We all love a good horror story whether its a movie, a book or even a game. There’s something very primal about congregating around the storyteller, and feeling the hair on the back of your neck prickle as if something scary and supernatural has brushed past you in the dark. Being scared is an interesting phenomenon, on the one hand, it pumps you full of adrenaline and makes you feel alive, but too much of a good thing and it can turn you off for good.
The reason why the supernatural works so well for a scary story is due to it being something other than what we know to be true. It is fear of the unknown, and some of the best kinds of supernatural tales leave you wondering if what you’ve encountered is even real, or if it is just in your head. This ambiguity creates a level of realism in the audience, because if we can’t tell whether the ghosts and demons that scare us are external or inside our head, then is there really any difference between the two?
And that’s the crux of all horror and supernatural literature. The Ghosts, the Monsters, the Demons – they’re all the internal parts of ourselves reflected back in all their bloodthirsty, shameful glory.
Stephen King, the master of horror writes in regards to terror in fiction:
“The three types of terror: The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs. It’s when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm. The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around. It’s when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worst one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own has been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It’s when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there…” (King, n.d.)
Although all three of these aspects are important in telling a good ghost-story, in this blog, we will be primarily focusing on the last one – terror – the magnus opus of all horror.
Terror is by definition ambiguous. It’s irrational and unfair; it is not a respecter of persons. It comes for us all. This article will focus on Ambiguity in horror and why it is important for telling this kind of story. We will look at examples of supernatural stories that both succeed and fail at using ambiguous terror, and explain why or suggest how they could have in my opinion as a writer, done better.
A Head Full of Ghosts By Paul Tremblay
By far, one of the most horrifying novels I’ve read in a very long time is Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts. The novel, split into three parts (The past, the present and an internet blog much like my own), tells the story of a young family, who after every attempt fails to diagnose their daughter’s mental illness, turn to a Priest for an exorcism. The plot thickens however, when the Priest convinces the parents to allow a reality TV show to be filmed around their situation, and their family nightmare becomes broadcasted to the world in a Big Brother styled fashion.
Paul Tremblay is no stranger to the craft of ambiguity in horror. Regarding the craft, he writes:
“I equate scaring the reader with making them feel unsure, or unsafe. Fill a realistic, recognizable slice-of-life scene with characters that the reader empathizes (not sympathizes; there's a difference) with, and then have something happen that's off. The gradations of off, of course, are up to you; anything from a light knocking with no source, to a tomato-red wasp flitting in, to a giant atomic beastie that drools snarling three-headed dogs. Well, maybe not the last bit, but it's that dichotomy between the real and the off that makes for wonderful moments of anything-can-happen dread.” (Tremblay, 2015)
In his novel, this takes the form of the question as to whether the older daughter is actually possessed, or simply suffering an extreme form of schizophrenia, and playing it up for the financial benefits her family receives from being filmed. The Novel leaves us in this place of uncertainty, and it is terrifying because of that very fact. The uncertainty also allows for literary conversation on the nature of voyeurism, reality TV and mental illness.
When I first finished A Head Full of Ghosts, the feeling unease left me shaken. This is perhaps one of the best examples of Ambiguity in horror I have encountered, and I believe more stories need to follow its example. Paul Tremblay’s work masterfully leaves us with the question of whether the ghosts are real, or as the title suggests, simply inside our own heads.
It Follows Written By David Robert Mitchell
Last year was a great year for the indie horror film. One of the initial critical successes was the aptly titled It Follows. A film that tells the story of a sexually transmitted curse, that causes a young girl to be stalked by a creature, which can take the form of anyone it pleases and won’t stop unless the curse is passed on.
Many have assumed that the film is a kind of parable on the nature of promiscuity and sexually transmitted diseases, and while a surface reading of the text definitely portrays this, I feel that on a deeper level, the film is in regards to stranger danger and the uncertainty that at any time, anywhere and by anyone your life could be potentially ended.
