By: Rachel Wlock
Many of us probably think that the scariest way to watch a horror movie is alone, in the dark. I would have to agree with this statement. There’s no one there to help you when you hear footsteps down the hall or when you see the shadows of monsters that are creeping around in the dark. However, written horror stories are different. Because they cannot rely on jump-scare techniques, they often prey on the psyche and require more depth of thought. As with any story, it is easier to think through meanings when you have other people to bounce ideas off of.
Take for example, the story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been,” by Joyce Carol Oates. While reading it for class, I was somewhat put off. I didn’t enjoy it. Connie was one of the more boring and unlikeable main characters that I’ve ever read – though I would later realize this was a deliberate characterization. Even after reading it a few times, I still didn’t really understand what was going on in the narrative; it just seemed weird. I thought Arnold Friend and his odd companion Ellie might be aliens. Perhaps I should have done some background research into the story and into the creation of Arnold Friend’s character, but I didn’t. Instead, I went to class with my own interpretation, feeling slightly annoyed.
When I left class that day, I was surprised to find that my opinion of the story had done a complete 180° turn. I actually did like it now! Group discussion had opened my eyes to interpretations that I simply did not come up with on my own. Whereas before I had thought that Arnold Friend was just some weird omniscient figure who came to Connie’s house to attack her, I had suddenly been introduced to more possibilities. Perhaps he was actually just an exceptional stalker, based on a serial killer in real life. Or maybe he was the Devil, dressed up in a disguise to hide his horns and hooves. I prefer the Devil interpretation, though it may not have been what the author intended, simply because I’m partial to stories in which the Devil comes to Earth as a human. To me, talking about this story made it scarier because these other possibilities for the character seemed more terrifying than the idea of aliens that I had before. The fact that Arnold Friend was based on the real life Charles Schmid was particularly frightening because it was a reminder that sometimes horror isn’t just a figment of someone’s imagination; these are real threats to people’s lives. Discussing this with the class intensified the fear more, as often happens to emotions in a group setting.
Of course, this does not always happen. Sometimes bad stories are just bad. Regardless, there are many others like this one that only get better – and scarier – the deeper you think about them. Much research has been done on the impact of reading in groups, and although much of it is about children (and not horror stories), we can still apply the findings to our class. Group discussion facilitates making connections and understanding other points of view. This works particularly well for horror because as you think of more scary aspects of the stories and meanings behind them, it can only get more frightening.
This principle is valid for other media, as well as written stories. Consider this piece of horror art by Michael Whelan. A student of horror might analyze this work to understand what makes it scary. Maybe you imagine that the person responsible for the unfortunate situation of the victim is still on the loose and attacking others. Or possibly, you see this and you think that the subject of the painting is already dead, and has come back to life as a zombie. The thing about much of art (including writing and filmmaking as art forms) is that there are so many different ways to interpret one work. Because of this, discussion with others will almost certainly introduce a person to more ideas than they would have thought of on their own, giving them more things to fear.