My sister adores horror movies. So does one of my sons. And I have no idea why. I share a decent number of genes with each of them, but apparently not the one that gives you a wonderful feeling when you are scared witless. That kind of tension I can live without.
On the other hand, a good story needs tension to keep the pages turning. The conflict has to register on the worry meter. The reader needs to experience a feeling that something really bad is going to happen unless...
And here I have a sudden epiphany. Maybe the key is in that hedge word unless.
To me, horror means waiting for the inevitable to strike, knowing that it is inevitable. It's a breathless countdown to the terrible thing--the slasher, the ravenous monster, the quicksand. The thing you won't escape.
In my formative years, there was this black and white commercial for Keds, or maybe PF Flyers. It featured a little girl out walking with her pet chimp (huh?) who stumbles into quicksand. Her brother goes running for help in the amazing sneakers they want you to buy. He leaps over a rock. Freeze frame. As far as I remember, that's where the commercial ended. We never saw whether Susie sank to her death or was saved, leaving me to imagine the worst--over and over again, every Saturday morning during cartoons. I mean, they were miles from adult supervision! If someone can find this commercial on Youtube and reassure me that the little girl lived, I'd be grateful. I've had no such luck. In fact, the first person to find me this commercial will win a free copy of my self-published novel Out of Xibalba.
Soon after the sneaker debacle, I was scared silly by Hitchcock's "The Birds"--they were mindless, relentless, inescapable. And they killed Annie, for which I could never forgive them. I can still picture her, like it was yesterday, pecked and dead. Shudder. The other movie that made a huge impression more than 30 years ago was "The Shining." Jack was going nuts (like a typical author) and nothing in this world or the next could stop it. The movie re-ran on TV the other night and I had to leave the room. Just the memory of the redrum mirror moment was overwhelming. Adrenalin rush, of the bad kind.
Curiously, I do love thrillers, which may have just as much tension and bloodshed as horror. So what's the difference? I figure it's all in the hope and possibility of unless. There's a heroic way out in the thriller, a way to avoid annihilation. There is that loophole unless, and it's the protagonist's job to find it and win. I'll be cheering when he or she does.
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Liz Coley writes young adult novels and science fiction/fantasy short stories for anthologies and magazines.
Her novel Pretty Girl-13 from HarperCollins Katherine Tegen Books will be debuting in 2013. There are secrets you can't even tell yourself.