One of the few things more interesting than reading a Stephen King story on Halloween is listening to the master of the macabre talk about horror in general. King is like our Professor Emeritus of the Dark Arts. King knows horror – and when he talks about what makes us terrified, it’s always fascinating.
Over the years, the author has spoken at length about why certain things scare us and how he uses those tools to keep readers and film fans returning to his work with regularity. He’s written a book on the topic (Danse Macabre), talked about it at length in his memoir/how-to manual On Writing, and tackled the subject in numerous interviews.
Still, one of the best and earliest examples of King talking about what makes us scared came in the introduction to his 1978 short story collection Night Shift. I first encountered this intro (and the stories in the collection) as a junior high student back in 1985. King’s observations had a profound influence on this young “horror geek in training” – mostly because the observations made sense and were presented in a way that wasn’t overly complicated. Noted splatterpunk author David J. Schow once said “the academicazation of horror is yawnfest” and I’m inclined to agree. King knows that too – and as the intro to Night Shift demonstrates, he can talk eloquently about things that go bump in the night and why they terrify us without making us feel like we’re sitting in a lecture hall. Thanks to our friends at GeekTyrant for taking the time to type out the entire intro. Head there to read the full version.
King’s intro to Night Shift is all about fears – the universal ones and the ones that are particular to him. One of the best moments in the piece comes when King talks about his own fears, particularly his fear of the monster under the bed.
“At night, when I go to bed, I still am at pains to be sure that my legs are under the blankets after the lights go out. I'm not a child anymore but... I don't like to sleep with one leg sticking out. Because if a cool hand ever reached out from under the bed and grasped my ankle, I might scream. Yes, I might scream to wake the dead. That sort of thing doesn't happen, of course, and we all know that. In the stories that follow you will encounter all manner of night creatures; vampires, demon lovers, a thing that lives in the closet, all sorts of other terrors. None of them are real. The thing under my bed waiting to grab my ankle isn't real. I know that, and I also know that if I'm careful to keep my foot under the covers, it will never be able to grab my ankle.”
King’s long been a proponent of the old “if you think the worst it can’t happen” school of thought – and seems to also believe in the maxim that it’s better to be safe than sorry. And really, who can argue with that logic? Why even tempt the thing under the bed with the delectable morsel of your uncovered foot?
He then talks about what we’re so afraid of, how even our mundane life is filled with things that terrify us. Man may be the top of the food chain, a creature with no natural enemies aside from ourselves, but we still live our lives in fear – and a writer like King can exploit that at will. That fear can cripple us.
“Fear is the emotion that makes us blind. How many things are we afraid of? We’re afraid to turn off the lights when our hands are wet. We’re afraid to stick a knife into the toaster to get the stuck English muffin without unplugging it first. We’re afraid of what the doctor may tell us when the physical exam is over; when the airplane suddenly takes a great unearthly lurch in midair. We’re afraid that the oil may run out, that the good air will run out, the good water, the good life. When the daughter promised to be in by eleven and it’s now quarter past twelve and sleet is spatting against the window like dry sand, we sit and pretend to watch Johnny Carson and look occasionally at the mute telephone and we feel the emotion that makes us blind, the emotion that makes a stealthy ruin of the thinking process.”
These are the mundane fears though – the rational, sensible, fears we can all write off as “worries” or “concerns” in the bright light of day. King knows how to use those fears, but he’s really interested in something much darker, more insidious, more unsettling. King wants to show you the monster under the bed, the creature lurking in the placid nearby lake – he wants to use those things to entertain his audience, but also teach them a lesson.
That lesson is that underneath it all, horror cinema and fiction is really about coming to terms with our own mortality. Sure, there are other lessons along the way (like slasher cinema’s maxims of “don’t do drugs and don’t have pre-marital sex”), but at the end of the day, it’s about death – both the death of others and our own impending date with the grave. It’s the one fear that we all face – the one universal fear. King himself says that “the great appeal of horror fiction through the ages is that it serves as a rehearsal for our own deaths.” Watching Michael Myers kill countless teens or facing the shark in Jaws may not be how most of us meet our demise, but again – think the worst and it can’t happen. If we spend a lifetime soaking in the violent and horrifying deaths of horror cinema and novels, maybe we’ll get lucky and pass peacefully in our sleep. Can’t hurt to hope, right?
In that regard, the serious practitioners of horror are probably more than just writers and filmmakers. The George Romeros and John Carpenters and Dario Argentos of the world are almost wise-men, using parables (some cleverly constructed, others not so much) to help us cope with the one certainty in our existence – that we’re all going to die.
The approaches to these lessons that horror filmmakers and authors are trying to teach us can vary. King believes that story trumps all the other tools of his craft. “All my life as a writer I have been committed to the idea that in fiction the story value holds dominance over every other facet of the writer's craft; characterization, theme, mood, none of those things is anything if the story is dull. And if the story does hold you, all else can be forgiven.”
Other masters of the form, like George Romero, use the medium to make social statements. Carpenter’s Halloween talks early on about how fate is inescapable – and uses a masked madman killing teenaged babysitters for no apparent reason (that didn’t come around until the sequel…) to prove his point. Wes Craven’s films have continually explored the ideas of familial disintegration. The beauty of horror is that any of the approaches works – from the meat-and-potatoes of story to the more esoteric tact taken by countless filmmakers. The messages of the genre are universal – and the ways to convey those sentiments are nearly limitless.
So, with that in mind, go out and enjoy Halloween. Eat some candy, scare your kids, watch a horror movie or read a spooky book. Just remember while you’re watching or reading that there’s a message here: life is short, make the most of it – because none of us get out alive.