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My brain knows how to creep me out

alex macfadyen
Posted December 15, 2011

My wife spends a lot of time thinking about zombies. Recently she posed me a question: which is the more powerful image, a zombie baby or an empty infant car seat during a zombie epidemic? The zombie baby is creepy, sure, and if it’s well done it’s horrifying, but I think for me the empty car seat wins because it leaves so much horror to the imagination. And my brain knows exactly how to creep me out.

The theory’s not limited to horror, either. Although we ended up talking about zombies, The X-files, the Resident Evil 4 video game, and I Am Legend, what first started me thinking was the final episode of Friday Night Lights.

Friday Night Lights was an outstanding drama series that gained critical acclaim but failed to draw a large audience, probably because it centers on high school football culture in Texas. At the end of the finale, our team is playing the state championship game they’ve been working towards all season. There are seconds left on the clock, and they’re down by 5 points. What we see of the game is a montage set to music: a final long pass that spirals in slow motion towards the end zone, each of the major characters in succession, their eyes describing the arc of the ball down the field… then it cuts to nine months later.

Winning the championship seems like the natural climax to build to in a show about football, but FNL is actually about the people. The choice to not show that critical moment and instead cut to the characters’ lives in the future makes the focus clear. There are details in the following scenes that tell you who won, but you have to look for them yourself. That moment reminded me how brilliant and unusual FNL was, and left me thinking about the impact of what’s missing or implied; the things we don’t see but we know they’re there.

Maybe it’s all the late night movies my father taped on our VCR and discovered too late he had cut off recording just before the end, or a side effect of reading the many endingless stories in Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, but I just don’t want to have it all laid out for me. I don’t want to be left entirely in the dark, but there have to be dark corners for the scary things to hide in.

My favorite poetry professor called simile “the trope of inadequacy” because being “like” or “as” something falls just short of being exactly that thing. She taught us to look for meaning in the unspoken difference as well as the overt comparison. I learned that we all interact with art, and bring our own text and subtext to that interaction. People create meaning from a text by using their imagination to relate it to themselves, and the gaps are where we squeeze ourselves in. If we’re shown every detail and told how everything goes, the story becomes increasingly specific to the writer and loses the power that comes with being adaptable to each individual’s experience.

Which leads us back to the zombie baby and the empty car seat. The absence of the baby is a blank space surrounded by horrifying implications, allowing our imaginations to choose their own adventure. Simply not knowing is unsettling in and of itself, and as long as we don’t know, we get the whole pack of emotional experiences for one low price. Like Schrodinger’s cat in a box, all potential paths exist at once in a viewer’s imagination, but as soon as we’ve been shown what “really happened”, the other possibilities melt away.

The zombie baby, on the other hand, has shock and entertainment value, but there’s so much that could go wrong. There are the limitations of special effects and budgets, of acting babies and CGI babies, and perhaps most importantly, of any one person’s ability to create a universally scary zombie baby. I’m willing to bet that my vision of a zombie baby scares me the most, and yours scares you the most. What’s in your own head isn’t limited by budget or ability to execute, so it can always be rendered realistically and is completely specific to you.

I remember how excited I was to watch The X-Files every Friday night when it first aired, but I quit before the final seasons. I’ve started re-watching it, and I think it was creepier at first because they didn’t offer too much closure. Combined with the ever-evaporating evidence, Mulder’s paranormal credulity and Scully’s rational skepticism generated explanations that left just enough uncertainty to be ominous. For me, the show got progressively less creepy and interesting as character and story development required that they find some answers rather than having the government keep stealing the body at the last minute for nine seasons.

In short, it’s usually a mistake to answer the question “what’s out there?” or give the audience a good look at the aliens, afterlife, giant slugbeast, etc. It’s inevitably a disappointment. The creepy thing under the bed is creepiest when it could be everything we’re afraid it might be. As soon as we’ve seen it, we’re assessing its weaknesses and planning our escape. Or drowning our fear in a pool of absurd CGI, cheesy makeup, and inexplicably warped laws of physics.

For instance, the zombies in the movie I Am Legend would have been much creepier to me if their jaws didn’t open too wide for them to have ever been human beings. I enjoyed a lot of things about playing the Resident Evil 4 video game, but they lost me when the zombies’ heads split open and there were tentacled parasites inside them. And as a rule of thumb, if you’d have to work to climb into the monster’s mouth so it can eat you, it’s not scary.

Somewhere between The Creeping Terror and the uncanny valley is an optimal point that implies enough without showing too much. I can’t see it, but I know it’s there.


At the moment, alex MacFadyen is imagining how relaxing life could be if his worst problem was avoiding the creeping terror.


One Response to “My brain knows how to creep me out”

  1. Carol Borden
    December 19th, 2011 @ 6:26 pm

    I love this line:

    “And as a rule of thumb, if you’d have to work to climb into the monster’s mouth so it can eat you, it’s not scary.”

    Still have pleasant memories of us watching that lady shove herself inside the Terror.

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