Who’s There

By: Dayna Plehn

“The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door.”

— Fredric Brown, “Knock”

Plehn_ExtraCreditPic.jpg

Sometimes, I hate my own brain. It distracts me and keeps me awake for the silliest of reasons – I can’t sleep for thinking about an action-packed book I just read, or while I’m trying to perform I suddenly am flooded with memories of every cringeworthy thing I’ve said in the past three years. My mind plagues me with nightmares, or when I stop paying attention, it has me overthinking every social interaction I had that day.

Fredric Brown’s short story “Knock” plays upon this effect marvelously. The above quote is just the first two lines of a longer work, which was inspired by this prompt from Thomas Bailey Aldrich:

Imagine all human beings swept off the face of the earth, excepting one man. Imagine this man in some vast city, Tripoli or Paris. Imagine him on the third or fourth day of his solitude sitting in a house and hearing a ring at the door-bell. (Aldrich)

Those first two sentences of “Knock,” however, are known across the internet as “the shortest horror story,” because they do indeed stand alone as a horror story by themselves. What makes this little “story” unsettling is not the detail that it provides, but rather the lack thereof. The story achieves horror by inference, simply providing us with a skeleton and leaving all of the actual horror up to our imaginations. In this way, it is tailored to suit each of its readers because whatever scares its audience most is what its audience will speculate first.

The story immediately sets a sinister tone by using aloneness as its setting, but saying nothing about it – when the fact that the man is the last one on earth simply begs for an explanation! Has humanity gone extinct? Or, arguably a bit less terrifying than total human annihilation, have only men disappeared from earth? Perhaps humanity has not died out, but everyone has simply left to go somewhere else – to another planet? Another dimension? And if they have left, or died, why is this one still here? Is he waiting to follow them, or was he forgotten? Perhaps he was deliberately left behind.

Aloneness itself also contributes to our discomfort because humans are social creatures that do not function well in prolonged isolation. The instinctive part of the human brain also knows that safety comes in numbers, and specifically in a horror context, aloneness implies that whatever might be out to hunt humans is hunting for you, because the other targets are fled or dead, and no one will be present to hear your cry for help.

The fact that the man is sitting in a room is also cause for question. He isn’t struggling, shouting, hiding, or even weeping. He is just sitting. He is passive. Is he waiting? What is he waiting for? We don’t know if what caused humanity’s disappearance is still out there, but if it is, he isn’t actively trying to fight it. He is essentially just a sitting duck; he is helpless. Perhaps he has given up – whatever horror he’s endured has broken him, and he believes it cannot be resisted.

Then, of course, there is the knock. If the man is waiting for something, is this it? If we sit and think about it a little harder, we might come to realize something: This is the last man on earth. To knock on doors is a human custom. Whatever is outside the door is intelligent – it is smart enough to understand human practices, or at least imitate them. Furthermore, this non-human intelligence is necessarily assumed to be related to the extinction event – in the worst case, it’s the cause of it. From a literary standpoint, a simple knock is also a remarkably effective way of giving us no information other than that something is there. If it had been a voice, it could have tone, words, accent, and other characteristics that might tell us something about the nature of its owner. As it is, we know nothing, and we never get to know anything. Does the man answer the door? If not, does the visitor enter anyway? In two sentences, the story has created a cliffhanger, and there it stops.

In short, our minds are scarier than anything else, because by their very reactive nature, they immediately jump to the conclusions we most dread. “Knock” elicits this response elegantly, because even to the mind inexperienced in horror, something is wrong. Something has happened to humanity, done to humanity. Something terrible, irresistible, and intelligent. And now it’s here for you.

Works Cited

Brown, Fredric. “Knock.” Thrilling Wonder Stories. Edited by Sam Merwin, Jr. December 1948. Standard Magazines, Inc. pp 180.

