I know, I know. I did say, in my previous piece on The Tenant, that I was going to try to avoid discussing the better-known horror fare as much as possible, and yet here I am, sorta already breaking that rule. My justification for what follows is two-fold: Firstly, I love this damn scene and I still vividly remembered it years after first seeing the film; and secondly, it’s not usually one of the scenes that people single out as being the scariest in the movie.
Wes Craven’s A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984) is a horror behemoth that not only spawned fifty squintillion sequels and spinoffs, but also established one of the most recognizable horror baddies of all time. There probably isn’t a horror fan alive who hasn’t seen it. While the merits of the sequels can (and have been) debated to death—and I for one tend to be one of those people who feels that most of them, while good films, veered too far into self-parody to be effectively frightening—I think it’s pretty much universally accepted that the original was one of the scariest horror films of the 80s.
The scenes that fans and reviewers tend to point to when they talk about “scary parts” are usually the more splashy ones (in both senses of the word), like the blood geyser that erupts when Johnny Depp is sucked into his bed (during the Miss Nude America pageant, no less), or Tina’s gorily and gloriously airborne murder. Another popular choice is Freddy’s appearance in Tina’s dream, his shadowed figure approaching through the alley, his freakishly long arms causing his finger-blades to scrape unsettlingly across the walls. These are all great options, but the one I want to feature is much less ostentatious, since as I keep repeating, the creepiest scenes for me are ones that are predicated on suggestion and atmosphere.
Main protagonist Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) is sitting in her English class, wearing a tragic combo of pale pink sweater-vest and high-waisted beige slacks (ahh, the eighties). Since her terrible dreams have been keeping her up nights, she’s understandably a mite drowsy. She struggles to keep her eyes open as the teacher drones on, and then as a student gets up in front of the class and begins to read from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
She blinks sleepily, but for a moment we don’t realize that she has dozed off. And then things start to get weird. She happens to glance to her right and sees that her murdered friend Tina is standing in the doorway of the classroom, ensconced in a bloody body bag. Tina’s hand reaches out inside the plastic. “Help me,” she says. And then Nancy turns back to survey the classroom, perhaps to check if anyone else is seeing this crazy shit. The boy is still standing at the front of the class reading Julius Caesar, but now he is staring straight at Nancy and reading in a flat, menacing whisper.
The first time I heard that whisper, I honestly got goosebumps, because for whatever reason, one of the things that disturbs me the most in films is when a character inexplicably starts speaking in a different voice. Incidentally, other examples of similar movie scenes that had the same chilling effect on my psyche were Danny’s croaking “Redrum” getting suddenly higher-pitched in The Shining, the Judge’s normal voice jumping into screeching cartoon mode in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and the little old woman talking in the voice of Nicole Kidman’s daughter in The Others. I realize that this is a particular bête noire of mine, so readers’ mileage may vary, but for my money, the boy in Nightmare On Elm Street reading Shakespeare in the slow, hissing whisper is easily the most unnerving part of that scene, and for me it added a nice little fillip of terror.
Moving on, Nancy looks back at the doorway. Bodybag Tina is gone, but there’s still a big ol’ blood puddle on the floor to mark her presence. Nancy gets up from her seat and goes into the empty hallway. There’s a wide blood trail allllll the way down the hall, and at the end of it, there’s Tina lying in her body bag. Her feet are raised as though an invisible person is holding them up, and then she is dragged slowly out of the frame.
The entire scene is five minutes long, but it’s really only these first two minutes that are effectively scary. Once Nancy runs around the corner and crashes into the snotty hall monitor in the telltale striped sweater, and then descends into the boiler room where she confronts Freddy, big as life and oozing with green chest-goo, the frightening part of the scene has already happened. The little details of the buildup are what make the scene eerie for me; after that, it’s just a comedown from the high.
Stephen King, in his excellent 1980 non-fiction book Danse Macabre (which I read so many times that its pages eventually fell out) describes this principle with the following example: Say you have a scene where the protagonist is walking down a dark, creepy hallway toward a closed door. He knows there is something behind that door, and the viewer knows it too. The tension builds as the protagonist gets closer and closer to the door. Eventually, he gets to the end of the hallway and opens the door, but once the door is opened, the terror is basically dissolved. King imagines that a ten-foot bug is behind the door. The viewer might jump or scream when he sees the bug, but King argues that this is actually a sign of relief. “Oh, it’s a ten-foot bug,” the viewer may think. “That’s pretty bad, but I thought it would be a HUNDRED-foot bug.” What the viewer imagines is behind the door is always going to be much, much worse than what is actually there. Another relevant and obvious analogy would be a roller coaster; the scariest part of the ride is the slow ascent to the top of that first drop. Once you go over the hill, you can deal with the consequence and enjoy yourself, but the ride, while exhilarating, isn’t really scary anymore.
King then went into a discussion about how various horror writers and filmmakers had dealt with this principle in their work, and how effective they had been. Is it better to never show your monster? Only show it vaguely, so its true form is never really grasped? Or should you simply go balls to the wall and slap that bitch up on the screen and into everyone’s face in as unexpected a manner as possible? Readers of this blog should know where I stand on the issue (hint: somewhere between the first and second of those things), but I’m curious to hear different perspectives, if anyone would care to share them.
I may or may not be posting more of these in the next few days; I’m on vacation until after Labor Day, and the God of Hellfire and I are having an out-of-town guest who will need to be entertained, so I may not have as much time to do writeups. But whatever happens, the series will continue in due time. As always, thanks for reading, and I hope you guys are enjoying the posts. Goddess out.