Horror independent of increased knowledge?
July 4, 2013 6:40 PM   Subscribe

Are there any horror works which do not derive increased horror from increased knowledge?

I love horror films and fiction but lately I've begun wondering about their portrayal of knowledge. I can't think of any horror works which do not cause horror by increasing knowledge--in Psycho and Silence of the Lambs the climactic reveal is what's in the basement; in The Changeling it's in the attic; in The Shining one of the most horrifying/memorable scenes shows what's in room 227; I thought Misery might be an exception, but the reveal there is Annie's past as documented in her scrapbook. In Texas Chainsaw Massacre there are a couple of reveals, including the nature of the BBQ the teens have eaten and Pam's realization that she's taken refuge with Leatherface's brother. In The Ring, the nature of the ring and its importance to Sadako are initially a mystery, and seeing the tape is fatal unless you spread that knowledge by endangering someone else.

Have any works managed to increase horror without revealing new information? And has anyone written compellingly about the politics/philosophy of horror in regards to knowledge (in any format--mass-market nonfiction, blogs, dissertation, whatever)?
posted by johnofjack to Media & Arts (28 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Perhaps Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House"? Much of the terror is atmospheric and oblique. There is some information about the house's past, but no major reveal, IIRC.

Also, one of Jackson's short stories, "The Lottery," becomes more and more unnerving, and I don't recall any grand explanation of the story's events. (YMMV; it has been a while since I've read it.)
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:49 PM on July 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

Not sure if you're looking for horror that gets scarier by not revealing information or horror that gets scarier in spite of not revealing information. Subtle difference, maybe.

But I think The Blair Witch Project does this? The original movie with none of the extra material answers zero questions and the ending kinda raises more questions than it does provide information and that's what's scary about it. At least to me.
posted by dogwalker at 6:52 PM on July 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

In the film Take Shelter you never really find out if the main character has mental health problems or there is actually a cataclysmic storm coming -- which is really the very horror of mental illness in a nutshell. The ending is open to many interpretations.
posted by seemoreglass at 7:04 PM on July 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

"Never Let Me Go" doesn't really have so much of a horrifying reveal. Instead, through a million little events, the viewer eventually realizes that there isn't a light at the end of this particular tunnel and that the main characters (clones) are being raised and farmed for their organs.
posted by jph at 7:09 PM on July 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You might find the works of Robert Aickman instructive. He wrote horror tales --- or, as he called them, "strange stories" --- that typically depended upon the ambiguity and uncertainty of the situation as the narrator/protagonist describes it, often without any resolution of what exactly has happened or why.

In the introduction to The Second Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories, which he edited, Aickman wrote [referring to his introduction to the First Fontana collection] "I suggested that the ghost story draws upon the unconscious mind, in the manner of poetry; that it need offer neither logic nor moral..." And his stories, so ambiguous and moody and almost always without closure or even a full recognition of the uncanny events, almost without exception bear that out.

For example, "The Hospice" described here: [spoilers, insofar as anyone can spoil this weird little tale] a traveler has car trouble, then is bitten or scratched --- he never even becomes certain of that --- by something that he presumes to be a cat. (That is also never confirmed.) He seeks help in an unfamiliar nearby hotel only to find that they have no phone. Injured, unsettled, late, and without petrol, he's obliged to accept the offer of a night's stay in this comfortable but increasingly odd... hotel? boarding house? hospital? club?

The plainness and the ordinary, dismissive annoyance (and reluctance to think too hard about the goings-on) of the narrator's manner contrast strikingly with the increasing weirdness around him. The oddities add up and the atmosphere gets increasingly sinister; indeed, as the narrator keeps musing on the mundanities of his home life, where his wife was expecting home long hours ago, the suggestion quietly blossoms that perhaps that home life a little unstable or abnormal, too. There is never any reveal of what, if anything, is going on either in the hospice or with our narrator, but "The Hospice" haunts me as perhaps the most unsettling story I've ever read.

Academic critiques of Aickman's work (and this is true for any other authors or works that seem promising to you) would be a good place to start looking for larger analyses of this ambiguity in horror and speculative fiction. Authors interested in his odd flavor of storytelling are likely to have written about other, similarly ambiguous tales and authors, and the bibliographies will also probably point you toward collections of scholarly work on similar subjects.
posted by Elsa at 7:11 PM on July 4, 2013 [14 favorites]

I also arrived to say The Blair Witch Project, and kind of... Jaws.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:15 PM on July 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

2nding blair witch project...

you might also look into 'slenderman'...he's made of shadows and indeterminacy!
posted by sexyrobot at 7:15 PM on July 4, 2013

Some movies play with that expectation of the explanatory reveal, but deny giving it to create a kind of horror. Berberian Sound Studio does pretty well with the unsettling feeling of being less sure what's going on as the movie progresses, the feeling of getting further and further away from knowledge and sanity. I'd say Mulholland Drive (and I might argue The Shining, too, and American Psycho) is similar; as it goes along you see new things but it never, you know, makes sense. There is often horror in progressing away from knowledge and never coming back.

