Bite-sized chill factor
The scariest film I’ve seen is Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (2011). In truth it’s not that terrifying but what put the willies up me at the time was sitting down to watch what I thought was one of kind of flick (a thriller) and then, about twothirds of the way through, being plunged into a graphic occult horror movie with a brilliant, sickening ending.
Stephen King or MR James never bother me that much because I’m mentally prepared for a “horror” story and thus not terribly moved when the monsters appear. But after watching Kill List I found myself worried that the back door didn’t lock properly in a dodgy part of St Kilda, and I slept with an axe under my bed for the next week.
That’s the difference between horror and other genres. Horror works on the deep recesses of the mind. Horror turns on switches that kept our ancestors alive long enough to procreate and pass their genes onto us. Flight or fight is something even an amoeba seems to understand.
Darryl Jones’s Sleeping With the Lights On: The Unsettling Story of Horror is a nice primer and guide to the history of horror fiction in literature and film. At 200 pages it’s not terribly comprehensive and those looking for, say, Neil Gaiman or James Herbert in the index are going to be disappointed. This is not to knock the book, Jones isn’t writing an encyclopedia, he’s attempting to give us a breezy summary of the genre, from The Epic of Gilgamesh and Greek tragedy all the way up to Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017), for which Peele won a scriptwriting Oscar. In this he largely succeeds.
With so much material at his disposal, Jones, a professor of English at Trinity College Dublin, must find some grand organising principle. He decided to split the book into five sections: monsters; the occult and supernatural; horror and the body; horror and the mind; science and horror. There’s also an excellent afterword that looks at the developments in horror since the turn of the millennium.
Monsters is a lively section, taking us first through cannibals then early vampires, classic vampires and finally annoying teen vampires.