Looking For The Quintessential Scary Moment
Hughes’ Tiger, The Uncanny Valley and the Eye of Yamamura Sadako
An Essay, by Cav
Fear is fundamental to who I am. It fascinates me. I like nothing better than to explore it, investigate it and slide its various surfaces around in the hope of finding a way inside. I am most truly myself when I am scaring the shit out of people by some means or other, whether by writing or gaming or sitting them down in front of favourite DVDs or whatever method comes to hand. I hope that this does not make me a bad person.
There is nothing worse for a horror writer than failing to be frightening. When you can achieve true fear, it is better than sex. When your attempts fall flat, then nothing will revive them. So, I often find myself looking into the mechanics of horror, if only to get some kind of comprehension of how to create it.
The recent Channel 4 show, The Top 100 Scary Moments, was about what one could expect from these barrel-scraping compilations. They are not even honest representations of public opinion. A panel of ‘experts’ choose the top 100 potential Scary Moments or Sexy Moments or Comic Characters, and all that the public do is vote on which order they are to come in. This, for example, is why ‘Train arriving at a station’ is on the list at all.
More annoying still, it is not even a collection of moments. It is a collection of films. ‘A Nightmare On Elm Street’, for example, is not a ‘moment’. This irritates me to a disproportionate degree, because I am interested in the moments. I want to know what it is about a particular sequence that makes it frightening.
Of the films in the top 10, I can identify only three in which there are ‘moments’ of especial terror. These are Alien, Jaws and of course Ring, with only the latter two really qualifying for terror as opposed to shock and dismay. The Shining and Halloween also get a look in, for reasons that I will go into later.
The pivotal moment in Alien is generally thought to be the chestburster scene. However, I cannot remember anyone (least of all myself) finding that fantastic sequence at all frightening. It was certainly fascinating and horrible in a way that allowed the audience to fear the worst while simultaneously confirming their fears (‘what the… they didn’t! they couldn’t… growing INSIDE him? oh god, they DID.’)
I would instead place the pivotal moment quite close to the end of the film. Ripley is running away, trying to reach the shuttlecraft, and comes across the Alien in a corridor, abruptly and terribly there, seen for the first time in all its glory, instead of being glimpsed as a stray limb, tail or skull. The Alien does the worst thing it could possibly do.
It raises its head and looks at her.
The moment in Jaws is easy to identify, too. The diver goes down under the boat. He finds a shark tooth embedded in the boat’s staved-in side. As he pulls the tooth out, the boat rocks and the dead, white face of a man swims into view. We instantly cut away, and then instantly cut back to a full-face shot of the dead man, his mouth open, teeth showing, and one eye gone. The other eye is, of course, staring right at us.
As for Ring, the moment is the climax of the whole film. It really needs to be seen to do it justice. I am assuming that everybody reading this has seen it – if you haven’t, then please stop reading and come back to this essay once you’ve had a chance to watch the movie.
Go through it stage by stage. The television turns on by itself. (That alone is sufficiently frightening to warrant a separate study. Unexpected behaviour from household objects, which are supposed to be our silently acquiescent servants, is a staple horror theme, more as a background than a main player, and here it works with exactly the right degree of subtlety.) Sharing Ryuji’s shock and disbelief, we watch Sadako grope her way up from the well. We have already seen foreshadowings of this emergence in earlier viewings of the video. Like the Alien, there have been momentary flashes of the murdered adult Sadako, and now we are clearly going to have her full emergence. We have seen the child but not the real Sadako. We have not seen that thing that is also, somehow, the oozing skull with its tangle of black hair that has already been fetched up from the well.
Sadako is thus already an awful mystery. We have never seen her face. There has only been a set of rotten remains. We have no idea what will be behind the fall of black hair that makes her faceless. It is immediately apparent, though, that something is very wrong. She does not move like a human being. She comes towards the screen in a horrible lurching gait, like a broken thing.
