The Unknown – Footnotes to the Craft of Horror in Fiction (1 of 3)

in #fiction6 years ago (edited)


A violent shiver zapped Timmy away from sleep. The sudden coldness that flooded his room forced him to put a jacket over his meager Power Ranger pajamas. It was 2:26AM, mere minutes away from the inevitable arrival of his recent but relentless visitor. The clock kept ticking as Timmy sat motionless on the edge of his bed. He knew exactly what was about to happen, but that didn’t keep the tears from running wildly down his cheeks. 2:27AM. His hands painfully clenching his bed sheets. 2:28AM. His eyes forcefully closed as desperation crept into his tiny body. 2:29AM. The last few seconds of silence. 2:30AM. A single, almost inaudible knock on his door (...)

Footnote #1: The Unknown

It is only natural to equate horror with monsters, with bloodthirsty beasts and axe-wielding psychopaths. We may also find horror in our everyday quarrels, in that exorbitant mortgage or that term paper due tomorrow that you haven’t even begun to prepare. Our fear is free and diverse, and we humans have the uncanny talent of finding fright even in the most mundane of objects and situations. And yet, we are brave. We are brave in the sense that we usually stand up to these horrors and overcome them with sheer ingenuity and willpower. The monster can be slain, the beast can be hunt down, and the psychopath can be imprisoned. Your mortgage, while inconvenient, will succumb to the awe-inspiring power of financial responsibility, and that term paper is no match for a couple of hours of good old fashioned stress-writing. But, besides their horrific nature, what do monsters and mortgages have in common?


Well, the answer is quite simple: we know what they are. And in so far as we know what they are, we may also find a way to overcome them. Don’t get me wrong, we may fail, but at least we can try. Agency (to be understood as the ability to do something) is the most powerful weapon we can wield against fear.

Through and because of agency, we may channel our fear into more manageable feelings such as contempt or anger and, in the immortal words of Neil Gaiman:

Angry gets shit done.

By being able to act upon the object of our fear, fear itself gets diluted. It doesn’t disappear completely, but it most certainly gets watered down. There´s a path to follow, a solution to the problem. Ultimately, there’s hope.

This is especially true in fiction, because since we are not the ones being ravaged by fear, we can easily, and with complete detachment, rationalize the objects of fear within the story. For instance, while watching a horror movie about some dumb teenagers dwelling into a dark forest while there’s a murderer on the run, it is almost impossible for us not have a constant internal monolog about what we would’ve done differently. “I’d do this,” “I’d do that,” “I’d have never gone into that sketchy cabin,” and so on and so forth. However, the only reason we are able to carry out this process of rationalization is that we know exactly what we are up against.

With that in mind, I’d like you to consider the following image:


You may say that it’s only an empty black rectangle that couldn’t even scare a baby, and you’d probably be right. However, what if I could make you believe that what you are seeing is not emptiness, but darkness. What if I could make you believe that within that darkness dwells a horror so unspeakable that I couldn’t even begin to describe. What if the object of this horror would remain permanently unknown.

By making it impossible to relate fear to a concrete object, the possibility of agency is denied as well. There’s no path to follow, no solution to the problem. There is no hope. We can’t rationalize that which isn’t rational, and The Unknown is, by its very nature, irrational.

However, we humans really dislike irrational things. We dislike them so much that we’ve tried to rationalize everything, and we’ve been doing so throughout the entire history of our species. We made stories to explain why the sun came up every morning and why it rained and why it didn’t, we made stories about why we came into this world, and we keep making stories about what happens when we leave. The mere possibility of The Unknown is so viscerally intimidating to humans that we’d do anything to avoid it. Nonetheless, when faced directly with The Unknown, all hell breaks loose.

Imagine living alone in a small apartment. You go to your room, close the door, and get cozy in your bed. After a couple of minutes, and just before falling asleep, you start hearing constant knocking on the door. Your bedroom’s door.


During the seconds that follow, something very interesting will take place in your head. You have no idea of what is knocking on the door, but your very human nature will try to figure it out. And it will try hard. First, you’ll think it’s the neighbor’s cat who snuck into your house through an open window. Perhaps it’s a raccoon or even a pigeon. Then, you’ll be driven to less quaint scenarios. Perhaps it’s a thief or a murderer. Perhaps it’s that axe-wielding psycho you heard about in the news. Now, you’ll inevitably dwell into the fantastic. A ghost, hopefully a friendly one. But then a demon comes to mind, then faceless man, then a winged abomination. Perhaps it’s God, and it came to smite you for your sins.

