scary story

At this time  of year, I like to read scary books, watch scary movies, and play scary games. With that in mind, what follows is a list of some of my favorites of each type. I think I’ve blogged about all of these individually before, but I decided to compile them into a list for a convenient reference.

  • The Haunter of the Dark, by H.P. Lovecraft.  My favorite Lovecraft story.  I don’t know what it is exactly, but something about the setting, and the mysterious pull of the distant church that draws the protagonist’s eye really works for me.  I feel its one of his best for not over-explaining things.
  • The Omen, directed by Richard Donner. (1976) The scariest movie I have ever seen, and the only one that’s ever kept me awake at night. The opening music is, as I’ve said before, absolutely chilling.
  • Green Tea, by Sheridan Le Fanu. There are other good stories–notably Carmilla–in the collection “In a Glass Darkly”, but this is the one that stuck with me.  I like the idea of overdosing on a commonplace drink causing someone to be haunted.
  • The “We Don’t Go To Ravenholm” level of Half-Life 2. I’ve been critical of this game in the past, and even this level has its flaws.  Nevertheless, I have to give Valve credit for putting a survival-horror level in the middle of what is otherwise a sci-fi action game. That’s a great way to do horror: drop it in where the audience isn’t expecting it.
  • The King in Yellow, by Robert W. Chambers. The best example of a “weird tale” I have ever read.  It’s so good that I recommend it even though only the first four of ten stories are actually in the horror genre. They are that good.  “The Repairer of Reputations” is particularly memorable.
  • The Haunting, directed by Robert Wise. (1963) This is cheating a bit, since it’s based on a book.  But the movie is very good.  I didn’t like it when I first saw it, but it’s an acquired taste, and after repeated viewings I came to appreciate how subtle and ambiguous it is.
  • Quake. In terms of game play, this is just a Doom knock off, which means it’s basically all fighting and no suspense.  How does it get on this list, then? Two things: the artwork, though primitive by today’s standards, is very atmospheric and ominous.  And the intriguing level names, like “The Haunted Halls” and “The Tower of Despair” evoke a more subtle fear and deserve better than the mediocre gameplay within.
  • Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore. Did you think I could get through ten whole things without mentioning Gilbert and Sullivan?  You must be new here. Anyway, yes; this is technically a comic opera.  That doesn’t make the scene of the paintings coming to life or the Wagnerian “Ghosts’ High Noon” any less creepy. Gilbert complained that Sullivan’s “ghost music” was too scary for a comedy.  He was right–and that’s why it works.
  • The Damned Thing by Ambrose Bierce. Horror is what you don’t see and don’t understand.  This story probably packed a bigger punch when it was first written; the concept is old hat at this point.  Nevertheless, it’s still effective.
  • Spec Ops: The Line. I thought long and hard about whether to put this game on here.  Unlike everything else on this list, it contains no supernatural elements… or at least, no overt ones.  And also unlike everything else here, it is in no way “Gothic”.  But it is very dark, very disturbing and above all, a prime example of psychological horror.  It does share certain storytelling elements with The Haunting and “the Repairer of Reputations” and is just bizarre enough that I decided to include it.

The first time I saw Robert Wise’s 1963 movie The Haunting, I was pretty young and I didn’t like it much.  Too boring, I thought.  But upon subsequent viewings I have come to think it’s actually a pretty effective horror film, because it does not rely on the grotesque and horrible to instill fear, but rather on subtle psychological manipulation.

In brief, the story concerns a paranormal researcher’s study of a reputedly haunted house.  The film focuses on one participant, Eleanor Lance, who is apparently sensitive to the supernatural.  Gradually, it begins to seem that the unexplainable phenomena of the “haunting” is directed at her.

What makes the movie interesting is that it’s hard to tell whether Eleanor is truly being haunted by anything or if she is just going insane.  The ambiguity makes for a good “let the viewer decide” puzzle, which I like very much.  I suppose the closing narration does tip the balance somewhat in favor of a supernatural explanation, but still, it’s very good.

One weakness in the movie is that Eleanor herself is not very sympathetic.  I think the viewer is supposed to pity her, and I guess I kind of did, but to an extent it made her seem so vulnerable that it doesn’t seem that surprising that the house would cause her such distress.

The other problem I have isn’t so much with this movie in particular as it is with the whole “Haunted House” genre, which is that haunted houses aren’t especially scary unless you go inside them.  Apparently, as the opening narration makes clear, “Hill House has stood for 90 years”, and hasn’t hurt anybody except those who decided to live in it during that time.  This isn’t really that scary, because you know that as long as you don’t go in the place, you will be okay.  It may pose a threat to sensitive souls like Eleanor, but not to the world at large.

To me, that isn’t frightening in the way that Lovecraftian monsters or even creatures like the Wolf Man and such are, because those things are autonomous and can go all around spreading terror.  While haunted houses just sit there, being haunted.

However, with that said, it’s still very effective; the House itself looks very sinister, and the cinematography does a great job conveying unseen threat.  If the “Haunted House” concept isn’t all that frightening upon reflection, it certainly is easy to forget that while watching the movie.

I know they remade the movie in 1999.  I haven’t seen the remake, but I have heard it was much less subtle than the original, and made the supernatural much more explicit.  I won’t judge without seeing it, but seems plausible.  Horror movies have declined a great deal since the ’60s.