As my good friend Madam H has observed, the most frightening part of what comes next is not that Sadako emerges through the television screen. It is the moment when you suddenly know she is going to. This is literally nightmarish. Everyone is familiar with the nightmare when you suddenly know what is going to happen and you still cannot take your eyes away.
The most disturbing aspect of Sadako’s jerky approach is its slowness. We can look to another ‘Top 10 Scary Moment’ here and take a brief diversion down another of horror’s back streets. In John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’, while Jamie Lee Curtis is trying to flee, the killer (faceless, much as Sadako is) emerges from the house she has just left and walks steadily in her direction. Why should this be so much more frightening than, say, a jogging trot? No idea, but it is. The most frightening apparition is that which approaches you steadily and unhurriedly, getting a little closer every time you look. One must here refer to that masterpiece by M.R. James, O Whistle And I’ll Come To You, the TV adaptation of which was also in the Top 100 Scary Moments; but I digress.
Ryuji cowers as Sadako crawls across the floor. She is suddenly at her full height, though we do not see her stand. We are braced for some kind of revelation and think we know what is coming. Now, thinks the audience, we will get to see her face, and it will be all nasty and decayed, or something like that. The camera plays along with us, going for a sequence of rapid cuts, each one closer to the next. Sadako standing, with her drooping head in centre screen; a sudden jump inwards; then another.
And then, with a nerve-jangling screech on the soundtrack, the screen is filled with a clearly human-but-not-human eye, grotesquely distorted, reminiscent of a face pulled by a child. (What the rest of her face is like, we can only guess.) The effect is staggering. The faceless enigma of Sadako, which the film has steadily and subtly built up, is replaced by something horribly actual, which is looking at us. It is the one and only time that we look through the mask of hair and see Sadako clearly, and although what we see is the briefest of glimpses, it shows us all we need to know. There is nothing more quintessentially alive than an eye, and yet we know that Sadako is dead.
If it had not been for the false climax of the well scene immediately before this one, the terror of the eye would not have been so scalding. The skeletal remains in the well were not in the least frightening. In that scene, despite a momentary shock as a pale childish hand grabs Reiko’s arm, the parting of the pall of hair reveals only a very ordinary skull. The empty eyes even seem to weep (yes, they were flowing with slime, but the suggestion is there) and the scene is pathetic rather than threatening. Reiko pulls the bones to her and embraces them. The soundtrack, with its melancholy strains, tells the audience what the prevailing emotions are. The scene is one of closure, comfort and reconciliation.
Eyes Of The Dead
We don’t like dead people to have open eyes, do we? We gently draw them closed, or put coins on them, but we can’t stand them to be open.
The Scary Moment that I did not really expect Channel 4 to include (though I would have been damned impressed if they had) which genuinely is a moment as opposed to a whole scary film, is one that many of us thirtysomethings have in common. It is a scene from the 70s disaster movie, The Poseidon Adventure. A group of passengers who are trapped in an overturned ocean liner and are trying to make their way towards the surface find themselves in the ship’s galley. Without warning, we have a shot of the dead body of a cook. He is clearly dead, but his eyes are open, as is his mouth, much like the pallid corpse in Jaws.
Cut away to the passengers, reacting on our behalf. One of them throws a coat over the burned corpse. Cut back; and again we see those staring eyes for a moment - thanks very bloody much - before the coat lands over the body and they are hidden from view.
Among my collection of childhood relics too poignant to throw away (which in practice is almost all of them) is a copy of a children’s magazine called Cricket & Company, which sold in America as Cricket. I remember it as something of a curate’s egg. Some parts were forgettable. Others have never left my memory since the first time I read them. The issue I held on to I kept primarily for its Jan Pienkowski cover, but also because it had a feature by Ted Hughes.