Aldrich, Thomas Bailey. “Ponkapog Papers.” 18 March 2006. Project Gutenberg. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/625/625-h/625-h.htm

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Sleep Paralysis: A Haunting Space between Reality and REM

By: Erika Shevchek

“It feels like only in my nightmares will I see my own body, dead and still. But when sleep paralysis cross-pollinates what is dreaming and what is real, the fears of seeing my own body frozen and corpse like is unfortunately so realistic.” My nightmare showed my body in the exact position it was in my bed, and it was all from a birds-eye view. However, I wasn’t breathing in this image, my body was lifeless and I wasn’t asleep –– I have now seen what I will look like when I die.

Sleep paralysis can be briefly described as a moment when the body cannot move in an attempt to wake up. As someone who suffered from chronic sleep paralysis, and after hours and hours of research, I finally have a decent explanation for what’s happening in my body during sleep paralysis. And it’s hauntingly fascinating.

For more scientific info, click here (also includes the same image Gina put on the class syllabus titled “The Nightmare”!).

My anxiety comes from many places, but lack of sleep is the main catalyst for my anxiety, and of course, for sleep paralysis. I lie in bed, unable to move and usually unable to speak, but there is the window with light and sound of the cars rushing by outside. It’s all there (my reality) but my muscles and senses that are under voluntary control, like getting up out of bed, are not available. I’ve woken up before REM is over; I’m paralyzed and it’s freaking terrifying.

I’ve suffered from sleep paralysis quite a few times in my life, starting in my adolescence and going into high school. But with the social, academic, and emotional stress of college, and my anxiety, sleep paralysis has found a relevant place in my life. Last semester, I had about 5 major episodes. Since then, I’ve learned how to tame my anxiety, prioritize my sleep schedule, and prevent myself from having these hellacious episodes.

Like the opening passage, the following passages were written immediately after my worst episode. The language may sound funny, and the grammar might be totally off, but hey, I just woke up from sleep paralysis and my mind was tired and confused.

“Flashes of black and white light, strobe and seizure-like lights came where my left eye began to twitch (or once again, felt like twitching. Forever unsure of what is really happening on my body and what my mind is telling me is happening to my body). Both eyes begin to flutter, seeing fake and real images … combining both of those gives me the raw fear that I don’t know what is reality, or if my reality is now a wrapped package of all my REM cycle sleep paralysis dreams. Finally, a huge gasp with almost a dog like whimper comes out of my mouth, body shooting upward in an exorcism-like action, my body slowly regains feeling, like feeding water into a tube of what all I could feel were pins and needles. The water –– my blood –– moving around in my veins from my toes where I can feel it in my fucking eyelashes, my body becomes ‘feelable’ again but my eyes are so blurry because they have worked so hard they want to rest again but the little part of my conscious knows that that is too scary and we worked too hard to get out of that so we cannot close our eyes again…

“So now it is time to find my feet to the floor, go to the bathroom, sit down to pee while the sink and the towels move and shift like seeing them when you are high. I look in the reflection of the doorknob where suddenly I see a “Scream”- like figure move from the shower, past the toilet, and stand to my right. I looked to my right where I saw only a toiletry shelf full of girls’ bathroom items … I have officially hallucinated.”

To be quite honest, I thought the death nightmare was the worst part of it all, but man was I wrong. The moment I woke up from the paralysis and hallucinated a daunting black figure in my bathroom was something I had never experienced before.

The scariest thing about all of this is the utter lack of control that you have. Every day, we live in control of our minds and our bodies; every choice we make, every motion we do … that’s all up to us. And the instant we lose that ability to be an autonomous human is a fear that many, if not all of us, would not want to encounter.

Getting Political

By Donte Neal

By Donte Neal

By: Gina Brandolino

I can’t help myself.

With Election Day right around the corner, I have to share these excellent posters created by Donte Neal.  My favorite is to the left here–not because Jason has my vote for favorite antagonist, but because, wow, can you beat that slogan?!

Let’s keep it light in the comments section, ok? Talk horror, not politics.  (I know, I know.)

