As an adult, my strongest impressions of horror have come from comics. My childhood ones are almost exclusively from tv—the trailer for Magic and a misguided viewing of the beginning of Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein. But as an adult, I remember picking up the first issue of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman (Vertigo) and being so freaked out that I dropped it back on the rack. Sandman wasn’t what I imagined comics were—and I didn’t really understand that it was horror and so its horror was very effective. I didn’t start following Sandman right away, but I followed it.
I still remember the profound horror I felt reading Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing,(Vertigo) particularly his Comics Code Authority-defying trifecta where Abby Arcane’s dead uncle possesses her husband’s corpse and rapes her. Since then I have been nauseated by the bloodworms keeping Manji alive in Hiroaki Samura’s Blade of the Immortal (Dark Horse) and a giant frog exploding into tinier malformed frogs in Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson’s Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites (Dark Horse, 2010). I have been haunted by the image of a drowned Weimaraner in that same book as well as a little boy unlocking his head with a key in Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez’ Locke & Key: Head Games (IDW Publishing, 2010)
Comics are the slow zombies of horror media. And they are horrific for the same reason that slow zombies are: you see what’s coming, inexorably, giving you time to think about exactly who these dead people were to you and what they have become, which trades or transforms fear and panic into horror and dread—and, possibly, even terror and pity.
make effective use of tension-and-release, the two-stroke engine that drives horror narratives….And I’m going to let you in on a dirty secret about comics: Pacing? Doesn’t exist. Try as they might, comic book creators can’t truly control the rate at which readers proceed through their tales. The reason: Peripheral vision.
And so, Weldon writes, comics rely on being disgusting or “unsettling.” Introducing Hill and Rodriguez’ Locke & Key: Crown of Shadows, Brian K. Vaughn generally agrees:
while comics can be creepy or unsettling, they are almost never frightening. Without the benefit of music, sound design, and editing, I think it’s tough for most fiction to elicit genuine fear. But I’ll be damned if there aren’t a few moments in this arc…that rank right up there with some of the scariest scenes from those early Moore/Bissette/Totleben issues of Swamp Thing.
But while a comic creator cannot control the pace of what and when something is seen and filmmakers control exactly that, filmmakers also decide when you stop looking. Film eventually looks away, but in comics, the reader has to turn away. You can stay with an image or revelation. You can never turn the page or you can return to it.
And while “scary” has come to equal “horror,” “scared” and “horrified” aren’t entirely the same thing. All of the moments I mention above—the bloodworms, the exploding frog, the drowned Weimaraner, the opened head—might not have scared me in the cinematic sense, but they did more than disgust or unnerve me; they also horrified me. And horror films are often so busy scaring or panicking me that I don’t have time to think about what I’m seeing at all.
Though film has a kinetic power that comics never can have, I’m not sure that I would have reacted as strongly to those images or that scene in Swamp Thing if they had been cinematic. With Swamp Thing, there would be the violence and my desire for Abby’s escape. I would be upset and angry, and there is the distinct possibility that I would be annoyed. But there would not likely be the cold realization of what exactly was happening. There wouldn’t be the same amount of time for that realization because film is on the clock. In a static medium, there is always time–as much time as you want.
And as not only a static medium, but one bound by an economy of word and image, comics can focus on a single strong image in much the same way as poems do. For example:
You fit into me
like a hook into an eye
a fish hook
an open eye
This Margaret Atwood poem has been hooked into my head, word for word, for decades. The image lingers in much the same way that the image of the boy’s unlocked head stays with me. I don’t know why, but I can’t shake it.
And that same image of the unlocked head disturbs me more with its cleanness than it would if it were gory. That neatness would be hard to replicate in a live-action film because the effect might look unreal—out of synch or on a different plane than the rest of the film. But, for the most part, everything is equally stylized in a given comic. Human beings are already abstracted and the horrors and monsters are almost always rendered with the same style and technique as everything else in their world.
So, yes, comics cannot replicate film and horror has become strongly associated with film. Vincent Price asserts that, “The word, ‘horror’ was invented in America.” And while I don’t know if that’s factual, I wouldn’t dare dispute with Vincent Price. I do know that Hollywood has made horror as we know it. It has created a genre, its structure and rules, that people recognize, play with, revolt against and recreate.
But there was horror before there was “horror.” When people went to see Dracula in 1931, they were going to see a “mystery.” And there were gothic novels, penny dreadfuls, supernatural ukiyo-e woodcuts, and further back, morality plays, Seneca’s bloody tragedies, Euripides’ bloodless ones and various storytelling traditions long before Edison Studio’s 1910 silent film, Frankenstein. They all relied on different techniques and they all emphasized different aspects of horror because horror itself is more than a two-stroke engine of tension and release.
Carol Borden recommends both Locke & Key and Beasts of Burden for your Halloween reading.
(This article was originally published by The Cultural Gutter on Oct. 13, 2011)