TERRIFYING TALES FROM THE HAUNTED CRYPT… OF FEAR!
or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Horror
Sorry, did I scare you? Well, it is sorta my job!
But here’s a real brain-buster: why, when you’re reading a really scary story, do you feel ‘the fear’? You know what I mean: the author has set the scene – something unearthly, unnatural, unholy has stirred in the pages of the book clasped in your quaking hand. The characters you have come to care about are in mortal danger. Death stalks them in the form of a vampire, a zombie, a demon or a ghoul risen from the grave. Now this creature is slipping stealthily out of the book. It crawls through your eyes and into your head, like a burglar breaking through a window and taking possession of an empty house. This stranger has complete control of your senses. You have been drawn into a world of horror and your body begins to respond to…
This physical response usually begins with what I call ‘Terror Worms’ wriggling in your stomach. Next, an icy chill snakes its way along your spine and makes the fine hairs at the nape of your neck bristle to attention. Your lips feel parched, your mouth dries up, your throat tightens with terror. You try to comfort yourself with a nervous laugh, holding humour out before you like a crucifix in the face of a vampire. But the laugh is feeble – no match for the imaginary monster that continues to haunt your dreams long after you have put down the book and turned off the nightlight…
Hmm. All this makes reading horror sound like a pretty unpleasant experience, doesn’t it? And for some people, it is just that. They just don’t get why anyone would want to put themselves through such an ordeal! But here’s the thing: being scared on your own terms is one of the purest, most primal, most pleasurable emotional experiences you can have. Some people love to laugh; others feel a huge emotional relief from a good cry: we horror hounds just enjoy being scared! There are any number of theories as to why this is the case. Some people put it down to the fact that the fear response is a basic part of our DNA – a powerful survival emotion programmed into our very souls. Without fear, our species would not have lasted very long. Our distant ancestors would have just toddled over to the nearest sabre-toothed tiger, pinched its fearsome cheeks, and cooed, ‘Who’s a cute li’l kitty cat, then? You are, that’s who! Yes, you are! Yes, you are! Yes, you aaaarrrrggghhhh!!!’ Fear taught us to head for the hills when faced with such danger and gave us the adrenalin to fight when we were cornered. Fear made us feel our mortality, our vulnerability, the fact that we were just one swipe of a sabre-toothed tiger’s paw away from death. In short, it made us feel alive.
I believe that experiencing such fear in a safe environment – reading a spooky book or watching a scary film – reignites those ancient survival instincts. Sure, a shudder of terror makes us feel uncomfortable, but it also reminds us that we exist, right here and now, in all our magnificent, vulnerable glory.
But to go back to the original question: why, when we know the monster in the book isn’t real, do we feel fear? I can only answer that question by delving into my own experiences. Let me take you back fifteen years: I’m six years old and it’s my birthday. I’m sitting at the kitchen table, tucking into a special birthday breakfast (spam and beans – yeah, I know, I was a weird kid!). The kitchen door is kicked open and my dad staggers into the room, his arms cradled around a huge cardboard box. Box lands on the table with a thump and my imagination runs wild. There really is nothing more exciting to a kid of six than an unopened box. Infinite possibilities encased in cardboard! My dad flips back the lid and takes out…
A tatty, torn, tired old comic book. My young heart sinks. As a big Transformers fan, I’d been hoping for Optimus Prime (the toy, you understand, not the real Optimus Prime – the box isn’t that big!)…
(Ok, so this story may seem a little familiar to those of you who have read Witchfinder: Dawn of the Demontide. Yup, Jake Harker is me! Except, he’s braver and can do magic!).
My dad hands me the first comic – it has a picture of a terrified man being dragged into a swamp by a hideous zombie. The title blazes, and my eyes go round with wonder:
From that very day, I was hooked on horror! (I should add that my mum was absolutely mortified by this gift. Horror comics for a SIX YEAR OLD???!!! What was my dad thinking???)…
Before we continue, I must say a quick word about Tales from the Crypt. Starting life as The Crypt of Terror, this landmark comic book series was the brainchild of publisher William M Gaines and his Entertainment Comics (EC). During the 1950s, Gaines employed some of the best artists and writers in the business to come up with sublime tales of terror. Such EC luminaries as Johnny Craig, Feldstein, and the immortal Jack Davis were as god-like to me as Marvel Comic’s Stan Lee, Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby. Gaines also managed to convince horror authors of the stature of Ray Bradbury to write for his monster mag.
Each issue of Tales was graced with a startling full-colour cover that never failed to whet the appetite for the shiversome stories to come. And what stories they were! More often that not involving a femme fatale, a shady businessman or a mad scientist getting their comeuppance, these were morality tales populated by every classic monster you could think of: vampires, werewolves, ghosts, gremlins, zombies, even the odd killer robot!
The iconic ringmaster of this grisly crew was that old ‘GhouLunatic’ himself, The Crypt-Keeper! Aided by his friends, The Vault-Keeper and The Old Witch, good ol’ CK introduced most of the stories in Tales, and is now regarded as a proper horror icon in his own right.
Honestly, I could go on and on about the history of EC and the Tales comics: my favourite stories; the splendour of the cover artwork; how Gaines and his colleagues were eventually shut down by the infamous Comics Code; the intriguing story of how Tales from the Crypt was blamed for the weird incident of the ‘Gorbals Vampire’ in Scotland in the 1950s. So many brilliant and bizarre histories.
But we’re here to talk about my experience of reading horror, and why tales of terror still have the power to unnerve me.
I go back to Tales from the Crypt. Like all good horror stories, the best of these had the ability to draw you in completely. Time seemed to stop. The outside world faded and fell away, until all you could see, hear, smell, feel and taste was channelled through the world of the story. When reading a classic Tales story, or any good spooky book come to that, I find myself actually inside the horror scenario. I am living it with the characters. I am immersed in the world that has been created for me. And so my brain tells my body to respond in an authentic way. I shiver. I sweat. I fear. My heart begins to pound. That nervous laugh bubbles through my dry lips – it is an attempt to draw myself back to the real world, but it doesn’t work. The writer has sparked my imagination, and my imagination will not let me go. Such is the power of story. When, finally, I emerge from this fictitious realm the sense of fear has energized me, made me feel vital, real, alive. That is the buzz of horror, and that is why I return to it time and time again.
Since the age of six, I have felt the pleasure of being scared. Horror has introduced me to new and terrible worlds, vivid and wonderful dreamscapes. And the very first of those worlds came to me from the classic tales told by a certain cadaverous Crypt-Keeper….
And so thank you, CK, you loveable ol’ bag of bones – you’re forever in my nightmares!
William Hussey is currently very busy promoting the release of Dawn of the Demontide, the first book in his Witchfinder series, as well as trying to meet writing deadlines so I am very grateful for the time he spent writing this fantastic article. You can read my review of Dawn of the Demontide here and a brilliant interview William did for The Book Zone here. If you like horror and haven't yet bought a copy of Dawn of the Demontide then why the hell not?