You know what’s really scary? Like terrifying, bone-chilling, never-sleep-again scary? Sure, I could start answering that question broadly with, say, death and loneliness and bodily harm. But I’d rather start small with a few images—the direct, visceral language of the horror movie. So here’s a taste of what scares me, via some of my favorite horror classics…
As Poe described it in “The Raven”: “Darkness there, and nothing more.” Is it a panther, or just an inky blur shifting against the wall? The water in the swimming pool plays such tricks with the light. You could be in mortal danger, with a big cat preparing to tear into your neck, or you could just be seeing things. That’s the visual genius of Nicholas Musuraca (who also shot The Seventh Victim) at work, implementing the flair for ambiguity that defined RKO’s Val Lewton unit. It’s such a blurry, disorienting image, but it conjures up a world of pain and possibility. At times like this, you have to ask yourself: “Are you afraid of the dark?”
Shot from this angle, those islanders gathered around the vast wicker effigy look like a welcoming committee. They’re here to usher Sergeant Howie along to his destiny, an outcome preordained by his actions, his self-righteousness, and his obliviousness. And isn’t that the most disturbing fate of all? To know that you’re not merely being dragged off to die; as a matter of fact, your personal flaws guaranteed this ending. This is horror at its purest: to be hopelessly, helplessly drenched in anticipation of your imminent, ritualized death. And to top it all off, the air fills with pagan song. The Stepford Wives
This image encapsulates so many powerful fears: the loss of individuality, personhood, free will; the domination (and destruction) of women by a conspiratorial council of all-knowing men; the disappearance of anyone to trust. It’s all in Bobbie’s face as she rattles off idiotic phrases like “How could you do a thing like that!” This once-vivacious woman has been reduced to a babbling automaton, realized with grotesque plausibility by Paula Prentiss. It’s a tragedy and a nightmare.
One last fear-inducing image, this one from Japan, as a monster/woman braves the elements. A lightning flash illuminates her face, now usurped by a demonic mask. It’s the stark conclusion to a religious allegory that’s been transformed into a sweaty, carnal horror story. This is nature at its most basic: total, unrelenting chaos engulfing a vicious, unhappy world. In a perversely moral turnabout, this selfish woman gets what’s coming to her—and we, the viewers, are left with nothing but an empty, scared feeling by this masterpiece of the Japanese New Wave. Happy Halloween, everyone!