The Horror of Crime Shows

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By: Molly Liebeskind

Generally when we think of horror we think of the monsters being the devil, witches, and ghosts but we rarely consider the horror of daily crimes. I started watching Law and Order: Special Victim’s Unit last year. At first I just found it to be interesting (which is a little twisted). But soon I realized I was not just become paranoid when I was alone at night, but also, that every person on the street who looked at me, I suddenly feared.

The horror of crime shows is that they are based on true stories. Although each individual episode is not necessarily based on a true story but the genre as a whole is based on real people and real crimes that have or could occur. Often when watching the horror films presented in this class I find myself anxious because I know a jumps-scare is coming. But when the movie or book ends its over and I don’t keep thinking about it. I am removed from the plot. I know that it won’t happen to me. However, when and episode of Law and Order ends I am always shaken, permanently. There are not generally jump scares so what makes these popular shows so scary?

Image of a group of victims from season 12 episode 7.

Image of a group of victims from season 12 episode 7.

The stories involve regular people, in a city I have lived in who aren’t seeking trouble or generally committing one of the seven deadly sins (which often provokes the devil in those stories). For no reason other than they are unlucky, these people become the targets of heinous crimes. They’re homes are broken into; they are kidnapped while sleeping, raped, beat, and sometimes killed. The normality of these targets is what makes these shows so scary.

Not only in these shows are the victims average New Yorkers, but most of the time the monster is also ordinary. The monster characters range from best friends, parents, and children to random strangers on the street or subway. This wide range means that everyone is a threat and every place is dangerous. When all the episodes are woven together there is no safe place left. Some episodes take place in the victims home, some at school, some in public. The ambiguity of who can be the predator increases the horror.

More than just the ambiguity, the horror of these monsters comes from the fact that often they are someone close to the victim. We are raised to trust our parents and friends and to use them as our safety net. Law and Order however, turns these people into the predators. A father or mother kills or abuses their kid. A schoolgirl kills her best friend. A sibling, we learn, is a psychopath. Loved ones, our protectors, become the people we fear. This is truly horrifying.

If you are interested in watching, many of these episodes can be found on Hulu or on USA network.  

 

 

 

The Nightmares of Other People

By: Gina Brandolino

photo by G Brandolino May 2014

I took the photo above while my partner Ellen and I were out on a hike in the north woods of Michigan a few days ago.  If you know who that is in the black suit off in the distance, I bet you have seen him yourself on occasion, or wondered if you have.  If not, read on at your own risk.

That man off in the woods is Slenderman. I first learned about him from my student Michael Mitchell (a.k.a. Mitch), who recommended him for the horror course. After spending a few afternoons watching Marble Hornets videos, I gave Slenderman a spot on the syllabus for Fall 2013. That class’s reaction to him was interesting. One thing I have learned teaching horror is that you will never find a story that scares everyone–and indeed, not everyone was scared of Slenderman.  But a great many students were, and that fear lingered.  Slenderman was a consistent recurring theme in class for the rest of the term. Students wrote blog posts about him. Months after the semester ended, I ran into a student on campus who said, “you know, I still get really freaked out that Slenderman is following me around when I walk back to my dorm alone at night.” (And this was the guy who sided with Damien in The Omen!)

This is one way horror works; someone tells us a scary story and, pretty often, it stays with us, and we pass it on. Fear is, in this way, sort of viral–this is an apt metaphor to apply to an internet-born and -bred monster like Slenderman, but it’s been explored in different contexts, too. (See, for example, the X-Files episode called “X-Cops.”) As the title of this post puts it, we inherit other people’s nightmares. It’s thanks to my student Mitch that I see Slenderman in the woods now; it’s on account of the horror class of Fall 2013 that some of my students look over their shoulders for him on their way back to their dorms late at night. And maybe because of this post, you’ll have something new that you peer into the dark or the distance hoping not to see.