There was some of his poetry for children in the issue as well, which at the time I found interesting and funny, though less so than his prose work. Hughes’ writing for children seems to me to take full advantage of their ability to visualise the monstrous and accept a grotesque or bizarre situation without demanding explanation or apology; he can narrate the progress of a colossus up to a cliff that it then falls over, smashing to pieces on the rocks below, without having to justify it. There is a delight in the sheer situational power of the image, huge and ogrish, floating in darkness without any causal origin. ‘Where did he come from? Nobody knows.’ The film of the Iron Man added explanations, which I feel diminished the power of the idea, but then, so did turning it into a cartoon.
The little article by Hughes that accompanied his poetry explained how he became a writer. Since I am not aware of any article anywhere else that gives this account, I like to think that he deliberately chose to tell it to an audience of children. It is, after all, in childhood that such seeds as these are shown, and iron giants begin to lumber out of the dark towards their eventual destinations.
Hughes explains that he was reading a boys’ comic, in which there was a story about the draining of a swamp. The machinery that was draining the swamp suddenly became blocked and a crew was sent to clear it. The object that was hauled out of the machinery was the perfectly preserved body of a sabre-toothed tiger, kept intact for centuries by the waters of the bog. The workers were discussing what to do next, when suddenly the thing’s eye opened.
‘A terrible, terrible eye, from millions of years ago, stared at them.’
Hughes does not describe how that moment makes him feel. He only says that he cannot remember what happened next, but will always remember the emotions he experienced. Other things, later in life, other moments, would make the eye open again for an instant. He even describes his poetry as a repeated attempt to capture the moment of the eye’s opening.
This is what I thought of when I tried to explore why a video I watched this morning was so disturbing. You can go and watch it yourself if you want to get into the mood for this essay. Why is it that something with eyes is much more frightening than something without? The skeletal thing that flashes up for a moment is clearly looking at you. You can tell, because it has eyes. If it had been an empty-eyed skull, would it have been quite so bad?
One of these days, I’m going to put a ‘scary video’ together along the now-familiar lines. Instead of a dead baby or rotten skull-face suddenly appearing, it will be a bright yellow banana. However, the obligatory scream will still be there. It would be very interesting to me to see what effect it had. Common objects can be terrifying in nightmares. One woman said that the worst nightmare she ever had was one in which she was looking at an electric radiator. A friend of mine describes one of her nightmares as hinging on the moment when she saw that an otherwise normal boy had grey ears.
A woman is on her own in her house. All her curtains are drawn. She is uneasy, and has the creeping feeling that someone is watching her. No matter how she tries, she cannot relax. She goes to the window and draws the curtains back, and there is an insane tramp, staring right at her, his mouth gaping.
This was told to me by a friend as something that really happened. Whether it was or not, it is a marvellous example of the usefulness of anecdote in crystallising out some aspect or other of our humanity. We do not want to look into the mirror after dark, or out of the window. Looking into a keyhole, we fear that an eye will suddenly appear and look back at us. Even in the animated adventures of Wallace and Gromit, there is a chilling moment; during the Wrong Trousers, while Gromit is hiding in the wastebin, the penguin suddenly looks right at him with its horrible beady black eyes, and an ominous chord sounds. Cut back to Gromit’s terrified eyes.
Consider, also, the climactic meeting with Norman Bates’ mother in Psycho. The chair rotates, and wham! – we are staring into a shrivelled skull-face that screams back at us. Would the scene have that impact if it were anything other than a form of face that we encountered? I do not think so. Hitchcock, the marvellous bastard, then forces us to watch the skull take on a semblance of life as the lightbulb above it swings crazily back and forth, casting shadows and highlights, changing the skull’s expression, emphasising the horrible vacancy of its eyes and mouth.
Sudden face contact, or worse, eye contact under any circumstances is bad enough. Sudden eye contact with something that is sufficiently close to what you are to make eye contact, but is also sufficiently different from what you are to be frightening, is the archetypal moment of terror.
Why do we close our eyes in response to a frightening sight?
We want to break the connection.
We do not want to see something that can see us.
