A few days ago, I made the stupid mistake of watching a zombie movie. In my defense, I didn’t do it because of a misguided expectation that I would really enjoy said movie or because I had any interest in observing images of gory dead people. I watched it out of an intellectual curiosity about what it is in zombie movies that appeals to popular culture. As I mentioned in a blog post that I wrote about a month ago, the fear of zombies is basically an extrapolation of the fear of loss of intelligence. I could imagine the possibility of a very interesting, intellectual, and well-scripted zombie movie that plays off of this fear rather than being a series of disturbing images. Unfortunately, the particular movie that I watched barely acknowledged this aspect of zombies and instead relied upon creepy background music, gory special effects, and the characters’ extreme emotions to make the movie scary. I didn’t find the movie to be thought-provoking in any way, just disturbing on a very superficial level.

One specific way that I can elaborate on this is to point out that there were several instances in which a zombie’s hand would suddenly smash through a window and startle both the main character and me. This seemed to be the director’s strategy for evoking fear in the viewer. The feeling of being startled is, in my opinion, the least cognitive and most superficial kind of fear. An equally effective but much more tasteful way of eliciting the same response from the audience would perhaps be a scene in which the camera slowly pans across a room that at first appears to be empty and silent, but then the viewer sees a humanoid figure, partially concealed or maybe translucent, just standing there silently and creepily. I would consider that to be a pretty scary scene.

Maybe I shouldn’t really be analyzing horror movie techniques in the first place, since I’m not a fan of the genre and actually have only seen a couple movies that could be classified as horror movies, none of which I have particularly enjoyed. On the other hand, I do enjoy reading ghost stories, and I used to write a lot of ghost stories, too. I frequently have nightmares which make very good material for scary short stories. I also discovered several years ago that writing scary stories makes me less likely to have disturbing dreams; it’s as if I use up the ideas before I have a chance to dream them. Anyway, the point is that I have figured out what makes a ghost story scary and memorable, and the key is that it has to be about more than death and disgusting images. It has to rely upon ideas rather than images to evoke fear.

There are certain ideas that people naturally find creepy. One of them is the idea of death, which is what every zombie or ghost story uses, but that’s so straight-forward and so basic that it doesn’t make for a good story in and of itself. Another is things that seem human, but aren’t, particularly if they are messed up in some way. A distorted reflection in a mirror, a doll with a crack across its face, a disembodied voice, a mysterious shadow that looks like a person’s face… Even if some of those things don’t seem scary without a creepy context, if you stick them in a ghost story, they’re very scary. The plot of good ghost stories frequently center around a certain inanimate object such as a mirror or a doll that works towards that effect.

Staircases are another creepy image, although that might be my personal opinion rather than a universal fact. I personally have a kind of phobia of staircases which probably comes from the fact that they often appear in my scary dreams, but I think there’s a specific reason for that. To my overly analytic and metaphoric mind, going up or down a staircase stands for changing something. You are going someplace different from where you already are, you can’t actually see where you’re going before you get there, and if something goes wrong in the transition, you fall down and get hurt. Stairs work well for ghost stories if you think of them as a metaphor for the difference between life and death. In fact, in fiction, the difference between life and death can be metaphorical for the fact that, in real life, things change and are disturbingly unpredictable.  I remember one time when I was trying to make metaphors from a song that involved death, and my family laughed at me and said that death is never a metaphor. I beg to differ rather emphatically; I think that in art and literature, death can be a metaphor for things that are a little less specific. Otherwise, why would anyone ever want to read a ghost story or watch a zombie movie? Horror movies would be better if they made use of these kinds of ideas and metaphors.