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Smart scares for smart people

Smart scares for smart people


A Verge staff survey considers culture that’s more elaborate and unnerving than a jump-scare

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Illustration by Junji Ito

By now, filmmakers and game designers have jump-scares down to a science. All it takes to really startle an audience is a combination of unsettling music, a protagonist or avatar creeping up on something they probably shouldn’t approach, and a big blare of sound and something moving rapidly at the screen. The formula works just about every time, to the point where a painfully clunky horror movie like Rings can get away with startling audiences just by having an umbrella open up on-screen really, really loudly.

But good horror — the kind that gets in under the skin and really sticks with you over time — usually has a psychological element, some kind of hook that plays to real, personal fears. The best horror is intelligently constructed, enough to keep viewers unnerved even after the adrenaline blast wears off. We asked The Verge’s staff to consider some of the smartest, best-constructed media that really scared them at some point in their lives. Here’s what they came up with.

Tasha Robinson, film / TV editor: I’ve gotten really impatient with movies like Drag Me To Hell or the Final Destination series, where characters accidentally blunder into a punishing situation they can’t escape, no matter what they do. If they don’t have any options at all, what’s the point of watching them struggle painfully for a couple hours? That’s why one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen, the one that sticks with me most, is J.A. Bayona’s The Orphanage. It starts out looking like a standard haunted house thriller with the lead character visiting the orphanage where she grew up and finding it haunted by a creepy little apparition that tells her young son horrible things, and pulls terrible pranks. But before long, she’s making the active choice to not only stay at the orphanage, but to explore it and engage with the potentially malevolent spirits there. The way she bravely puts herself into terrible situations on her son’s behalf makes her admirable, but it also endlessly ratchets up the tension because the audience knows she could just fold and run. Instead, she keeps escalating the situation far past most people’s breaking point.

Andrew Liptak, weekend editor: I recently re-read Cixin Liu’s Three-Body Problem series, a space opera about humanity’s first contact with aliens, and how it goes badly. He introduces a concept known as the “Dark Forest” theory, arguing that alien civilizations have no way of knowing whether any other alien civilization is hostile, so the best course of action for survival purposes is to destroy any potential adversary as soon as possible. Over the course of the trilogy, Liu demonstrates this in a chilling fashion: one star system is destroyed in an experiment.

But the real horror comes in Death’s End, the final book of the trilogy. (Spoilers ahead.) When our solar system is discovered and attacked by an advanced civilization — not with a projectile, but with a device that transforms three-dimensional space into two dimensions. Liu plays this out slowly, first as humans discover the object, and quickly become trapped in it as it expands to encompass a spaceship, then the entire solar system. It’s a visceral, terrifying scene that plays out in front of humanity. They can’t escape; they can only watch as they’re captured and transformed into a gruesome portrait.

Illustration by Junji Ito

Adi Robertson, senior reporter: Junji Ito is rightly known as a master of horror manga, and that’s partly because he’s just a fantastic artist. Nobody is better at rendering hideous distortions of the human form. (The first time I read his skin-crawling series Uzumaki in college, I couldn’t stop thinking about parts of it. This was… not pleasant.) But his best stuff is unforgettable because it frames body horror with stories of absurd, irresistible compulsion.

“The Enigma of Amigara Fault” — whose slightly ridiculous, mostly grotesque final panel has circulated around message boards for years — is about a rock face that’s inexplicably dotted with human-shaped holes. The holes call to certain people, and they feel compelled to enter the rock face, even though they know they’ll be stuck once they climb inside. This turns a weird but seemingly innocuous discovery into a nightmare, fueled by the fundamental fear of your own mind turning against you. The story offers virtually no clues about what triggers the urge and no way to escape it. Not only are characters going mad, they know they’re going mad, and knowing doesn’t make a bit of difference.

Laura Hudson, culture editor: There’s no shortage of haunted house tales or body-horror stories about distorting and violating the human form. But Anatomy, a short game by indie horror doyenne Kitty Horrorshow, offers the best of both worlds: an experience where the haunted house is the body, and you are tasked with moving inch by unsettling inch through its innermost parts.

This is a game about dread rather than shock, about feeling compelled to walk down a dark hallway when you’re frightened to step forward. There’s a distinctly lo-fi aesthetic to the game, which crackles with the static of an old VHS tape and opens in an eerie kitchen where a cassette tape player sits, waiting. A message appears on the screen: “There is a tape in the basement.” Will you go? Of course you will — dreading every step.

Image: A24

Devon Maloney, internet culture editor: When it comes to atypical terror, for me nothing can beat 2013’s Under the Skin. Mica Levi’s creaky, often atonal score is categorically sickening. The main theme’s rhythm makes it feel as though the music is hunting you, gaining slowly but steadily. The rest of it is basically just a cacophony of string instruments being destroyed in hell, which ratchets up my anxiety to toxic levels.

