Vague Horror: The Scariest Kind of Horror
“Give me just enough information so that I may lie convincingly.” -Stephen King
Like Life, Good Horror is Vague
When it comes to good horror, the kind shaking the foundation of one’s perspective, vague implication is more effective than cheesy, volume-on-eleven, growling-monster-suddenly-in-your-face schlock. The most terror-filled television and cinema are both bloodless and blood curdling, achieving their terror through vagueness and implication, not making viewers jump for a second, but entering into -- and more importantly, remaining in -- one’s consciousness long after a film ends.
Human consciousness -- as described by the narrator in Vonnegut’s Deadeye Dick -- is a peephole opening slowly from infancy to view life. Likewise, an audience’s peephole must accept a slowly unfolding narrative that keeps secrets. Rather than weak storytelling, vagueness is strong, mirroring reality.
“We are just a biological speculation,” Funkadelic wrote, “sitting here vibrating, but we don’t know what we’re vibrating about.” Our peepholes see but don’t understand. We stand on the shoulders of giants in various fields, but struggle with morality. Looking toward the past, the origin of life remains a mystery. We cannot prove or disprove God’s existence, and science and religion fail to answer the angst-filled questions of our mortal coil. In the end, religious or not, we take much on faith to explain our peepholes’ incomprehension.
Vagueness in Television Horror
On television, the vague, terrifying Twilight Zone series first opened our peephole was to alternate realities. From its onset, viewers accepted, without explanation, twilight zone mysteries. In the episode, Eye of the Beholder, for example, aesthetics are reversed and the porcine elite banish the beautiful. Peepholes suddenly opened to a terrifyingly confusing world, our minds run to personal questions to fill these mysterious story gaps. “Where are they sending her?” “Could anyone win against this society?” “Would I, like the woman in the episode, succumb to cosmetic surgeries?” As in life’s narrative, meaning is not dictated, and the narratives we create to fill the lapses -- our world within the world -- are supremely terrifying
Our peepholes open to another episode of The Twilight Zone, It’s a Good Life, in which a boy, Anthony, reads minds and kinesthetically punishes negative thinkers. We accept Anthony without distracting backstory, focusing instead on the horror of living under an omniscient, vindictive autocrat punishing adults for his youthful naïveté. The episode is highly ironic: Its title is a lie, truth incurs Anthony’s wrath, and challengers are destroyed; also, Anthony himself is negative, and selfishly subdues truth and music to protect himself from uncomfortable feelings. A discussion of Anthony’s idiosyncracies, though, transforms a visceral horror story into an intellectual character study. For horror’s sake, Anthony’s past is left unseen.
Similarly, The Sixth Sense uses a story lapse to create a cinematic tromp l’eoil. We see psychologist, Malcolm Crowe -- after recovering from a bullet wound -- befriend a boy, Cole Sear, who claims that his peephole can “see dead people.” The film’s climax shows that what seemed clear -- Dr. Crowe’s post-gunshot life -- is illusion, and what was vague -- Cole seeing dead people -- is real. Likewise, the apparently corporeal, Dr. Crowe, is revenant. The climax showed that our peepholes saw nothing.
Vagueness and implication create virtually all terror in Rosemary’s Baby (1968), the story of Rosemary Woodhouse, whose husband, Guy, volunteered her to unwittingly carry Satan’s baby to advance his career. When Satan rapes Rosemary, we see only his eyes. Similarly, our peepholes see the hideous infant briefly, while a Satanist tells Rosemary, “He has his father’s eyes.”
Literally, Rosemary’s Baby concerns the antichrist, and Rosemary’s literal horror is that she carries the devil’s child. Her deeper horror, however, is also subtler: her “lover” volunteered her for this. Sadly, Guy’s world of duplicitousness and contradiction has become Rosemary’s world: smiling neighbors secretly seeking Satanic strength, a husband’s lust for fame and fortune, a mother’s sacred womb carrying evil, and a curse fulfilling the promise of a blessing. Such morbid betrayal is the greatest terror in Rosemary’s Baby because it begs the question, “Do I really know my lover?”
Like Rosemary’s Baby, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown is a story of faith misplaced in a false lover. Young Goodman Brown’s peephole witnessed in the night forest his seemingly pious wife as a secret “fiend worshipper.” Faith Brown’s initial vagueness strengthens her believability, mystery, and horror. Also like The Sixth Sense, Young Goodman Brown has a headspinning climax clarifying built on preceding vagueness.
Likewise, Young Goodman Brown’s epiphany reveals contradictions and irony dependent on vagueness. For example, Faith Brown’s vague characterization leads our peepholes to trust what Mr. Brown’s peephole has seen: she is harmless, good, and trustworthy; in fact -- and these facts are brilliantly veiled by vagueness -- Faith Brown is evil, untrustworthy, and harmful. Similarly, Guy Woodhouse’s lack of backstory strengthens his believability and universality. After all, like Walter White, Guy’s mantra could be that he, like any good husband, did “everything for family.” Hence, Guy represents not some generic “guy,” but that somewhat vague lover asleep on the next pillow, head full of (nefarious?) dreams.
Dr. Caligari: Master of Vague Cinematic Horror
Opening our collective peephole to vague cinematic horrors was The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), a masterpiece of cinematic implication. First, the lack of explanation makes Caligari’s inexplicable architecture even eerier. The jagged, leaning buildings and broken windows create a vague sense of the macabre. (In this regard, the film recalls Laurel and Hardy’s 1934 Babes in Toyland.) Windows -- peepholes to the outside world -- are also slanted at bizarre angles without explanation. Another odd, ironic detail is that amongst such strange angles, two things lie in perfectly straight lines: Dr. Caligari’s hair, though usually under his hat, and glove seams. In Caligari’s world, everything -- including straight and crooked -- is reversed.
