NUMBER FOUR: The Unknown
According to H.P. Lovecraft, this is the numero uno human fear, and I'd probably agree with that.People are afraid of what they cannot see or understand. This is why the dark is still such a primal fear for so many people, because the dark can conceal any number of things from our perceptions. And, as I've already said, not know or being in the dark (literally and figuratively) is a form of weakness, which makes us vulnerable.
The danger of using the Unknown too liberally is that you wind up revealing nothing, which will frustrate your reader/viewer/whatever. the opposite side of that coin is revealing everything and killing any sense of mystery or dread you may have built up. The sweet spot is in the middle, where you reveal enough to answer some questions, but ultimately wind up creating more. The mystery is still there, but not all of it. Stephen King (ohhh there he is again!) has a good analogy for this. You want to open the door a crack so people can peek in, not throw it wide open or keep it locked shut.
For my first example, I'm going to use something you probably haven't heard of: a short Japanese manga called The Enigma of Amigara Fault by Junji Ito. A localized earthquake happens in a distant prefecture, causing a fault in the side of a mountain to split, revealing a vast, smooth surface of vertical rock with people shaped holes in it of varying shapes and sizes that disappear into the mountain.
Owaki and Yoshida are two young folks who are curiously drawn to the fault by some unknown compulsion. There they meet Nakagaki, a somewhat crazed young man who stares at one of the people holes and says "This hole was made for me." He clibs in, and vanishes into the darkness of the mountain. Owaki later has a dream that he is Nakagaki, trapped deep within the mountain, unable to move, or see, or do anything but scream into the lonely darkness of the mountain's innards (oooh isolation again!).
Yoshida finds a hole that was made for her, but she and Owaki cover it with stones, and go to sleep later. Owaki has another dream that night, about ancient times, when people who committed terrible crimes were placed in the mountain as punishment. He awakens to find Yoshida gone, the stones covering her person-hole removed, her backpack beside the hole. Feeling rather useless, Owaki wanders until he finds his own hole, and enters it. Six months pass, and another earthquake occurs, opening another fault on the opposite side of the mountain. there are holes on this side, but they're thin, twisted, inhuman shapes. At this point, an excavator looks in one of the holes and sees a horribly disfigured alien shape sliding toward them...
There is a lot left unsaid in Amigara. Like, how were the holes made? How do people know a hole is theirs? How can they survive while being so horrifically twisted out of shape? Are they alive once they reach the other side? Why is Owaki having these visions? If this were a longer story, it would seem pretty lazy, but Amigara is short and sweet enough to make the questions tantalizing and spooky rather than irritating. The unknown aspects of the holes, their origins, their mechanics, what crime warranted being put in one, all make the story scarier. If Ito just came out and said "Well, an old wizard put a spell on the mountain," then that wouldn't be scary. We'd stop being in horror and go over into dark fantasy.
But we don't know, so it's scary. By the way, if you want to read the comic you can check it out HERE. Be advised that if you already suffer from claustrophobia, reading it is a bad idea.
Next I'm going to look at one of my favorite video games of all time: Silent Hill. In SH, the protagonist Harry, is on the way to the eponymous town for a little vacation with his daughter, Cheryl. Their car crashes, and Harry wakes up to find his car ruined and Cheryl missing. He catches sight of her in the heavy mist of the town and takes off in pursuit. He quickly finds out that this is not a normal town, as it will constantly flip from a mist-shrouded and eeriely quiet town, to a black-as-night, nightmarish hellscape full of rusted metal and gore and arcane graffiti. Inhuman beasts dog his steps, and Cheryl is always just out of reach.
Through the whole game, the story is constantly tantalizing you with scraps of information. The few humans you do meet always seem to know more than you, but don't reveal much of anything. Where are the people of Silent Hill? Why does it flip realities like that? Where do these monsters come from? What in the name of god is going on here?
You don't know, so it's scary. In addition to the actual writing being mysterious and murky, there's a very neat game mechanic (I know this has nothing to do with writing but it's still cool): you find a radio that emits hisses of static whenever monsters are near. Since most areas of the game are either covered in thick mist or pitch black, this always means you will hear a monster before you see it. Something is coming? What? You don't know. Is there more than one? Maybe, but you don't know.
When I was really little, I watched Scooby Doo. I remember one episode, when I first started watching it and hadn't figured out that the bad guy was always a dude in a mask yet, one episode scared me. It took place at some old radio station and some kind of glam rocker clown ghost was haunting the place. There was one scene where there was a long shot of a hallway with a corner, and the ghost's shadow comes around the corner. That scared me stupid. I stayed well hidden under my Transformer bedsheets where good ol' Optimus would protect me, thank you. Then the clown ghost showed up, and they caught him, and he was a dude in a mask. All of my fear, every drop of it, vanished immediately. Mystery solved, terror gone. By exposing the source of danger, you expose its limitations, its weaknesses and faults, and take its teeth away.
I'll throw out a couple more quick examples from previous entries and then call it a night. In the original Halloween, you never seen Michael Myer's face. In Reaper's Image, you never actually see the Reaper, and you never know what happens to the antique dealer. In Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, you don't know where the gremlin came from, or why exactly it's ruining the plane. In CUBE you don't know who put the people in the titular cube, or how they got there, or where on Earth (if they're on Earth at all) they are.
Conversely, in The Demonata, Darren Shan parades his demons out for everybody to see by chapter two, and explains their motivations, home world, history, interests, weaknesses, and everything else by the end of book one. Way to go "Master of Horror."
So that does it for part four. I've got two more in me, and next time it's all about Survival.