Are you getting scared yet? No?? Well there’s still time. Here’s a guest post from Alan Williams.
Childhood and Horror
A childhood without fear and surprises would be a very a dull thing.
Last Sunday at 6.30, I sat down to watch the ITV version of Jekyll and Hyde. It seemed a peculiar hour to put horror on television, suggesting all that was disturbing in the novel would be stripped from it to suit to the ‘grab a classic and do something with it before someone else does’ brigade of film-makers.
During the advertisements, a quick look at Twitter to see if it was a thumbs up or down, showed the majority of tweets came from concerned parents who had turned it off because it was too frightening for their children. In fairness, it probably was, particularly the dog-man creature. Not the wisest move by ITV schedulers but then with an eye on publicity over all-else, they certainly accomplished what they set out to achieve.
285 complaints went in to ITV and 212 to Ofcom – all from parents saying it gave their kids nightmares. This set me thinking about children’s reactions to horror and exposure to concepts that they are not yet prepared for.
These moments of sudden horror during childhood are the golden nuggets that leave a lasting impression. They have a value which provides years of conversation, make us more interesting adults and tests our boundaries. A childhood without fear and surprises would be a very a dull thing.
The first ghost story to play with my mind at the tender age of seven or so arrived in an anthology of stories edited by the brilliant Peter Underwood. It focussed on a man taking a train journey who was repeatedly plunged into the darkness of tunnels, during which time a ghost would appear to torment him. There were a lot of tunnels. The apprehension and fear approaching each was unbearable, but I couldn’t stop reading, as much as it frightened me, it had me hooked. I put the book down afterwards, lay in the darkness turning it over and over in my mind until the slightest sound made me panic. The light was switched back on within minutes but a whole new world had opened up to me.
In hindsight the story was probably a tame little thing but the suspense and the dread of turning over the page when the last words you’d read were “the train approached the tunnel” scared me completely. It was that idea of being confronted with something that you could do nothing about then being subjected to its will. The psychological is always far more effective than the blood and guts variety of horror, and in novels, as opposed to films, you are handed all the time in the world to embroider your own imaginative fears into them.
Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot was another horror that knocked me sideways as a child, though this time the film. Daring myself to watch it alone (in a high-up attic bedroom, which probably added to the creepiness) the lights were not off for long and going downstairs afterwards to use the bathroom was absolutely terrifying. This film has stayed firmly embedded in my mind as one of the most disturbing moments of horror. In particular the scene where the dead brothers come scratching at the windows so the question of loyalty of friendship verses common sense comes into play and the later scene where at a family meal, ‘the master’ – a towering, wild-eyed corpse like vampire rises up from nowhere and renders a boy’s parents helpless in front of him.
I’ve mostly found that children and adults have very different ideas of horror. Things that I find disturbing as an adult, I found comical as a child. During the Betamax/VHS revolution (VHS) and its brief age of Video Nasties, I remember the thrill of renting the forbidden and mostly laughing at the poor production qualities, dreadful plots and ridiculous shocks. Years later when I saw one of these films again by chance at the BFI, I was shocked and didn’t laugh at all; the innocence of childhood.
When Halloween comes around, all the usual suspects are paraded about with Dracula waving a flag at the front of the parade and there is much mastery to be found within Bram Stoker’s story (not so much in any of the rest of his work, which often makes me wonder if he wrote Dracula at all) but there are many other great novels and stories that slip by mostly unnoticed so I’d like to mention a few of those here.
The Monkey’s Paw is a simple short story by W.W. Jacobs about a couple who are handed a monkey’s paw which grants three wishes. Skip the rest of this paragraph if you intend to read the story (and you should). Firstly they wish for £200 to pay off their home, the next day their son goes to work, is killed and the insurance pays them exactly £200. Horrified the man throws the paw on the fire but his wife secretly fishes it out and a week later desperate with grief, wishes for the return of her son. She confides to her husband what she has done when a knock comes at the door in the middle of the night and they venture down the stairs to answer it. The son was in a horrifying state when he died and has been in the grave a week. He is going to look horrific. Her husband, desperate to have him back but not prepared to let his wife face what is outside, grabs the claw and makes the last wish. When they open the door, he has gone. The final scene of this story still lingers in my mind decades after reading it.
Another hidden gem and bringing us back to Jekyll and Hyde author Robert Louis Stevenson is Olalla. In this short story, a wounded English soldier is recovering at a hospital in an almost abandoned region of Spain. On his leave but still incredibly weak, he is encouraged to stay at the home of a friend along with his mother and sister. Here he falls for the sister Olalla and recuperates in a strange and languid environment. There is a scene in the courtyard where the family, (not strictly vampires, more victims of bad blood through centuries of inbreeding to keep the family line) are so relaxed that the entire scene reads like it is in slow motion, right up until the soldier cuts his arm and blood sends the mother into a shocking frenzy. I read this story when I was a child and the trick of this slow, lazy, sly-eyed and sleepy scene still fills me with a feeling of dread.
In my opinion the master of horror is Edgar Allen Poe. The copy I own has so many underlinings, page folds and scribbles that looking back through it, it gives the impression I was studying for an exam rather than enjoying a book. As an author who incorporates horror into the everyday lives of characters, reading Poe was like taking a masterclass. Everything is packed into his pages; unbearable atmospheres, startling surprise, dread, suspense, wanting to shout out to a character to stop in his tracks but then having to walk forward with him to face his fate, right down to passages that will make you question your values over and over again.
Readers of horror actively seek to be thrilled by what unnerves and frightens them, and like detectives, anticipate the jumps and scares well in advance. Here is where the relationship between writer and seasoned reader becomes like a game of chess, the author must learn to outwit, to lead them along paths of false security until they can unleash, in a moment when they are absorbed and unprepared, the sudden twist of a surprise reveal; the noise from above being far more horrific than they had expected, the safety of the character taken away at the click of the fingers. Horror is about surprise, how we deal with surprise and of concepts that shock us when they arrive out of the blue. In a way, reading horror is like wanting to learn more about ourselves.
Most adults, even the least brave, enjoy a scary surprise in a ghost train or when a sudden fright makes us yell; our response is usually to laugh and tell others about it later to make them laugh too. Many avid readers completely refuse pick up a horror book either viewing them as a lesser sort of read for a different type of person or because they simply don’t like being frightened. It’s a choice.
So when ITV presented Jekyll And Hyde to a tea-time audience, it was, in a sense, doing what horror does best, confronting people outside of their comfort zone. However, it was also a deception, removing the choice of whether to watch horror or not by masquerading it as family entertainment then ladling in the shocks. There is now an Ofcom investigation into the scheduling of presenting this horror to an unprepared audience. It seems that ITV forgot to consider the most frightening thing of all, angry parents.
Alan Williams is the author of The Blackheath Séance Parlour.
I reviewed ‘The Blackheath Séance Parlour’ back in 2013. You can read it here:-
‘The Blackheath Séance Parlour’ is available to buy on Amazon:-