Have you ever noticed that the characters in horror movies don’t seem to have ever seen a horror movie? So the two young couples arrive at the supposedly haunted house, and as soon as they’re inside the front door, the pushy one says, “Let’s split up!” The Nastiness is thus enabled to pick them off one by one. Except for the introverted one who didn’t want to be in on the expedition in the first place. He or she escapes from the evil clutches, runs out to a car, jumps inside, and drives away. Does she look in the back seat? No. Does she look on the roof? No.
At first, intelligence is all on the side of the evil ones in horror movies. Then, after unthinking innocence comes to what the Brits call a sticky end—again and again—the remaining good person finds it has a forebrain. Then it’s only a matter of time—and more ghastly attrition among the now smart good person’s friends—before evil is routed.
Stephen King, who is as clear and fascinating in nonfiction prose as he is intense and scary in his fiction, wrote about the mechanics of horror in a 1981 book titled Danse Macabre. King begins his survey of the horror genre from 1950-1980 by describing the night of October 4, 1957, when his watching of Earth vs. the Flying Saucers was interrupted with the news of Sputnik. He introduces the fear of the Russians and nuclear holocaust in order to answer the question why we read/watch what frightens us: “The answer seems to be that we make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.”
King says the horror story works on a surface or literal level of terror, a deeper level of horror where what we are really afraid of is touched, and a visceral level of revulsion. In talking about monsters: “when we discuss monstrosity, we are expressing our faith and belief in the norm and watching for the mutant. The writer of horror fiction is neither more nor less than an agent of the status quo.” He does not shy away from the idea that there is often an element of racism in genre fiction.
King discusses Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dracula, and Frankenstein, as a means of grounding horror fiction and presenting the monsters that, like Tarot card figures, are beneath most horror fiction: the Vampire, the Werewolf, the Thing Without a Name, and the Ghost.
King gives us some autobiography—dowsing for water with Uncle Clayt, a father who left when he was two but who had a cache of horror paperbacks young King found, his first viewing of Creature from the Black Lagoon. He looks at radio in the fifties and points out the imaginative advantage it has—the movie has to show the scary thing sooner or later. In discussing Val Lewton’s The Cat People (1942), he points out that the movies have to rely on state-of-the-art visualization, which dates them and makes them less scary because less believable.
Movies often reveal what’s troubling society at the time. Death and decay, he says, are particularly scary “in a society where such a great store is placed in the fragile commodities of youth, health, and beauty.” The Exorcist was so popular, he suggests, because we were in a phase of teenagers asserting their tastes, scares about juvenile delinquency, young people asserting political power, and so on. “The children of World War II produced The Thing” and the love generation produced Close Encounters of the Third Kind. “The Stepford Wives [the first one] has some witty things to say about Women’s Liberation, and some disquieting things to say about the American male’s response to it.”
At times King is very self-aware: discussing the occasional prolixity of Bradbury, King writes, “’When you open your mouth, Stevie,’ my grandfather once said to me in despair, ‘your guts fall out.’” At other times, he is less so: he unloads on “academic bullshit” and then proceeds himself to unload what looks a lot like the same commodity. For example, King often has recourse to the Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy: the Apollonian is the realm of the rational, the everyday, and the normal; the Dionysian of the emotional, the mutant, and the out-of-this-world or uncontrollable alter-ego.
Danse Macabre is an ambitious book that tries at once to survey horror films during the period King was growing up, to look back at literary classics of horror, and to talk about the mechanics of making a scene scary. King is not completely successful at these varied goals, but he always speaks from the authoritative viewpoint of one who has been both the scarer and the scaree.