Or are you just talking about in small-scale use of increased knowledge like revealing what's behind the slowly opening door? Because even in Texas Chainsaw Massacre (which I admit I have never been able to sit all the way through) and other really awful horror sometimes, the reveal is a denial of an answer to, "why is this happening?" and along with that comes the realization that there's no reason, nothing makes sense. It's just evil, and you can't get away because evil cheats, a la Funny Games, where finding stuff out doesn't actually help or matter.

I think the opposite (and what I took your question to really be about) is the horror of knowledge, when you figure out exactly what's going on and that is the horrible scary thing. The best example I can think of right now is the mutilation in Looper. Or maybe the original The Vanishing which is all a slow awful reveal.

So to try to answer your question, I guess I'd say that you can move further away from what is known into the weird, or move back by trying to make the weird comprehensible (but still scary because it's 'real' now), and both can be horrifying/upsetting/unsteadying. However, you don't necessarily have to do the part where you make things comprehensible. While most horror tries to work that cycle, it's possible to just keep going out into weirdland and never come back.
posted by fleacircus at 7:33 PM on July 4, 2013 [4 favorites]

The Birds
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:34 PM on July 4, 2013 [6 favorites]

Without revealing too much about it, the book Night Work seems to fit this description.
posted by whistle pig at 7:36 PM on July 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Like Eyebrows mcGee I came to say The Birds where you never know what caused the chaos. But the OP's question is great because this very deviation in The Birds does ultimately prove that the generic rule exists to begin with: you keep waiting for the knowledge/horror arc and feel instead the horror of that expectation being endlessly unresolved.
posted by third rail at 7:54 PM on July 4, 2013

Paranormal Activity ... 2 or 3? I think it was in 2, there's a part where the dad and daughter take the dog to the animal hospital and leave the mom home alone. She winds up being pulled screaming into the basement by an invisible force, the door slams shut, and then the clock fast-forwards to show she's been in there a few hours. She emerges like a zombie ... for me that was the creepiest part of the movie even though the viewer has no idea what happens to her down there.
posted by mannequito at 7:56 PM on July 4, 2013

The Strangers? I guess *spoilers that were in the trailer* the increased knowledge that there is no increased knowledge walks a fine line.
posted by yellowbinder at 9:26 PM on July 4, 2013

The so-called "rational Gothic," associated with Ann Radcliffe, generally associates horror with mystery; the "reveal" calms the protagonist down. (The most famous example of this is in The Mysteries of Udolpho, and involves a very scary-looking corpse.) This approach also pops up in ghost stories where the ghost needs to know something in order to rest, as in Caitlin Davies' recent The Ghost of Lily Painter.

For non-reveals, Henry James' The Turn of the Screw (are the ghosts in the governess' head, or not?).
posted by thomas j wise at 9:43 PM on July 4, 2013

The original 1974 film Black Christmas features a largely unseen killer who is as unsettling as can be because we know so little about him. His vocalizations are often shrieks and moans and gibberish (recorded by several different people, in fact) with occasional mutters of context-free phrases -- "Agnes, it's me, Billy! Don't tell what we did!" -- that the viewer can interpret to taste. Decades later there was a 'remake' that spelled out in tedious detail his backstory, who the people he referred to were, etc. There is a reason that one of these films is hugely influential and one, er, not.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 10:11 PM on July 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Signs reveals the aliens at the very end, but the movie is terrifying primarily for what it doesn't show. The menacing creatures remain almost entirely hidden throughout the movie. Your mind fills in the blanks and creates suspense far beyond anything that could be actually depicted on screen. While there is a reveal at the end, it's function is more to tie thematic points together than to drive across the horror element of the film.

In short, Signs reveals very little about the horrifying creatures at the center of the story, even as they close in on the protagonists.
posted by helloimjohnnycash at 10:25 PM on July 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Korean movie The Host reveals the monster in broad daylight in one of the first scenes, and nothing more is learned about it during the whole movie.
posted by Tom-B at 10:44 PM on July 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm trying to decide of The Happening would fall into this category. Mark Wahlberg's character does kind of figure out what's going on, but it doesn't actually seem to solve anything in the long term, and it doesn't stop the whole thing from being really scary and seemingly impossible to deal with. Hm. As much as that movie freaked me the fuck out, now I want to rewatch it to see if it really does fit.
posted by emcat8 at 12:34 AM on July 5, 2013

Best answer: I take it you mean that you're looking for films that engender a sense of horror in the spectator without the spectator coming to learn anything?

If so, any movie that can elicit horror on a rewatch will count. I know exactly what is going to happen at every moment in Nightmare on Elm Street, so I don't learn anything by watching it and I don't gain any knowledge. But it's still scary. And that shows that the movie's ability to elicit horror does not depend on its ability to produce knowledge.

