"Tales of the Hook" - Click on the file at the bottom to download a copy of Stephen King's essay on the levels of fear.
(adapted from Stephen King’s Dance Macabre, a non-fiction book from one of the world’s most popular writers explaining his and our attraction to things that terrify, horrify, or revolt us.)
Horror appeals to us because it says, in a symbolic way, things we would be afraid to say right out straight, with the bark still on; it offers us a chance to exercise (that's right, not exorcise but exercise) emotions which society demands we keep closely in hand. The horror film is an invitation to indluge in deviant, antisocial behavior by proxy, to commit gratuitous acts of violence, indulge our puerile dreams of power, to give in to our most craven fears. Perhaps more than anything else, the horror story says it's okay to join the mob, to become the total tribal being, to destroy the outsider.
"This guy and his girl go out on a date, you know? And they go parking up on Lover's Lane. So anyway, while they're driving up there, the radio breaks in with this bulletin. The guy says this dangerous homicidal maniac named The Hook has just escaped from the Sunnydale Asylum for the Criminally Insane. They call him The Hook because that's what he's got instead of a right hand, this razor-sharp hook, and he used to hang around these lover's lanes, you know, and he'd catch these people making out and cut their heads off with the hook. He could do that 'cause it was so sharp, you know, and when they caught him they found like about fifteen or twenty heads in his refrigerator.
“So the news guy says to be on the lookout for any guy with a hook instead of a hand, and to stay away from any dark, lonely sots where people go to. So the girl says, Let's go home, okay? And the guy—he's this real big guy, you know, with muscles on his muscles—he says, I'm not scared of that guy, and he's probably miles from here anyway. So she goes, Come on, Louie, I'm scared, Sunnydale Asylum isn't that far from here. Let's go back to my house. I'll make popcorn and we can watch TV,
"But the guy won't listen to her and pretty soon they're up on The Outlook, parked at the end of the road, makin' out like banditos. But she keeps sayin' she wants to go home because they're the only car there, you know. That stuff about The Hook scared away everybody else. But he keeps sayin', Come on, don't be such a chicken, there's nothin' to be afraid of, and if there was I'd protectcha, stuff like that.
"So they keep makin' out for awhile and then she hears a noise—like a breakin' branch or something. Like someone is out there in the woods, creepin' up on them. So then she gets real upset, hysterical, cryin’ and everything. like girls do. She's beggin' the guy to take her home. The guy keeps sayin' he doesn't hear anything at all, but she looks up in the rearview mirror and thinks she sees someone all hunkered down at the back o f the car, just peekin' in at them, and grinnin'. She says if he doesn't take her home she's never gonna go out parkin' with him again and all that stuff. So finally he starts up the car and really peels out cause he's so mad at her. In fact, he just about crashes his car.
"So anyway, they get home, you know, and the guy goes around to open her door for her, and when he gets there he just stands there, turnin' as white as a sheet, and his eyes are gettin' so bigyou'd think they was gonna fall out on his shoes. She says Louie, what's wrong? And he just faints dead away, right there on the sidewalk. She gets out to see what's wrong, and when she slams the car door she hears this funny clinking sound and turns around to see what it is. And there, hanging from the doorhandle, is this razor-sharp hook."
The story of The Hook is a simple, brutal classic of horror. It offers no characterization, no theme, no particular artifice; it does not aspire to symbolic beauty or try to summarize the times, the mind, or the human spirit. To find these things we must go to "literature"—perhaps to Flannery O'Connor's story "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," which is very much like the story of The Hook in its plot and construction. No, the story of The Hook exists for one reason and one reason alone: to scare little kids after the sun goes down.
The point seems to be that horror simply is, exclusive of definition or rationalization. In a Newsweek cover story titled "Hollywood's Scary Summer" (referring to the summer of 1979—the summer of Phantasm, Prophecy, Dawn of the Dead, Nightwing, and Alien) the writer said that, during Alien's big, scary scenes, the audience seemed more apt to moan with revulsion than to scream with terror. The truth of this can't be argued; it's bad enough to see a gelatinous crab-thing spread over some fellow's face, but the infamous "chest-burster" scene which follows is a quantum leap in gruesomeness . . . and it happens at the dinner table, yet. It's enough to put you off your popcorn.
The closest I want to come to definition or rationalization is to suggest that the genre exists on three more or less separate levels, each one a little less fine than the one before it. The finest emotion is terror, that emotion which is called up in the tale of The Hook and also in that old classic, "The Monkey's Paw." We actually see nothing outright nasty in either story; in one we have the hook and in the other there is the paw, which, dried and mummified, can surely be no worse than plastic dog poo on sale at any novelty shop. It's what the mind sees that makes these stories such quintessential tales of terror. It is the unpleasant speculation called to mind when the knocking on the door begins in the latter story and the grief-stricken old woman rushes to answer it. Nothing is there but the wind when she finally throws the door open . . . but what, the mind wonders, might have been there if her husband had been a little slower on the draw with that third wish?
