Horror of the Unknown

Originally published on 27 February 2012

A lot of people talk about this. A lot of writers pay lip service to this idea. But in my reading experience, the ‘horror of the unknown’ only holds for the first half, or maybe the first two-thirds of the story. At the beginning, no one knows what is killing teenagers in the woods, or making religious icons burst into flame, or causing people at a remote scientific outpost to go crazy. But as the hero or heroes investigate, a few clues start to slide into place, and soon, someone rips the mask off of the demon and we find out what it is. It may be a crazy bus driver or something realistic; it may be a demon or elemental force or something barely understood by our science. But we learn some sort of explanation for what it is. And by the end of the story or book or movie or videogame, we feel exhilarated that we survived. We’re also happy that we know what was causing everything to go wrong, and the better the ‘twist,’ the more shocking the reveal, the happier we are with the story.

But what if we never find out?

What if, as in the original French/ Dutch version of The Vanishing (which is better in every way except for not having Jeff Bridges in it), the hero finds out but no one else does?

What if, as in From a Buick 8, the phenomena eventually stop but there is still no explanation for what they were or what was causing it?

What if our protagonists manage to escape, but still never find out why they were being stalked? Or what would prevent it from happening again?

Two of my favourite horror stories are both by Robert Aickman and found in the collection Cold Hand in Mine. Both of them, “The Swords” and “The Hospice,” have a POV character plunged into an eerie situation. By the end of the story, we’ve seen hints of more details behind the scenes, knowledge and information that perhaps we’re not ready for, but we never completely learn what caused everything to happen the way that it did. And both stories are still horribly stuck with me, years later.

Many writers talk about the moment where they have to unmask the monster. But sometimes the hero can’t do that. Or, maybe, is just too frightened to.

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