I have a private theory that the stimulus that presses the ‘fear’ button more reliably than any other is facial distortion. There is some kind of trigger switch deep inside the human psyche that reacts very, very badly to anything being wrong with the face. Skulls, for example, are frightening not because they are the remains of the dead but because they are distorted faces. Some kinds of distortion are more inherently frightening than others, as we will see.
Why should facial distortion scare us so? I can think of some reasons. Expressions that convey anger, such as a snarl, are designed to send a surge of adrenalin into our systems. This is good biological sense. If something is looking at you and it does not have a happy face, you probably want to get away from it, or brace yourself to fight it. This scratches the surface but does not get right down into the psyche.
To properly get to grips with the terror of the wrong face, I believe we must look to a theory of robotics, the ‘uncanny valley’ of Doctor Masahiro Mori, and consider the peculiar way in which resemblance works. Go here for an in-depth look at the uncanny valley research.
In brief, if you have a graph showing a steady increase of resemblance to humanity on which various depictions are placed, with, say, a stick figure at the left hand end and a fully-rendered CGI virtual popstar on the right, and plot that against how comfortable the observer is with it (or how much the observer identifies with the figure) you will find that comfort steadily increases as resemblance increases, until the point just before you reach complete resemblance. At that point, comfort drops away sharply. This abrupt dip is called the ‘uncanny valley’.
Let me give you an example. A Lego man is not a very accurate depiction of humanity, and we are comfortable with him. Michelangelo’s David is far more accurate, and we are comfortable with it. A dead human being is very accurate indeed, but we are far from comfortable in its presence. A waxwork is even more accurate, and even if we are still slightly uncomfortable, we would rather be in the presence of a waxwork than a dead person.
To be frightening, a distorted face must still be recognisable as human. It must sit in the middle of the uncanny valley. Go too far to one side or the other and the reaction begins to warm again. A large scar is not frightening (too little distortion), nor is the face of a fish (too much).
This brings us back to Ring, which I personally consider to be the most perfect horror film ever made. Facial distortion is fundamental to how Ring works. Sadako’s victims are left with horribly twisted faces. We see them only briefly, but it is long enough to leave an impression.
Facial marring is also used as a prefiguring story element. In the photographs of those who are subject to her curse, the faces are distorted. In one memorable sequence, Reiko asks Ryuji to photograph her, so she can see whether she too will have a distorted face. (Ryuji has been stolidly sceptical so far.) He does so, takes the photo from the camera, looks at it, makes no comment at all and hands it to her. We almost think that his lack of reaction means that there is nothing to worry about, until we look through Ryuji’s eyes at the picture, and with a dreadful crash on the soundtrack we see her smeared, warped face.
The face is the focus of the whole person and the eyes are the focus of the face. When we look at an eye and the eye looks back at us, we make contact on the most basic of levels. I am aware of you, and you are aware of me. We read information from the rest of the face, and if that information does not fit with what we expect to see, we become fearful.
The anticipation of facial distortion is part of the process of terror, just as much as the moment of encountering it. In the marvellous film The Eyes (!), a piece of Japanese horror to rival Ring for sheer creepiness, there is a sequence in a lift in which the visible ghost of an old man (already uncanny, as his calloused feet are hovering slightly above the floor) slowly rotates behind an unaware woman, with more and more of his face coming into view. We know that there will be something wrong with it, and the film does not disappoint.
We can even see facial distortion when it is not actually there. It seems to be part of what we expect from horror. The dwarf at the end of Don’t Look Now is only shocking because we were expecting a child inside that red coat. He is not, in himself, especially frightening, but when he turns around and we see a wizened creature instead of a little girl, the immediate reaction is to see the face as twisted instead of simply old.
The true moment of horror is not that you see something nasty in the woodshed. Horror happens when you see the nasty thing in the woodshed seeing you. The focus is on the face, and most especially on the eye.
If you would like to give some feedback, please go and watch this first. It is one of those cheesy ‘BOO!’ flash animation things, of which there are so many, but it illustrates what I have been trying to say rather well, I think.