Halloween provides a good segue into the important secondary meaning of the literary term “point of view.” Traditionally, point of view comes in three flavors: first, second, and third person, and refers to the perspective from which a story or novel is told. There is, however, another facet of the term—that of the author’s fundamental point of view as s/he originally wrote the story. This point of view is reflected by the characters that populate the tale.
It has only been in the last few centuries that we scare ourselves “for fun and profit,” according to Danny Lewis in Smithsonian.com. Says Lewis, “When you get scared, your body is flooded with chemicals like dopamine, adrenaline and endorphins, all of which can help you survive a life-threatening situation. Luckily, the brain can quickly sense whether the environment poses a real threat, which lets you enjoy a heightened experience without actually fearing for your life.”
Of course, the goal of the modern moviemaker is to make the hairs stand up on your neck and chills run up and down your spine. It’s the visual attributes of movies than can enhance those effects. But, before movies, the fright and the visceral responses generated depended exclusively on words printed on paper. Your reader’s imagination had to create the sights and sounds and give them sufficient reality to be replicated in the mind’s eye.
I’m sure in the modern boardroom, horror moviemakers chuckle their way through scenes as they plan a fright-night movie script. Likely the long-ago horror writers did not. I cannot picture Edgar Allen Poe sitting down in a droll mood and chuckling away as he penned “The Raven.” (I can’t picture Poe chuckling, ever, for that matter.) But, to write darkly, thought it may not require a dark personality, the writer must be able to conjure a scary place and go into it to capture its flavor and bleakness and horrors to share with and ensnare readers. It’s like the distinction between a newspaper article that tells you what happened—as frightening as the events transcribed might be—and the teller of a tale that pulls you in to live the scene and literally feel its impact on your five senses.
The point of view of a scary story relies chiefly on what I call the “attitude” of the tale itself. This attitude is dependent on the intimate relationship between its characters and their ability to pull the reader into the story. The key elements that make this possible are details and description. Details are the products of observations (real or imagined); the latter, the descriptions, relate to how well the observations are subsequently described. Think about Jack the Ripper—the never-caught slasher of Nineteenth Century London. Typically told in third person, consider the impact the story might have if told from the point of view of the Ripper—his (or her!) thoughts, the planning and preparation, victim selection, and ultimate stalking and execution of the selected victim. What about the perspective of the victim, who starts her trek home innocently at dusk, then realizes she is being followed as darkness settles over her. Shift the point of view between the pursued and the pursuer. Both endure a building of excitement—but one is based on horror, the other on the growing anticipation of the kill.
It’s the innocent activities of the innocent victim on the way to his or her impending date with death that enhances—spices—the growing tension of the story as the inevitability steadily mounts, but only if the details of description effectively reach out and grab, not merely touch, the reader’s senses. The reader, alone in her own dark corner, finds herself screaming a warning just as the Ripper’s blade captures the blurred reflection of the street lamp and slices through clothing and skin as the cry of agony rises with a splattering of blood.
But there’s an important boundary the writer, especially the teller of a scary tale, must discover and honor. It’s the boundary between description that paints a picture for a passive reader and imagery that pricks and feeds the reader’s now amped-up and over-active imagination. The latter changes the status of the reader from passive observer to emotionally active participaant.
We’ve all read stories that have truly frightened us, but think about it. It was the writer’s words of description that prompted our imagination to generate horrible images and the resulting emotional response, even if limited to simple gasp.
My next-door neighbor Tom Risa and I loved to watch “Fright Night” movies in our small town, single-screen theater and then walk home in the darkness through dimly-lit neighborhoods, and along the railroad tracks and finally across the darkened switchyard web of rails near the abandoned roundhouse with its dark eyes watching as we skirted the ominous shapes created by the dilapidated and textured outbuildings on our walk home. By the time we arrived there we barely had sufficient courage to remain outside to sit in the darkness at the picnic table and relive the scary and/or gory scenes of the movie and how its evil, cold-blooded monster might have magically climbed down from the dark movie screen to follow us through the dark neighborhoods and home and lurk just on the other side of the clotheslines in the black shadows of the garden and fence beyond as it plotted when to make its presence known and stage its bloody attack.
