While I agree with my illustrious writing collaborator, Christopher Leppek, that the core ingredient to an excellent piece of horror – either film, the written word or any other format – is atmosphere, I submit that what truly scares people is perhaps even deeper.We’re not talking about your typical boo scare (like the hand that suddenly lurches upward from the depths of the grave) but something more subtle, more gnawing on our subconscious.I have fond memories of seeing The Exorcist when it first opened way back in the 1970’s.The theatre was pre-megaplex and actually had an outside lobby for people to congregate prior to the next start time.Instead of appealing posters that announced future attractions, the lobby for this particular picture was festooned with actual newspaper articles from around the world talking about one allegedly ‘true-life’ subject – demonic possession.Much like traveling freak shows advertised their attractions in garish posters to whet the appetites and curiosities of the general public, this particular lobby had the same effect on me.No longer was I just waiting to see another movie, I was engrossed in reading each and every article until I became truly frightened.Could the movie I was about to see be based on fact?Was there really such a thing as demonic possession?Could I and my friends be possessed?Would my trusted Star of David necklace protect me?
The infamous demon — truth or subliminal trickery? — from “The Exorcist”
Not only did I enjoy the movie immensely and its shocking in-your-face scenes, but what truly scared me was the sub-plot of Father Karras visiting his invalid mother in her dank and lonely apartment.I felt his guilt and sadnessall the way down to my tenth row seat, where my wobbly knees embraced a tub of popcorn. Later when the possessed Regan speaks to Karras in his mother’s voice (“Dimmy, why did you do this to me?Dimmy why did you do this to me?”) my skin was literally crawling.Another example of subtle brilliance can be witnessed in The Mothman Prophecies – a gem of a dark classic with convincing acting by Richard Gere.There’s a terrific scene where Gere’s character (John Klein, a prominent newspaper reporter) is alone in his seedy motel room far away from home.Suddenly the phone rings in the middle of the night and he finds himself conversing with some kind of electronically created voice, obviously not human.Klein’s skepticism is quickly dispatched.Indrid Cold:Hello, John Klein.
John Klein: Who is this?
Indrid Cold:My name is Indrid Cold.
John Klein:Unless, of course, you’re Gordon Smallwood…
Indrid Cole:Your father was born in
Racine,Wisconsin. He lived in a green house on
Monroe Street. You don’t remember how your mother looked.
John Klein:What did I just hide in my shoe?
John Klein:Okay, you got my attention.
Richard Gere in “The Mothman Prophecies” on the phone — to what?
Can you imagine speaking to a total stranger (and a non-human one at that) who knows your deepest, darkest secrets?That’s what I call scary.
Dark atmosphere plus perfectly timed subtlety will always be the ingredients of a delightfully hideous brew.What are some of your favorite subtle moments in your most watched and read horror?Demented minds, like ours, want to know.Until next time. . .