In "The Monkey's Paw," the imagination alone is stimulated. The reader does the job on himself. In the horror comics (as well as the horror pulps of the years 1930-1955) , the viscera are also engaged. As we have already pointed out, the old man in "The Monkey's Paw" is able to wish the dreadful apparition away before his frenzied wife can get the door open. In Tales from the Crypt, the Thing from Beyond the Grave is still there when the door is thrown wide, big as life and twice as ugly. Terror is the sound of the old man's continuing pulsebeat in "The Tell-Tale Heart"—a quick sound, "like a watch wrapped in cotton." Horror is the amorphous but very physical "thing" in Joseph Payne Brennan's wonderful novella "Slime" as it enfolds itself over the body of a screaming dog.
But there is a third level—that of revulsion. This seems to be where the "chest-burster" from Alien fits. Better, let's take another example from the E.C. file as an example of the Revolting Story—Jack Davis's "Foul Play" from The Crypt of Terror will serve nicely, I think. And if you're sitting in your living room right now, putting away some chips and dip or maybe some sliced pepperoni on crackers as you read this, maybe you'd just better put the munchies away for awhile, because this one makes the chest-burster from Alien look like a scene from The Sound of Music, You'll note that the story lacks any real logic, motivation, or character development, but, as in the tale of The Hook, the story itself is little more than the means to an end, a way of getting to those last three panels.
"Foul Play" is the story of Herbie Satten, pitcher for Bayville's minor league baseball team. Herbie is the apotheosis of the E.C. villain. He's a totally black character, with absolutely no redeeming qualities, the Complete Monster. He's murderous, conceited, egocentric, willing to go to any lengths to win. He brings out the Mob Man or Mob Woman in each of us; we would gladly see Herbie lynched from the nearest apple tree, and never mind the Civil Liberties Union. With his team leading by a single run in the top of the ninth, Herbie gets first base by deliberately allowing himself to be hit by an inside pitch. Although he is big and lumbering, he takes off for secondon the very next pitch. Covering second in Central City's saintly slugger, Jerry Deegan.
Deegan, we are told, is "sure to win the game for the home team in the bottom of the ninth." The evil Herbie Satten slides into second with his spikes up, but saintly Jerry hangs in there and tags Satten out. Jerry is spiked, but his wounds are minor . . . or so they appear. In fact, Herbie has painted his spikes with a deadly, fast-acting poison. In Central City's half of the ninth, Jerry comes to the plate with two out and a man in scoring position. It looks pretty good for the home team guys; unfortunately, Jerry drops dead at home plate even as the umpire calls strike three. Exit the malefic Herbie Satten,
The Central City team doctor discovers that Jerry has been poisoned. One of the Central City players says grimly: "This is a job for the police!" Another responds ominously, "No! Wait! Let's take care of him ourselves . . . our way." The team sends Herbie a letter, inviting him to the ballpark one night to be presented with a plaque honoring his achievements in baseball. Herbie, apparently as stupid as he is evil, falls for it, and in the next scene we see the Central City nine on the field. The team doctor is tricked out in umpire's regalia. He is whisking off home plate . . . which happens to be a human heart. The base paths are intestines. The bases are chunks of the unfortunate Herbie Satten's body. In the penultimate panel we see that the batter is standing in the box and that instead of a Louisville Slugger he is swinging one of Herbie's legs!
As you can see, both "The Monkey's Paw" and "Foul Play" are horror stories, but their mode of attack and their ultimate effect are light-years apart. You may also have an idea of why the comic publishers of America cleaned their own house in the early fifties . . . before the U.S. Senate decided to do it for them.
So: terror on top, horror below it, and lowest of all, the gag reflex of revulsion. My own philosophy as a sometime writer of horror fiction is to recognize these distinctions because they are sometimes useful, but to avoid any preference for one over the other on the grounds that one effect is somehow better than another. The problem with definitions is that they have a way of turning into critical tools-and this sort of criticism, which I would call criticism-by-rote, seems to me needlessly restricting and even dangerous. I recognize terror as the finest emotion (used to almost quintessential effect in Robert Wises film The Haunting, where, as in "The Monkey's Paw," we are never allowed to see what is behind the door), and so I will try to terrorize the reader.
But if I find I cannot terrify him/her, I will try to horrify; and if I find I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out-I'm not proud.