rate), but so are romances, comedies, and action movies. So why is horror the one genre that feels a need to keep insisting that it’s real.
One reason might be because the line between fear and comedy is so thin that it can easily be crossed unintentionally. A slight difference in perspective is all that lies between the slapstick antics of the Three Stooges and being physically brutalized by three brain-dead morons. A few seconds and a quick turn of the head changes “There is a man behind me and he is going to chop off my head,” to “OMG, why is my cat wearing a sweater he is so cute.” The scariest haunted house ride turns into a cheap, jerry-rigged community theater production with the simple flick of a light switch.
When the Texas Chainsaw Massacre appeared in 1974 it made people fill their pants because no one knew what the hell it was. Who were these people? Where did this come from? Were the filmmakers dead? Why was it being distributed by mobsters who had previously mostly sold porno movies? No one thought it was the product of a nerdy film school graduate. Instead, they thought, as Wes Craven said, “Whoever made this must have been a Mansonite crazoid.” The famous tagline for Craven’s Last House on the Left was, “Keep repeating, it’s only a movie…it’s only a movie…it’s only a movie…” But for anyone to take horror seriously, especially today when horror arrives in slick packages from major publishing houses and studios, with expensive marketing campaigns, brand name blurbs, big name authors, and name brand actors, we have to keep repeating, “Maybe it’s real…maybe it’s real…maybe it’s real…” just to feel a flicker of that former frisson of fear.
Horror needs us to feel uncertain, which is why it’s particularly adept at exploiting new forms of technology that we haven’t gotten comfortable navigating yet. The novel came first, and television has been mined for horror up to the hilt. Movies were such an expansive technology that every stage of their development provided new opportunities, from the development of the independent distribution circuit (Blood Feast), to advertising (anything by William Castle), to the emergence of the teenage demographic (Friday the 13th), to brand new special effects technology (The Exorcist), shot-on-video films (The Blair Witch Project), and the widespread proliferation of consumer electronics (Paranormal Activity).
Which is why the internet and creepy pasta, its very own new incarnation of urban legends, are the best thing that’s happened to horror in a long time. Like any number of masked killers, the internet is anonymous, it can go anywhere, it doesn’t need our permission to come into our homes, it claims to be real and, worst of all, it knows that you’re alone.
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