And, you haven’t lived until you’ve sat around a real campfire in the dark woods on a moonless night sharing horror stories as the fire flicks scary shadows up and on the canopy of black leaves as the wind whispers threats through creaking limbs and branches. No one had the courage to risk looking up. I recall, too, how scared we got as we walked home in the dark after viewing the late, Saturday night showing of “Tarantula.”
“What was that?!”
“What was what?!
We loved the fright, perhaps because we knew we would survive. The slimmest of possibilities that something real—or unreal—was actually lurking out there kept our spines a tingle. Those slimmest of possibilities were frequently the underlying themes of the stories we shared. We loved being scared and scaring each other. Proof of success was the chills generated along our spines.
Of course, now we laugh at the memories of those childhood fright nights. But still, sit in the dark outside—ideally in a non-urban setting sans any urban glow—and a little fear from childhood will likely revisit and creep about in the darkness. Maybe . . . just maybe there is something . . . or someone . . . lurking there . . . inside the neighbor’s abandoned chicken coop in the back corner of the lot . . . partially hidden in the shadows . . . the breeze (it was the breeze, wasn’t it?!) causing the nearby old wooden fence to creak just a little bit . . . or was that a groan . . . fences don’t groan . . . do they?
That’s the point of view the writer needs to think about—the point of view generated by mere verbal descriptions on a page in the reader’s mind—the emotional, visceral reactions to a scene painted in words. To achieve that sort of response requires descriptive details that reach in and touch the very heart of the five senses. If you read those writers good at doing that, you will notice that they paint with a very light touch.
Remember, however, the distinction between scare and frighten. The former is a passing experience—something that might startle but quickly allows the reader to return to the safety of reality. The other kind—the frightening kind—pulls you in and that chill that might otherwise run up or down your spine lingers and its cold and slimy touch goes clear into the marrow of your bones. It causes you to pause and peer into the darkness of your own bedroom and see things not there or hear things in the silence. If your writing can do that to your readers, you will have earned your bona fides as a horror writer.
It’s only in the last few hundred years that “scaring ourselves for fun (and profit) has become a sought-after experience,” states Margee Kerr, staff sociologist at a place called ScareHouse in Pittsburgh, PA. It’s Kerr’s job to make the place more frightening but to also study how visitors respond to an array of experiences designed to maximize fright.
She explains that the reason people enjoy being frightened is the feeling of success from having survived the experience. The distinction between enjoying a scare and being truly frightened is “knowing whether or not you’re in real danger.” Obviously, those in the fright business endeavor to make you believe you might be in real dangers and might not survive. All of this has become the realm of psychological research.
Of course, the business of fright has been benefited and enhanced by the modern technologies of sight and sound, and even smell that add realism to the pretend. But it’s one thing to use sight and sound and smell to generate fear and quite another to scare someone with mere words. How to do that? What are the techniques?
There are few rules, but required first is a mastery of word-painting—brushing just enough of a mental picture on a page to prompt that part of the reader’s imagination inclined to run amok to make a break for it and run past frightening connections and observe (i.e., mentally construct) horrifying visages and scenes along the way. The best way to achieve this is through practice and sharing your efforts with trusted friends who will give you an honest assessment of the effectiveness of your efforts. If the feedback you receive includes admissions of being truly frightened by your words, that constitutes your certificate of completion from horror writing school. Like cooking, no matter how good the recipe sounds, you need a taste test.
The ultimate effectiveness of details to scare rests in part on how well the writer sets the scene and populates it with appropriate character(s) that display effective horrific traits, intentions, and actions. The better the details interweave a reader’s five senses, the scarier the words become. Dim lighting enhances the effect. The impact of a scary yarn in the well-lit parlor is exponentially enhanced when the same story is told in a dimly lit room. Add a slight draft.