The film adapts Michel Faber’s novel about an alien who takes the form of a human woman (Scarlett Johansson) and traverses the Scottish countryside, luring unsuspecting men into a den where she feeds them to… some other, far worse creature. Many believe the scariest part(s) of this movie comes when the audience learns exactly what happens to the victims within the inky-black void where Johansson leaves them. But no, the real soul-freezing moment comes at the very end. (End spoilers ahead.) When a logger attempts to rape Johansson’s character, he tears her human flesh-suit, revealing her true skin beneath. She peels out of her false body slowly, as if she’s escaping a suffocating superhero suit. Just when she seems to have escaped, he returns with a canister of kerosene and a match and sets her aflame. The whole sequence is the most chilling thing I’ve ever seen on-screen. I can joke about misandry and rail against the patriarchy and indulge in Hollywood’s female-revenge fantasies all I want, but Under the Skin taps directly into the fear that someday, a man will still be able to hunt me down and annihilate me for fighting back.

TC Sottek, managing editor: The day after my 10th birthday, the first Resident Evil game was released in the United States. To that point, I had never left the Hobbiton-like sanctuary of Nintendo games. So when I ran off on my own one day during a family trip to Toys R Us and picked up a PlayStation controller, I had no idea what to expect.

I didn’t know how to actually play the PlayStation demo of Resident Evil, which meant I was devoured by zombies within 10 seconds. Then everything went dark, and the message YOU DIED filled the entire screen with bloody letters. It’s the scariest shit I’ve ever seen. I literally had nightmares for months involving giant red typography in the black void of dreamspace. It seems like such a laughably harmless trick now, but I’d never been so forcefully and intimately addressed by a game. YOU DIED grabbed me by the neck and didn’t let go. It was like the game knew who I was and that I was going to die. I still have nightmares about typography sometimes.

Shannon Liao, news writer: The scariest kind of horror is when you feel sympathy for the monster and understand its plight while knowing its inevitable doom is coming. One of the first scenes in the zombie movie Train to Busan (currently on Netflix) is when a young girl, probably a student, stumbles into the high-speed train, clutching at her leg. She’s nearly lifeless, already slowly turning into one of the dead. At first, while watching her, I thought she was selfish for trying to run from her fate, endangering dozens of train passengers who would’ve otherwise escaped from the zombie outbreak. It’s already too late for anyone to help her, but watching her struggle to cling to the last moments of life, pulling together a makeshift tourniquet for her zombie bites and hiding in the bathroom, I glimpsed how precious life was to her. And that image returns to me again and again. Should we care for people on the brink of death, even at the risk of our own lives? Is the danger worth bringing us closer to realizing the value of human life?

Bryan Bishop, senior editor: When I was a kid in the 1980s, I was obsessed with two things: Stephen King novels, and Infocom text adventure games. The two came into perfect alignment with The Lurking Horror. (Okay, technically, it was more Lovecraft than Stephen King, but I hadn’t worked my way up to Cthulhu at the time.) The player is a college student at an MIT-inspired university, and while desperately trying to finish a term paper, they uncover sinister doings that connect a recent campus suicide, monsters, the school’s underground steam tunnels, and the mysterious Department of Alchemy.

Like all text-adventure games, The Lurking Horror relied solely on prose and the player’s imagination, but its smarts and sense of atmosphere wormed their way into my brain — so much so that when I later went to college, I yearned to discover underground steam tunnels that were home to evildoing at my own university. Unfortunately, there weren’t any… or did I just never find them?

Michael Moore, reviews coordinator: Yoshihiro Togashi’s manga / anime series Hunter x Hunter is about Gon, a boy who decides to become a Hunter like his absentee father, hoping to learn why the profession is appealing enough to make a father abandon his son for it. The series is a shonen action series much in the way of Naruto or One Piece. But as the series progresses, it gets more dreadful. It’s like it’s designed to make readers constantly worry that their favorite character might die horribly — or worse, survive at a terrible cost. The story comes to a head when Gon joins up with his father’s protégé Kite to hunt down chimeric ants, which take on characteristics of whatever they eat. The ant queen has been eating humans and producing human-sized ants that then go out and collect more humans to devour. The horror here isn’t about the ants being monsters. It’s an existential dread — should the ants be considered people? And if they are, what does that mean for the people hunting them and for a world that can spawn a new race of humanoids at the expense of the existing one?

Liz Lopatto, deputy editor: Maryn McKenna’s Medium post “Imagining the Post-Antibiotics Future” starts mildly enough, as McKenna learns about a branch of her family tree: a long-dead great-uncle, felled by a bacterial infection just five years before the advent of penicillin. Then she begins to ratchet up the creeping unease by discussing Alexander Fleming, the father of antibiotics, who predicted two years after penicillin was introduced that the drug wouldn’t be good forever.

And it wasn’t. But the real marvel of McKenna’s story is how she slowly moves through the consequences of antibiotic resistance: death from childbirth, ear infections that cause deafness, sore throats that cause heart failure. From there, she expands her focus: the end of surgery. The end of cancer treatment. Entire medical disciplines wiped out. Whole swaths of people condemned to death. All for want of an antibiotic.

I won’t spoil the climax of the piece in which McKenna highlights the source of the growing antibiotic resistance, but for most people, it’s already in their own home. I sometimes read this story when I’m feeling sleepy. I’m not sleepy by the end, but the trade-off for the alertness is a low-level unease that can last for weeks.