“I’ve seen horrors…Horrors you’ve seen”.
– Col. Walter E. Kurtz (Apocalypse Now)
An Introduction in Brief
Much has been said about horror. In the following weeks, I intend to expand upon the Psychological Horror subgenre, defining exactly what psychological horror means, as well as defining the issues facing the genre not only in this form but as a whole, a thesis which will be accomplished by providing not only an analysis of some of the great works of this genre, but also by examining some of the worst the genre has to offer.
Staring into the Abyss: The Qualities of Psychological Horror
We are all on a journey, one that ends only in death. The journey, sometimes literal (as in Apocalypse Now) and sometimes figurative (Silent Hill 2), is an element everyone can relate to and one that is a staple of the psychological horror genre. For us, the journey, while not always clear, holds one final destination.
But for our characters… We never quite know where they will end up. Something in this uncertainty is unnerving, especially when the only thing we can rely on is that they are going someplace dark, and that there are almost always signs or foreshadowing of an impending doom.
How does one analyze the elements of a psychological horror? How do we juxtapose quality horror with that of a lesser quality?
Psychological horror explores a variety of themes, both complex and simple; of basic human qualities and the unknown. For a psychological horror story to transcend the norms of the genre and truly work, it must feature a great deal of elements and explore many themes; some stories explore these better than others.
With that in mind, I will use some of the great psychological horror stories across a variety of mediums to explore the elements listed within this article, whilst also defining them in greater detail in later posts. Examples of this will include the role of Abnormal Psychology in the graphic novel Arkham Asylum, or the role of symbolism in the video game Silent Hill 2.
For now though, it is prudent to briefly examine a variety of themes in psychological horror, as well as, once again in brief, what poor psychological horror is missing. Each continuing post will continue with greater depth, bleeding into one another, tied together by one greater narrative.
Friends of Horror: Characteristics of the Central Character(s)
There is almost always one central character. Regardless of how many other characters appear throughout the film, we can still almost always identify one character as being our “hero”, for better or worse. Even in casts of rich depth and characterization, there will nearly always be a Captain Willard, James Sunderland or a Father Karras for us to look to.
While, as the examples given suggest, the main character is more times than not a man, many notable exceptions do, in fact, exist, whereupon a viewer or reader can find that a female is the central character. All of these characters, despite their given demographical information, show elements of the Abnormal can affect them in more ways than one.
Teacups and Time: Elements of Abnormal Psychology
As the title is implicit of, elements of Psychology and Abnormal Psychology play a role in the development of a good psychological horror story. As any episode of Hannibal would be wont to tell, many characters within the stories often deal with either insanity or the threat of going insane; encountering insane characters or being driven to madness themselves; the neurotic and the empathetic (usually pairing empathy with evil).
One such element is the subconscious. Just as Freud spent a great deal of time discussing just this, psychological horror often examines the subconscious, which will materialize as wants, desires, fears or guilt, among other emotions. From this, we also often derive a variety of the more artistic themes that appear in most psychological horror stories.
Dancing with Shadows: Atmosphere in Psychological Horror
Words such as visually dark/stunning or surreal/visceral are often used to characterize the feeling of psychological horror and ideally, the setting of a story should feel just as much a character as any with dialogue. Silent Hill (the town) is just as much a part of the story as anyone who visits it, just as the Jungle is an essential character in Apocalypse Now.
Music too has a similar quality of character. Music, or sometimes the lack thereof will set the mood. In John Carpenter’s The Thing, the viewer hears the constant, low, brooding, sonorous rhythm of a bass guitar and in Apocalypse Now, Jim Morrison’s greets the viewer by announcing “This is The End”.
And sometimes, utter silence speaks louder than any soundtrack ever could. We see these artistic themes across all mediums, but it is important to psychological horror to see these elements, so we can recognize them later on:
- Disturbing Images
- Must have purpose/Little Element of the random
- Allusion/Allegory/Representational Themes
- Signs of Foreshadowing
- Usually of the tragedy and/or darkness to come
- Must have purpose/Little Element of the random
Commonalities in Uncommon Places: Significant Themes of Psychological Horror
Hiding the Other
This concept explores the idea that hiding a monster is more terrifying than actually seeing it and often times, as suggested earlier, the setting and the music will maintain the tension or presence of the evil that lingers somewhere just around the corner. Or perhaps just below… A good one will keep you guessing.
Journey will be Cathartic
The central character will nearly always come to some sort of cathartic moment or unsettling realization. This changes from story to story, obviously, but since this form of horror places a strong emphasis on the subconscious and abnormal psychology, catharsis has become an essential part of the journey for characters in a psychological horror story.
Comedy relief, in one form or another
Even in the darkest of tales, humor frequently becomes apparent in some aspect or another. In Apocalypse Now, the character of The Photojournalist fills this role. Even in Silent Hill 2, the darkest and most surreal these stories, has moments so obscenely random or unexpected, the player cannot help but laugh. And certainly, in an upcoming post regarding The Wicker Man (1973), humor becomes apparent in many ways…
And that is where our journey begins. We are heading to a dark place, what Conrad would’ve called the very heart of darkness. Consider this the room before the void, with little we can glean here. There, grab a torch off the wall, or an oil lamp and some pitch from over in the corner. The lantern, is it? A good choice. Of weapons, we have none but our knowledge and what we might find along the way. The wind greets us, howling through the door to the far side. We approach with caution, shadows grow, being thrown this way and that by the swaying light in your hand. The door opens and we find ourselves at the edge of a precipice, staring down and off into some unknown abyss, with darkness and shadows dancing all around. We step off and-