Consider Loren Eiseley’s “The ‘Something’ in the Well”:
Once long ago as a child I remember removing the cover from an old well. I was alone at the time and I can still anticipate, with a slight crawling of my scalp, the sight I inadvertently saw as I peered over the brink and followed the shaft of sunlight many feet down into the darkness. The sunlight touched, just touched in passing, a rusty pipe which projected across the well space some twenty feet above the water. And there, secretive as that very underground whose mystery had lured me into this adventure, I saw, passing surely and unhurriedly into the darkness, a spidery thing of hair and many legs. I set the rotting cover of boards back into place with a shiver, but that unidentifiable creature of the well has stayed with me to this day.
For the first time I must have realized, I think, the frightening diversity of the living; something that did not love the sun was down there, something that could walk through total darkness upon slender footholds over evil waters, something that had come down there by preference from above.
What Eiseley accomplished with basic and simple words, none separately and fundamentally scary, is a scene as scary as if it had been ourselves moving the cover aside and looking down into the darkness—an experience we’ve all had when opening the door to a dark garage at midnight to park the car or looking for something amid a cluster of musty boxes in an unlit corner of a basement. Add an odor—preferably musty if not hinting of something dead—perhaps a glimpse of something moving—even if a cockroach—or a scratching of something against an ancient brick wall or cardboard box, and the dial on the fright-o-meter jumps.
Turn the well into an abandoned and allegedly haunted silver mine that a group of teenagers, on a dare, decide to explore on a dark All Hallows Eve. There they are, exploring, their bravery bolstered by the light of their torches and group confidence when suddenly a blast of odiferous air blows out their lights . . . Each is instantly alone with his or her fears and the reader joins them there.
What made Edgar Allen Poe so effective in telling tales of fright was the attention he paid to the emotional impact of his words. Beyond that, there too is a slightly haunting rhythm. Poe knew the impact he wanted a story to produce and carefully assembled his words to create the desired effect. Read “The Tell-Tale Heart” or “The Premature Burial” (he wrote a couple dozen scary tales) and you’ll see how carefully he crafted his words to create a mood of fear—the atmosphere of the story. Pick any writer known for his or her skills to scare and study the choice of words, diction, and pacing of the sentences. Try to discover what makes the work scary to you. If you don’t find a writer scary, find one that is. If you don’t find a writer who can scare you, don’t bother with trying to be scary to your own readers. Find another genre. In the process, remember: you can’t copy. You are looking at and analyzing techniques and effects. It takes a little practice to properly employ them.
An acquaintance of my father many years ago lent him an old fashioned telescope—the type you would see the pirates in old movies use to spot a victim ship on the horizon. Sitting on neighbor Tom Risa’s next door back stoop talking about the mysteries of space, we passed the scope back and forth peering through its lenses at the pocked surface of the moon and scanned its wondrous craters. As we passed the scope back and forth we’d share what we saw and suggest to each other where to look to find some interesting detail or crater. As I peered at the gray orb on one of my turns, I saw something that remains as vivid in my memory as when I first observed it on that long-ago dark night—a red orb suddenly appeared from behind the moon on its right side and moved in a perfect arc across its face to disappear behind its left side. A single orbit. Nothing fancy. No sparks. It left no trail. It just appeared—a smallish, red, round, unhurried object circling the moon at its equator.
To this day, I wonder about what I saw—or imagined—and whether there might be something on the dark side of the moon waiting to be discovered. Were I to sit down to write a scary story, that is the way I would tell it—straightforward, no frills, just observations and related details sufficient to prompt the reader’s imagination—in the darkness—to do the rest. Two astronauts hovering above the backside of the moon searching for evidence of something out of the ordinary, or perhaps from the point of view of something down on the surface, watching them.