When I was studying traditional harmony in college, I used to wonder if we universally associate minor key sounds with melancholy and dissonant intervals with tension just because our culture has done it that way for so long, or if there’s some wiring in the brain that would make you feel music in the same way even if you were raised by wolves.
I’m thinking along the lines of a Carl Jung/Joseph Campbell Collective Unconscious sort of thing, can you dig it? If similar patterns of myths, monsters and heroes emerge all over the world just because the human head has a tendency to sprout them in the same way that it sprouts hair and tears without having to be taught, then couldn’t we also have an innate orientation toward certain sounds and–I’m wondering lately–certain narrative devices?
I’ve been telling my son bedtime stories since before he could talk, since long before he sat down in front of a TV where most of us probably absorb the bulk of our cultural conditioning, and I noticed early on that if I told him a story in which the villain (used to be something like a tiger or a crocodile, but we’ve graduated to a pantheon of comic book baddies) is roving in the open, chasing the protagonist or laying traps, he was seldom afraid to hear about it. He even invented his own monster at the age of three, and I’ve never been so proud.* But if I kept the bad guy off stage, lurking out of sight… If the hero didn’t know where the threat was hidden… Oh boy, then I’d get fear.
Long before my son had seen suspense done this way in books, TV shows, and movies, he reacted to it in oral stories the way people listening in the dark probably always have. Maybe an evolutionary lesson was inscribed in our brains ages ago: the most dangerous predator is the one you cannot see before it strikes. All I know is when I started hiding bad guys, if he didn’t just get up and leave the room, he would cover his eyes with his hands so as not to see the picture his imagination was forming. Funny that–not seeing makes you fear seeing (and yes, I would back off; I may want to scare the hell out of you, but I’m not a horrible parent).
For me this was a lesson in the primal nature of suspense, a reminder and an illustration of something I’d learned long ago from Tolkien when he kept Sauron off stage, and the Nazgul hidden deep within hooded cloaks. Stoker did the same thing with Dracula for most of his tale, building up a shadowy intimation of evil.
Of course, there’s a time for foreplay and a time to deliver. One of the delights of horror fiction is that we eventually get to pull the curtain back and see what’s been waiting in the wings. And if you’ve built a cool monster, I want to see it.
One glimpse can work dark wonders in memory and imagination, and leave an afterimage that burns in the mind’s eye long after the curtain falls back into place.
Here are some of the coolest monsters I’ve seen lately. This is the Krampus parade that’s held every December in Austria where legend persists of mountain demons who help Santa Claus by spiriting away the naughty children.
Those Austrians know a thing about horror. They know that unveiling the monsters for just one night a year will do the trick. While American parents are threatening our sugar-injected offspring with, “Santa won’t bring you the Lego Millenium Falcon if you keep it up,” Austrians are marching their kids downtown and introducing them to the hoard of bloodthirsty demons that will abduct and eat them if they don’t cut the shit. Austrians do not fuck around when it comes to monsters.
*My boy’s first monster, verbatim:
Jonkerman drives a black automobile really fast. He has a nose on his belly. He is black, has eyes on his hair and the hair is on his feet, and he has a mouth on his hand. He is one million inches tall.