In an earlier post, “Horrors! Or How to Scare the ‘Yell’ Out of People,” I wrote about the effect of scaring readers and film watchers with subtle horror, rather than in-your-face buckets of blood, entrails, oozing brains, various and sundry dismembered body parts—you get the picture. Not that there’s anything wrong with an occasional gross-out. I’m as guilty of that as the next horror writer. (Read The Modoc Well if you don’t believe me.) Still, I will always take the subtle approach first.
In my GATE class of the same name for gifted middle school and high school kids, I showed them subtly scary scenes from selected films that otherwise oozed blood and guts. Case in point: Clive Barker’s classic Hellraiser, a gore-fest if there ever was one. I didn’t show them any scenes with Pinhead, or the guy with all the hooks in his body. The scene I chose was one where a teenage girl named Kirsty is in a hospital room, and she’s playing with this puzzle box, a key plot point in the story. When she solves the puzzle, a doorway to another dimension opens up, and of course she walks (slowly) down this long, creepy corridor, where she runs into some nasty demons, the Cenobites. One of them proceeds to chase her back up the corridor, which seems a lot longer going out than coming in, but what the hell. The demon stays right on her heels the whole time, until she jumps back into the hospital room, whereupon the portal closes. From the time she goes in until she escapes, at least three-four minutes pass—a long scene in screen time. And about the only one in Hellraiser that I dared show to the kids.
Before the gross-out came to dominate horror flicks, subtlety seemed to be the norm. Case in point: one of my personal favorites, Invasion of the Body Snatchers—I’m talking the original 1956 version, another cautionary film that hinted at the effects of a Communist takeover. I could never forget Kevin McCarthy, as Dr. Miles Bennell, running down the road, dodging cars, and yelling, “They’re here already! You’re next!”
Seems that lots of people in the small California town of Santa Mira are “changing,” according to friends and relatives—and they are. Pods from outer space, when put next to people who are sleeping, replicate those folks. The real man or woman is destroyed (we never see how), and the pod dudes take their place, identical in all ways, except for a total lack of emotions. The film contains one subtly creepy scene after another as Miles Bennell and Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter), an old flame rekindled, slowly realize just what in heck is going on. They love each other, and they can’t imagine what a world without love or other emotions would be like.
My favorite subtly creepy scene? Miles and Becky are fleeing Santa Mira on foot. They know that they have to stay awake, or else—you know. So they stop for a few minutes in a tunnel, and Miles leaves her to check out a noise. When he returns, Becky looks like she’s about ready to fall over. He kisses her, and both he and the viewers know,when they see her cold, creepy eyes and hear the accompanying creepy music,
that she ain’t Becky no more. Man, if that doesn’t freak you out, then you just might be one of the pod people yourself!
Fire Dance, my 2011 desert-themed ghost story, has a fair share of both gore and subtlety. Here is an example of the latter. The spirit of Bruno Leopold, a deranged mass murderer who died in a fire in the 1870s, has been reborn in the contemporary story and is trying to find a host strong enough for him to continue his murderous ways. His first attempt at taking over a person finds him in the body of Scott Millard, a homeless man, weak and slight of build. Scott/Bruno finds himself in the jail of Smoke Tree, California after foolishly hassling the burly deputy. Bruno realizes that he chose his host poorly. Here is the scene:
For a moment, upon awakening, he remembered nothing, and was frightened.
A dim bulb lit the cell. Cell. Using Scott Millard’s eyes, Bruno looked down at the puny body. Why had he chosen this? He would not make that mistake again. The man in the uniform could have killed him . . .
This cell could not hold him, nor could this body. Fully aware now, he only had to move along . . .
Then he remembered what had frightened him earlier. It was the moment, the brief passage from the stupid creature to the ragged man, when he was OUTSIDE. Not part of anything, he had felt like screaming but had gone inside quickly, and it was over.
SCREAMING TERRIBLE OUTSIDE TIME.
No, he could not just leave, not face that again, until . . .
