As a society, we share collective fears – age, disease, random accidents, natural disasters, pain and suffering. And of course, there are the cultural traditions we are brought up into – vampires, werewolves, witches, ghosts. But there’s a third type of horror that has never appealed to me – common object horror. That is, the horror the concerns the material world around us, and not just haunted houses, but haunted cars, evil elevators, crazed animals, possessed bed sheets. What is so scary about the everyday things and places we come into contact with that gives writers such a boost?
Well let’s talk about it in this week’s Manic Movie Magic! (yes, it’s the theme article, don’t judge me!)
What makes something scary is a difficult question as it varies from person to person. An umbrella definition would be that horror is a reflection of the human psyche. That is to say, good horror films or stories or games are based on a more base, rational fear than aliens or ghosts. John Carpenter’s The Thing worked so well because of the the AIDS crisis. Here is a movie where a mysterious alien invades bodies totally unseen, turns them into horrific monsters and kills them, before spreading to other victims, and the only way to know if you’re infect is to check with a blood test. Cracked.com’s After Hours series has effectively argued that the locales of our horror stories come from our history. The many forests, fields, and plains where many American horror stories take place are also the locations for the many massacres of natives peoples, and enslaving and murdering of others. British horror films take places in cities, where the horrors of the Industrial Revolution took place. All horror, no matter how bizarre and out there, is linked to each individual somehow.
And yet, it looks as though Common Place Horror (let’s just call it CPH) breaks that chain. What is so scary about a dog, man’s best friend? Or a car, a cold piece of machinery? Lamps, hotels, stairs, houses, phones, tires, cornfields, what makes any of these things scary? The truth is…not much. What there is, however, is potential. And that’s the forte of noted horror author Stephen King.
Having written over 73 works, including collections of his short stories, King is probably the most prolific horror writer of our generation. He has literally turned the state of Maine into the most deadly, haunted state of the union, and has had his works adapted into nearly 85 separate films, TV shows, and mini-series. And what does he happen to do best? Turn the not-scary things in our lives into living nightmares. He obviously covers haunted houses, and hotels, because they are big, alienating spaces, where any number of horrors can hide in waiting. But come on, super rabies making a dog a crazy monster, capable of murdering people? And no one thinking to shoot the damn thing? That’s not scary, that’s just frustrating.
Often CPH focuses on what we feel safest around, things that we know can’t just spring up and hurt us for real. For example, cornfields and children. Cornfields are only deadly to your sense of excitement and fun. And as a (mostly) full grown adult, small-to-medium size children pose no threat to me. So logically, when you put them together, they should remain equally un-scary. And yet, Children of the Corn freaks me right the fuck out. Christine is about a Plymouth Fury that comes to life, and takes quite a shine to her owner. Cars are only scary when assholes are driving them, not so much by themselves. But a car that can drive itself, and feel jealousy and rage to the point where it outright murders? Yes, that is damn scary.
Don’t think this is a Stephen King thing either. The SCP Foundation proves that, yes world, there is some crazy shit out there, and it looks like vending machines, and an endless stairwell, hairball cats, simple paintings, and it will kill you if you let it. I’m not even kidding about the stairwell part. If you’ve never heard of this site, I encourage you to explore. All their entries into the database are fascinating, if not deeply disturbing on a subconscious level.
Ultimately what this type of horror boils down to is potential. No, it’s highly unlikely your dog is going to contract super rabies and go on a murderous spree. Your car is not going to turn amorous and murder all your love interests and bullies. Your cat Mr. Snuggles buried in the backyard is not going to come back and eat your face. Children will not drag you into the cornfield that kills people with sheer evil will power. But wouldn’t it be really terrifying if that did happen? What if the people, animals, and objects we co-exist with, who we trust on a daily basis not to maul us in horrible, horrible ways, suddenly turned on us?
The worst part, the scariest part of all in the unlikely case that your toaster become sentient and seeks a vendetta on you is who would believe you. Even in these tales, these occurrences are rare, so even if you tried to warn people, you’d come off as crazy. You’d be completely helpless, at the mercy of your blender, that keeps mixing blood into all your smoothies and purees, and whispering threats to your cat. And that, my dear readers, is why CPH has lasted so long in our popular culture – because what we fear most is broken trust and utter helplessness. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some kitchenware to dissemble and wash in holy water.