This random list of potential outcomes arranged in chronological order is merely a way of attemping to illustrate what actually happens. In reality, you’ll consider all these possibilities and a thousand more within an instant. You won’t be able to make out any of them individually, so it all amounts to a single bedlam of indistinguishable horrors that ravages your body and crushes your soul. It may only last for a second, but during that second you are pretty much dead. Shortly after, your mind settles into a more comfortable scenario. Perhaps it is the axe-wielding psycho, and you’ve made your peace with that. But deep down, chaos still runs through your blood, a feeling of absolute helplessness that will not be quelled until you open the door or escape. That is the power of The Unknown. That is the dread we have been running from since time immemorial. This is what horror in fiction should strive to replicate.

Is The Unknown the only valid way of portraying horror? Of course not.

Is it even possible? I’d like to believe it is.

Should we at least try? Absolutely.

Footnote #2: The Maddening
Footnote #3: The Cosmic


I really hope you enjoyed this piece. Please follow me if you did! @jean.racines

Image sources (in order of appearance): Image 1, Image 2, Image 3, Image 4.

Further reading:

  • Ahmad, A. (2010). Bordering On Fear: A Comparative Literary Study of Horror Fiction. Ottawa: Carleton University Press.
  • Campbell, J. (1949). The hero with a thousand faces. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Lovecraft, H. P. (1973). Supernatural horror in literature. New York: Dover Publications.
  • Mathiesen, T. (2004). Silently silenced: essays on the creation of acquiescence in modern society. Winchester: Waterside Press.

Of course, you send this right before I'm going to bed. This'll make for an interesting night ;)

Thanks, beordo! I've come to believe that everything worth doing demands at least one sleepless night! Hope you enjoy it = )

This made for very interesting reading. A well crafted horror story is an area of immense interest to me. And pondering on what made it truly effective as a horror story is at the heart of the interest. I have often wondered on this, from a literary point of view, but also from a psychological perspective also. And yes, the Unknown plays such a vital role there. Why can't we just be with what is and feel comfortable with our unknowingness? What is there that we are afraid to look at? And from there we have the seed of the horror, as the author uses words to play on what already exists within our psyche.

Thanks, @naquoya! I'm glad you enjoyed it. Horror in fiction is a fascinating topic. Understanding the inner workings of fear and thinking about how it can be harnessed through writing has always been one of my favorite subject matters! I don't consider myself an expert, but I'll share what little I know through this 3-part series about what makes horror scary. I'll post the following entry very soon!

All best,

I have often wondered exactly lay at the very core of horror. I've thought about how most traditional horror movies don't keep me up at night but Unsolved Mysteries scared the shit out of me. Horror movies are often based on familiar tropes, sometimes removing the element of the unknown even for the most otherworldly creatures. Unsolved Mysteries, however, introduced you to killers with unknown motives and people missing for no clear reason, and we're told it is all real, just before the show ends and leaves us with a gigantic black square. Of course I'd kill the director who made a movie that way, but they are stuck with the expectation of clever resolution. Perhaps that is why found footage type films can get away with more ambiguity and, judging by box office receipts, endless fear.

That's a very precise assessment, candifolly! Most horror movies rely on familiar tropes (like zombies or ghosts) and even more familiar and cheap techniques (like jump scares). Some of these movies may be quite entertaining, but your are ultimately seeing something closer to action/adventure with horror elements than actual horror. Besides, when the “monster” is defeated (as it often happens in movies), the odds of the audience actually being afraid when the movie is over are quite slim. As you noted, it is precisely when no clear resolution has been reached that fear may flourish. The ambiguous, the unclear and the unknown will always be more frightening than gore and violence. = )

True. I've never found gore frightening (whether we're talking about guts or the former US vice president). Hitchcock is often more frightening and there is little blood. I'm not just talking about Psycho, which for all it's strenghts suffers from the prolonged exposition at the end.... Where the monster is explained. I find Rope far more frightening. Thr killer did it because he fucking wanted to, and can we know what he might do to the others while arranging his vignette around the victim's grave? There are plays within plays, but then there is the play within Rope that was written by a monster. Now we are living inside the black square.

Nicely put! Interestingly, the least we know about the “monster”, the more it can make us feel dread (even if such monster is just a human). Normally, fiction tries to portray characters as thoroughly as possible. However, horror follows a different set of rules. When we don’t know what to think of the object of horror (be it a cosmic beast or a creepy child), we start to fill out the blanks. And we fill them with what we find most terrifying. In other words, when we don’t know what a character in fictional horror will do (in the sense that we cannot decipher or understand his motives), we just assume it will do the worst thing we (at an intimate and subjective level) can imagine!

Thanks, jeff! Glad you enjoyed it = )

Coin Marketplace

STEEM 0.17
TRX 0.09
JST 0.022
BTC 26243.89
ETH 1596.32
USDT 1.00
SBD 2.16