He urged the ragged man up on shaky legs, to the bars of the cell. Weak hands circled two of them and shook. Not sturdy at all, not like those in San Fra, where he had been unable to escape, though he had tried.
Chief Upton jolted awake when he felt the vibrations on the wall alongside his cot. Christ, 4:45 in the morning. It had been a quiet Saturday night; he’d sent Steve Cornwell home at 1:30. If not for the “prisoner,” he would have locked up the station and had his calls forwarded to his home. Why his deputy strong-armed every damn derelict . . .
Upton opened the door to the back room and switched on a bank of lights. “All right,” he said peevishly, “you can stop shaking . . .”
The drifter was staring at him with those crazy eyes. Upton stopped a couple of yards away; anxiety seized him.
“What the hell . . .”
Bruno leaped from the body.
Scott Millard crumpled to the floor of the cell.
Screaming now . . . screaming . . . can’t help it . . . OUTSIDE . . .
The sheriff clutched at his head as the pain struck him. “Jesus!” he cried.
Must get inside . . . can’t stay . . . out . . .
Upton fell to his knees, moaning like a wounded beast.
The barrier was solid, like a stone wall, and he sensed pain as he dashed himself against it. Let . . . me . . . in . . .
LET . . . ME . . .
Too strong . . . too strong . . . can’t get inside . . . can’t . . .
Bruno retreated into the cell then out a barred window into the pre-dawn coolness. A shrill keening went on, echoing in the room. Eventually it faded into silence.
And lest you think I can’t write “juicier” scenes, here is one from The Modoc Well. The setup: the demon in the old Padgett well has taken possession of main character Greg Lowell’s wife, Janet, and she’s seduced their handyman, Jeff Rand. Halfway through their violent sexual encounter the demon leaves, and Janet screams when she sees what is happening. Greg runs in and starts beating the crap out of Rand, until Janet makes him stop, for she realizes that she started the whole thing. A day or so later Rand is in his car outside the Lowell property. He has dropped off his grandmother, a Modoc Indian descendant and a sort of “guardian” of the well. The demon reaches out and possesses Rand, whose anger toward Greg peaks. Here is the scene:
Greg was pouring coffee when he and Les Curry heard muted gunfire. The numerous reports could not be separated for ten seconds until the echoes of the last shot faded.
“What the hell?” Curry muttered.
He pulled out his service revolver and followed Greg from the house. Standing on the porch, they looked around but saw nothing. They raced across the yard until, fifty feet from the barn, they saw Jeff Rand stalk through the double doors. Both men froze. Rand’s face was contorted with madness.
“I’m gonna kill you, Lowell!” he yelled, raising his gun. “I’m gonna—”
Metal whined above him as Greg, reacting to Curry’s frantic warning, dropped to the ground. Three shots cracked from the deputy’s gun, any one of which would have been enough to kill Rand. His dark eyes bulged. Dropping the rifle, he crumpled.
Pausing for only a second to make certain Rand was dead, the two hurried into the barn. The horror of Rand’s insane killing spree made Greg retch.
He’d shot Shanty and all eight cows. The latter had been destroyed execution-style, at close range. Most of their faces had been torn away. The blood that seeped from the rigid carcasses blended with the rich milk from the overturned pails, swirling obscenely on the sawdust floor.
Otis Perry was also dead, although his brain refused to accept that. His frail body riddled with bullets and drenched in blood, most of his face blown off, he somehow dragged himself across the floor to Greg and the deputy, who stood frozen. Mewling sounds escaped from him. Bony fingers wrapped around Greg’s ankle, reflexively holding on after the shattered body finally succumbed.
Sickened, Greg pried the hand loose, then the two men staggered out of the barn. Once free of the charnel house, Curry recovered and ran to his squad car to radio Winn. Greg followed but paused for a moment to gaze at Dora Waverly. Still staring at the Padgett well, she remained oblivious to what had happened behind her.
And guess what, there are even gorier ones than that in The Modoc Well. Enjoy.
SWORDS & SPECTERS UPDATE: my sword & planet novel, The Master of Boranga (Ro-lan: Book One) is in production as we “speak.” Another week or two should do it.