Can Books be Scary?

In my opinion, no.  

I’ll see you all next week. 

Oh, you’re all still here? What was that? You want a reason? Hmm, I guess that’s a reasonable request. Fine. Since it’s the start of October and Halloween is at the end of the month, it’s a spooky time for a spooky themed rant.

It’s like I planned it.

I love horror novels. I’ve read about 90 percent of Stephen King (The Cycle of the Werewolf has eluded my capture) and I’ve delved into the pages of Shelley, Jackson, Poe, Lovecraft, and others. There’s really only one time I’ve been scared while reading. And it’s a weird occurrence.

It was a dark and stormy night during my high school years. At that time, my bedroom was in the basement. We didn’t have any interior walls in the basement so I could see the entirety of it from my bed. I was reading Pet Semetary by King. If you’ve never read the book, it’s basically about a family that moves to Maine and discovers that there’s an ancient Native American burial ground in their backyard. After a tragic semi-meets-son accident, the father decides to bury his dead son in the burial ground. The son comes back to life and starts wreaking havoc.

You know, that old chestnut.

Anyway, it was late at night; I’m going to say around one or two in the morning. For some reason I look up at the furnace and there’s Chucky peeking around it. That’s right, Chucky from the Child’s Play films. Obviously, he didn’t stick around and disappeared when I blinked, but that was enough for me to chuck the book at the furnace.

And really, it was more my imagination run amok. Other than that, I’ve never been scared by a book.

And I blame Hollywood for it.

Books lack the one essential thing needed for a scary experience. That one thing is sound. Don’t believe me? Fine, I guess I’m wrong…. BOO!

See? That didn’t scare you, did it? You want to know why? It’s because there’s no sound to it. Plus, you didn’t see me popping up from behind you in the comfort of your properly secured home. Or at least you believe it’s properly secured…bwahahahaha.

I know, I use a lot of King references but this one proves my point perfectly. In the film Carrie (1976), based on Stephen King’s first book, Carrie White is a little lady gifted with telekinetic talents. She goes off the rails caused by a cocktail of catastrophic conditions (alliteration for the win) and ends up murdering a whole bunch of her high school peers during the high school prom. Carrie is killed by her religious nut of a mother. Carrie gets the last laugh and brings down the house in a very literal manner. One of the high school mean girls visits Carrie’s grave in the last scene of the film. She lays a flower on the grave. While she walks up to it, flowery tragic music plays and build up to the scene where her hand hovers over the site. At that moment, Carrie’s bloody arm reaches out of the fresh dirt and grabs the girl’s arm. The flowery music changes drastically to jarring violins, bells and percussion. The girl wakes up shrieking from the dream.

“Take my hand, boss.” oh wait, that’s a different Stephen King movie… sorry.

A classic jump scare. Most likely, one of the firsts in modern day cinema.

A jump scare is a technique intended to scare the audience by surprising them with an abrupt change in image or event and typically coincides with loud, frightening sound.

I may be wrong in saying this, but I’ve never heard of a person jumping in fright from reading a work of fiction. In my view, there are a few reasons.

The first is that the reader sets the pace. As the reader, you get to read at your leisure. Movies are more difficult to control. When you’re sitting in a theatre, there is no remote control. The narrative continues unless you walk out. With a book if it gets too scary you can set it down and calm down.

Secondly, books allow the reader the freedom to imagine. When I read a book, I don’t use the character descriptions the author gives me. Coincidentally, I always see my face whenever I read about someone getting brutally murdered. Maybe I should seek professional help about that… Anyhoo, if something is too creepy, my mind decides to dummy it down and create something less creepy. When you’re watching a movie, that control is taken from you. You’re told what the killer clown looks like, exactly how sharp his monstrous teeth are, and how the blood splatters on the walls and whether or not it stains the carpet.

Lack of control is always scary. Just look at James Patterson. He hasn’t been able to control his writing for years and I can only imagine how scared he feels.

When you add those two reasons in with the practical effects of sound and jump scares, scary books just can’t hold a candle to scary movies.

Having said that, make sure to read next week’s column about how I contradict myself. In that column, I’ll argue that books can be scarier than films.



Categories: Mastering the Craft

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  1. Books: A Different Type of Terror – The Writer's Apocalypse

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