I'm not sure this answer gets at exactly what you want. It's kind of a confusing question. Other people in this thread are interpreting it to mean many different things, I think.
posted by painquale at 12:37 AM on July 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Interestingly, one of the things that builds tension in thriller/horror films is not knowing what's going on or being able to see the creepy thingie clearly. Sometimes this is due to limited special effects budgets, but basically when you know what something is, it is frequently less creepy and terrifying rather than more. Maybe because you then feel like you can do something about it. For example, Alien and, to an extent (though less so) its sequels.

But if you think about many horror film techniques, it's glimpses of the creepy thing and cutting to the scared people that build the tension rather than slow, uninterrupted shots. One of the scariest moments to me in Texas Chainsaw is not at the end when you find out about the cannibalism, etc, but when Leatherface drags one of the kids off and slams the door shut - you only get a glimpse of him and then the sound of that door... *shiver* The tension and terror is dialed up by not knowing what the hell is happening, by only having a tiny glimpse and then bang, shut again.

Anyway, I think horror works on different levels. The intellectual or messing-with-reality kind of horror that comes from a fuller knowledge that you describe is one kind of horror (this seems a very Lovecraftian kind of horror, usually sending people insane) and that visceral kind of terror of the half-glimpsed, unknown, terrifying thing is another.
posted by Athanassiel at 1:00 AM on July 5, 2013

Battle Royale also follows this pattern. The circumstances (a group of children being armed and turned loose on one another in a forced fight to the death) is itself so horrifying that no "reveal" is necessary later on make it any more awful. (This may also be true of Series 7, the American Reality TV version of Battle Royale. I don't recall it well enough at the moment.)
posted by jph at 7:14 AM on July 5, 2013

Best answer: Some atmospheric films are deliberately ambiguous. Here are a few lists of atmospheric horror movies to get you started. Some of them will have a "reveal", some won't.

A lot of blood-and-gore movies are pretty direct from the get go: the teens go to the haunted house and everybody dies. You're not learning any new information, really, except to find out who survives. You often know from the beginning who the culprit is (the escaped killer!) and the horror lies not in learning new information but in watching the inevitable play out.

But you're not going to find movies or stories where you never learn any new information; the plot won't progress that way; there'd be no story. All stories are dependent on new information being revealed and, in the horror genre, most new information is going to add to the creepiness just by the nature of the type of story being told. Even the teenagers in the haunted house open the door an OH MY GOD ITS GARY HE'S DEAD OH FUCK THE KILLER'S IN THE HOUSE AHHHHH, which is new information and adds to the horror. In some instances, for for some people, the big "reveal" (it was Sally all along... and she's still out there!) actually relieves the horror- that's why it's at the climax; because the new knowledge indicates that the awful things have stopped happening, for this movie at least. So I think you need to decide what type of new information you're least interested in and go from there.
posted by windykites at 8:05 AM on July 5, 2013

What about Open Water? We pretty much know how it's going to end...the horror lies in waiting, I suppose.
posted by daisystomper at 11:42 AM on July 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Lovecraft is all about this, the very fact that the monsters are beyond our comprehension is what makes them so terrifying.
posted by biscotti at 3:41 PM on July 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: dogwalker, DarlingBri, sexyrobot: Blair Witch is an interesting one; it's scary in spite of not knowing the explanation for what's happening, but the answer is there in the film (in the interviews in town). When we were walking home from the theater my friend and I figured it out and suddenly it seemed much less scary, even kind of mundane (oh, a crazy guy was behind it all). I'd forgotten about that.

MonkeyToes, seemoreglass, fleacircus, thomas j wise: thanks. I'd also completely forgotten about psychological horror, where--like in Blair Witch--much of the horror is derived from not knowing the nature of what's actually going on. In that case, knowledge might relieve the horror somewhat.

Athanassiel: that's a good point, about horror working on different levels. My examples above are probably all working on the same level, whatever level that is.

windykites: I think you're right that stories don't progress without any new information, so in horror fiction it's probably impossible to completely separate new information from increased horror (even "there's something outside the tent" counts as new knowledge, regardless of whether we know what that something is).

painquale: it's interesting that you mention that Nightmare on Elm Street elicits horror on repeat viewings even though you know exactly what is going to happen. The first time I saw The Shining I thought it was kind of daft and lightweight, and really didn't understand why people praised it. When I gave it a second chance I thought it was okay; on a third viewing I thought it was terrifying. That experience, like yours, is another counterexample to the idea of new information in horror fiction as something inherently horrifying. You might be right that the question is a bit confusing, if not confused.
posted by johnofjack at 4:07 PM on July 6, 2013

You might consider reading up on the paradox of suspense. Suspense seems to require uncertainty, but we can feel suspense when watching a movie even when we know what is going to happen (because we've seen the movie before).

Horror isn't quite the same as suspense, but the two phenomena are close relations, and there seems to be a similar paradox.
posted by painquale at 5:29 PM on July 6, 2013

The Shining
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 9:37 PM on July 9, 2013

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