I went and saw this movie in a small independent cinema in downtown Auckland with a friend and fellow screenwriter, and afterwards, as we walked through the city at night, the fears the film dealt with became very real to us as we passed by strangers wandering the streets.
The Ambiguity in the films conclusion:
The two protagonists walking hand in hand down the street dressed all in white purposefully ignoring the potential “It” following them in the pedestrians behind them, to me fortifies my interpretation of the text. It is as if they have accepted their fate and decided to live their lives to the fullest while they still can.
The first half of this film also deals heavily in ambiguity of the supernatural entity itself. No one but the central protagonist can see the creature, and once again the question becomes – is this terror a real physical one, or is it a mind-terror, implanted in her head through the sexual trauma imposed upon her by the previous owner of the curse.
A third interpretation of the film on this note could perhaps be in regards to the trauma of sexual violence as although our protagonist was in consent to the actual intercourse, she was not in consent to the chloroforming, kidnapping and imprisonment that shortly follows. The film on this note could be a commentary on how abused people often abuse others. Ambiguity allows for all these interpretations.
Moving on into the second half of the film, once the monster has been revealed as observable by other characters in an absolutely horrifying beach scene in the middle of the day, the ambiguity crosses over into the previously mentioned conclusion and the overall message of the movie.
Brotherhood of the Wolf By Christophe Gans And Stéphane Cabel
Brotherhood of the Wolf is a French film that has over the years received acclaim from both movie goers and critics alike. It tells the story of two men - Grégoire de Fronsac, a Knight and royal naturalist alongside his friend Mani, a Native American, after they arrive in rural Gévaudan to hunt down and capture a beast that has been terrifying the locals for some time.
Although not explicitly a horror story, The Brotherhood of The Wolf is a fantastic film that for the most half sits in the supernatural genre. The beast is strongly inferred throughout to be some kind of Werewolf that slaughters women and children ruthlessly.
In regards to ambiguity, as much as I loved this film, for me it failed in the ending. After essentially two hours of building suspense as the characters hunt down this mysterious monster and deal with all sorts of crazed cult worship, the beast is finally revealed as a Lion, imported from Africa and plated in armor to serve the cultists nefarious purposes.
This film for me is an example of one that fails in not using enough ambiguity. The Story functioned best when we were unsure of what the beast exactly was, but upon the big reveal, the tension is lifted from the story and the capture and torment of the Lion simply becomes tragic.
My disappointment in this reveal as a horror enthusiast is echoed in Stephen King’s important work Danse Macabre where he explains what can often occur as soon as the storyteller jumps away from ambiguity and reveals their monster:
“The audience holds its breath along with the protagonist as she/he (more often she) approaches that door. The protagonist throws it open, and there is a ten-foot-tall bug. The audience screams, but this particular scream has an oddly relieved sound to it. ‘A bug ten feet tall is pretty horrible,’ the audience thinks, ‘but I can deal with a ten-foot-tall bug. I was afraid it might be a HUNDRED feet tall.’” (King, 1981)
The Purpose Of Ambiguity
And therein lies the rub, the true importance of Ambiguity is all about leading the audience up to that door, building suspense and tension with every step closer that they take, and once they arrive at that old creaking thing, the writer’s job is to cause a gust of wind to blow it open. In that instance, as the audience stares out into the gloom they think they see something big and hulking, full of tendrils and fangs moving in the shadows. The trees rustle and all of a sudden that thing is gone. Hearts are beating fast in throats, cold sweat is running down trembling backs, and compelled by their own god-forsaken curiosity the audience will follow that shadowy creature outside and towards another door in the distance, behind which something even more hideous may hide.
King, S. (n.d.) Multiple sources.
King, S. (1981). Danse macabre. New York, NY: Everest House.
Tremblay, P. (2015, September 24). How to scare your reader: 11 tips from 11 horror writers. Retrieved from https://litreactor.com/columns/how-to-scare-your-reader-11-tips-from-11-horror-writers