Dr. Caligari’s vagueness encourages the mind to fill in what the peephole has not seen. After the town clerk ignores Caligari, the former is killed while sleeping. The clerk’s corpse is unseen, while three police officers stand over his bed, his odd-shaped window recalling a coffin. The policemen leave the body to look out the misshapen, broken window, foreshadowing their inability to solve the murders.
Caligari: Master of Sleeping Cesare
At the fair, Caligari hawks the experience of seeing Cesare the Somnambulist who, according to Caligari, has slept his whole 23-year life. Caligari says he is Cesare’s master, and tells Cesare, whose cabinet resembles a coffin, to wake from his “dark night.” When Cesare awakens, Dr. Caligari tells the audience to ask questions since Cesare knows both past and future. Cesare’s alleged abilities seem to promise to become a valuable new peephole. Two men in the audience, Alan and Franzis, take the show lightly, and Alan asks Cesare, “How long will I live?,” to which Cesare solemnly answers, “‘Till the break of dawn,” but not a word more. Cesare’s prediction alarms Alan and the men leave the fair. On the walk home, the two men meet a woman, Jane, with whom both fall in love. After she departs, they agree that regardless whom Jane chooses, they will remain friends. However, before dawn’s break, Cesare’s open peephole shuts Alan’s.
Next we see the shadow of Alan’s fatal stabbing, but no blood no faces. When Franzis learns of Alan’s death, he goes to Alan’s room, where we again see no corpse, but know he is dead and bloody. Ironically, the more genteel social standards of the day -- requiring a vague, implied, almost subliminal portrayal of Alan’s bloody murder -- are far more terrifying than gore. We see instead, again, the odd-shaped windows. “How strange is Dr. Caligari’s world,” we think, offhandedly stating what has been vaguely implied: Dr. Caligari’s cabinet is this insane world. As he is master of Cesare, he is the mad master of all the world.
Caligari: Master of the Awake
While there, Franzis remembers Cesare’s prophecy, reports the murder to the police and to Mr. Olsen -- Jane’s father -- and promises not to rest (unlike Cesare, who has rested his entire existence) until the killer is found. Suddenly, a woman screams, “Murder,” townsmen accost a knife-wielding street prowler, and news of the apparent murderer ends Mr. Olsen’s investigation of Caligari. The prowler’s cryptic explanation is that, yes, he tried to kill the woman to draw attention to the other killer, but, no, he did not commit those murders. We do not learn why the prowler did what he did at that timely moment.
Concern for her father’s absence drives Jane to visit Caligari who denies seeing Mr. Olsen and awakens Cesare. Is is an odd and chilling scene, subtly revealing the cold monstrousness of Caligari, who cruelly answers her fear with terrifying torment. Without seeing a murder, a body, or even a crime scene, we next see Jane, Franzis, and a third party exiting the angular, jagged-gated graveyard of Mr. Olsen’s funeral. Statement is unnecessary. Our peepholes know the men and method of the murder.
Crueler still are the three small, bent, weak, sad crosses on the graveyard wall mourning the mourners, whimpering of evil’s victory. They mourn not only God’s justice, but that such God or justice ever existed. The small, weak, hopeless crosses mourn the small, weak, and hopeless Trinity of mourners, victims, and goodness itself. Without seeing blood, Caligari has turned the world upside down, stealing life and hope. “God is dead,” the crosses mourn, “his angels, gone. All is lost.”
The absence of angels allows perhaps the cruelest in Caligari’s demonic world: neither assistance nor escape exists. None sleep the sleep of angels in Caligari’s waking nightmare. Instead, the resurrected Cesare delivers irreversible, demonic sleep to his chosen.
None until Jane, that is, whose beauty stunned Cesare. While she slept, he stroked her hair, awaking her. They then struggled, Cesare carrying away the unconscious Jane, finally abandoning her near Caligari’s residence. Beauty and goodness’ apparent victory over evil lends hope in the ubiquitous ugliness of Caligari’s world.
Caligari: Master of the Waking Nightmare
The hope of good overcoming evil is soon dashed when Franzis, in search of Cesare, instead finds Caligari in charge of the insane asylum. Reading Caligari’s books and diary, Franzis and the orderlies learn that our Dr. Caligari has adopted the name from a long dead Italian mystic who trained a somnambulist to murder. Faced with the damning evidence, Caligari breaks down, is straitjacketed, and locked in a cell. Later, Franzis visits the asylum, sees Cesare, unsuccessfully proposes marriage to Jane -- whom he has incorrectly presumed to be a visitor -- and falls into madness when Dr. Caligari again appears as the insane asylum’s director. Caligari claims knowing Franzis’ cure, the vague implication being that Franzis is the next Cesare, and that because Franzis opposed Caligari, Caligari will destroy Franzis, and others, while edifying himself.
Much is unexplained in the jarring final scene of Dr. Caligari’s Cabinet -- the reasons for Franzis’ asylum visit, the specifics of the Cesare’s and Jane’s madnesses, Dr. Caligari’s release as a patient and reinstatement as asylum director -- the vaguely presented message being that the inexplicable monster is the scariest.
Dr. Caligari is worse than Rosemary’s-Baby-all-grown-up, for Caligari doesn’t promise to challenge God, as does Rosemary’s evil child. Instead, Caligari is God, a horrific God who mocks, oppresses the innocent, drives to madness, murders, and offers no escape for the living. In Caligari’s evil world, one’s only hope, one’s only escape, lies in the closing of one’s peephole.
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