As Halloween is coming up in just a couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking lately about what is the scariest thing I’ve ever read. I admit I don’t really read a lot of horror. I’ve never been the type of person who was into horror movies or scary stories. Not because I’m squeamish of the blood and gore, just because a lot of that stuff doesn’t really scare me. If anything I’m more apt to laugh at the ridiculousness. I’ve also never found many of the monsters in literature and movies to be scary. Probably because I know vampires, zombies, and werewolves aren’t real.
Yet this doesn’t mean I’m never been scared while reading something. Legitimate proper scared and not scared because the writing was bad or the story was terrible. The kind of fear which makes sleeping a bit more difficult for the next night or two.
Surprisingly the two of the scariest things have come from the Harry Potter series. No, it’s not Voldemort; he doesn’t scare me as I’m told upfront he’s the bad guy. Nor is it Professor Snape although there are times he bordered on creepy; again, though, that’s part of who he is. Plus the twist in the last book made me reexamine everything about him.
No, the two things from the series which sort of terrify me are Professor Umbridge and the Dementors. Professor Umbridge because she’s a dichotomy as she dresses all in pink, likes cats and chocolate cake, is mousy-looking, and has an office is plastered with all matters of cutesy things yet she’s the scariest teacher at Hogwarts. You wouldn’t expect someone who is about the age of a grandmother to be so evil, but she is.
Her extreme hatred for Harry makes no sense. Professor Umbridge is on a power trip and in league with Voldemort and uses the Dementors. She constantly abuses him and other students by carving into the back of his hands all kinds of horrible reminders. No amount of magic or actual medicine can erase it. She’s like the teacher from hell and you question why she teaches children if she can’t seem to stand them.
The Dementors are terrifying because at first they appear just to be your average ghost demons. But they are far more chilling and horrible. They suck out your soul, steal your happiness and intelligence, and leave behind a shell of a person. That scares the crap out of me as they are the floating embodiment of what depression feels like. These things leave you a mess, forcing you to relive the worse parts of life. No wonder they originally guarded the wizard prison and sided with Voldemort.
The Dementors are more terrifying than any other creature in the series. Not because they are difficult to defeat, but because they are scary to look at which can paralyze a person with fear. By the time you realize what they are and what they want, it makes it difficult to get away from them. Now they’ve got you and start working on taking away all which makes a person happy.
As far as an individual book or books that have scared me, this is a bit of a struggle for me. Last year I read a collection of short stories called Dark Hall Press Techno-Horror Anthology which surprised me how many of the stories got to me. I didn’t quite know what to expect when I picked this anthology up. I saw Techno-Horror and thought it would be about crazed cyborgs or computers that come to life and try to kill humans like HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
But, no, these were a collection of stories that were far, far more down to earth and subtle in their approach. Nothing is gruesome or bloody. Yes, there are some stories where the technology ‘turns’ on its owners but many of the stories are philosophical in that they point out how dependent upon we are on technology. If we allow it, or even if we don’t, technology can be master and we its slave.
Another book would be Needful Things by Stephen King. It’s Stephen King so one would expect to be scared by at least one of his books. Admittedly I have not read a lot of his stuff, but Needful Things stayed with me because the premise of the book is a creepy store owner rolls into town and sells people something that would bring them a lot of joy. These are small things, like a baseball card or a record, which happen to just show up in the store at the just the right time. The store owner doesn’t ask for money for the items instead asks the patron to commit a small prank on a neighbor. These ‘pranks’ explode into a small town full of violence.
The store owner is a master of manipulation and is clearly meant to represent the Devil. But that’s not what gets to me. What gets to me is how a small moment of happiness in our life can come at a larger price. It’s hard not to think twice about if buying that favorite book might set off a chain of unpleasant events.
I guess when it comes to what scares me as a reader I would say stories that are more psychological and rooted in reality. Characters who are not what they appear to be also scare me. Mental anguish within a character or something that causes anguish to a character terrifies me.
Perhaps one of the things the horror genre can explore other genres can’t is the idea of the hidden monster and scariness within us all. That dark side we don’t want to admit exists. Or the dark side we wish we could let lose once in a while.