When Do Scares Happen? – The Witch

The Witch screencap


A Column by J. Torrey McClain

I saw The Witch last week and I got a few true scares.  I also felt a little sleepy at a few points due to a big meal beforehand, poor sleep hygiene at the moment and possibly, possibly, due to the movie and its time period.  It has made me wonder, when in the history, present and future of the universe is the best setting for horror?

I’ve written before on horror in the future when I looked at A Walk in the Dark by Arthur C. Clarke.  (I won’t make myself shudder by mentioning spooky little girls again.)  As I wrote about in that essay, the compelling element of that story came from its application to any time period.  The dark scares us.  The dark scared us.  The dark will continue to scare us.

The future can be scary in its own period as any watching or re-watching of Alien can stir up the tension and fear of meeting with the unknown on the fringes of space.  If not a xenomorph, maybe it’s the weeping angels of “Blink” or the Vashta Nerada of “Silence in the Library” from Doctor Who that get you.  The future combines the unknown of our nightmares with the familiarity of the present (video stores, libraries, kitchens) set in just enough of a different place to make it believable.  When won’t we have libraries?  (In the presence of eBooks, after Netflix all but eliminated video stores, I maybe should have kept that question to myself.)  When won’t we gather with others to eat?  When won’t we watch video entertainment?

video store x

The present scares me because I can insert myself into the world of self-documentation like in The Blair Witch Project or the world of the omnipresence of cameras in the various Paranormal Activity movies.  As I type, someone could be scoping me as I scrutinize my screen, attired in a Kingdom Come Superman shirt.  Properly spooked, I may throw in the towel on this essay, go to my bed, open my Spanish language-learning app and get watched through the camera on my phone.  I could put the phone face down and still not solve the possibility of someone watching me through the rear-facing camera as I crack open one of those library books that pedants might argue as far-fetched.

The past though, the past creates a different issue.  We don’t live in the past, except for metaphorically.  (Forget about that “C” in 9th grade English, Mark.)  Those of us that consume horror movies don’t live days away from human contact.  Heck, in a properly crowded movie theater, there might be eight people within arms reach as we watch The Witch.  Chopping wood for anything other than a feeling of self-reliance or a romantic fire in a seldom used fireplace has mostly gone away since the invent of central heat.

Carey Mulligan Blink Doctor Who video store

Still, the past can relate to the same fears that I feel in the present (and I expect to feel the same in the future) because of bugbears that continually exist.  A broad and empty, dark and silent wood can cause me to pause in any joyful exploration.  When a hush falls over the environment, a hush can fall over my mood and turn playfulness into dread.  A dark library, a dark walk on a road, a dark spaceship or a dark wood all means the same thing – the unknown.  When the only sound I can hear is the sound of leaves crunching underfoot, I notice the lack of birds, the lack of animals, the lack of other humans.  If the world has rid itself of all the visible living animals, it’s only the ones that don’t want to be seen as they stalk my presence that surround me.

But, any problems with the past can be solved nowadays by civilization.  A flashlight.  A headlamp.  A car.  A bike.  Good running shoes.  Hiking boots.  All of those things can alleviate isolation and brighten the darkness of the unknown that were unavailable to the people of the past.  Today the problems of batteries dying are nothing compared to torches extinguishing without the benefit of a pocket Zippo.  Tires flatting instead of wheels breaking offer much less inconvenience.  Shoes falling apart pretty much is the same in both the presence and future, it’s just running shoes are so much more sensible today.

VHS machine x

So, I suppose I’m saying that those that tell horror stories have to work a bit harder when civilization dotted the landscape instead of blanketing it in order to scare me, but otherwise the time period doesn’t really matter as the things that scare me can hit anytime.  The Witch did its job admirably; it’s just that I haven’t had to think about the inconveniences of the past while getting scared before now.

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