It’s not what kills you, but what you can survive that defines horror

Let’s call this the Law of Pain: nothing that outright kills you is as scary as something that leaves you alive in a state that might as well be death.

I was watching movies this weekend and playing a little LA Noire (great game, by the way) when I realized something: things that just kill you aren’t very scary.  Sure, a bullet to the head can be gross, but it’s not scary.  The person is dead, just dead, and while it may be shocking, it sure isn’t scary.  Scary is what you can live through.  Scary is having half your face blown off and still being alive.  That’s where the fear is.

There are plenty of horror films and stories that get this wrong.  Look at Friday the 13th.  Jason stalking his victims is scary.  People coming across their remains is also somewhat scary (more shocking, but still scary), but the actual kills?  Not so scary.  He’s too efficient, really, except for the classic sleeping bag kills.  What will freak people out and get under their skin is something that’s basically enough to kill you, but you’re still alive, and still in pain.

I was looking through some scenes from horror movies and I came across one from some low budget Saw/Hostel ripoff.  I don’t like these sorts of films, but this one was particularly bad.  In it, a woman was hit in the face repeatedly with a large mallet.  Now, the effects weren’t super, but it was still horrifying, because she went from being a relatively attractive woman to this mess of a face that looked a little like a blood-soaked muppet (which was mostly because of the super heavy latex used to re-sculpt her features), but the way her jaw kept working, and her one visible eye just flicked out in terror…it was unsettling.  As I watched it again, I realized it was really scary.  It was scary because she was still alive, clearly in a kind of pain you’d hope would cause you to pass out at the very least, and her face was nothing but a complete ruin.

And then, sitting there, trying to process it all, I was reminded of The Princess Bride, and the threat of fighting “to the pain”.  If you’ve forgotten this, shame on you, but here it is:

Prince Humperdinck: First things first, to the death.
Westley: No. To the pain.
Prince Humperdinck: I don’t think I’m quite familiar with that phrase.
Westley: I’ll explain and I’ll use small words so that you’ll be sure to understand, you warthog faced buffoon.
Prince Humperdinck: That may be the first time in my life a man has dared insult me.
Westley: It won’t be the last. To the pain means the first thing you will lose will be your feet below the ankles. Then your hands at the wrists. Next your nose.
Prince Humperdinck: And then my tongue I suppose, I killed you too quickly the last time. A mistake I don’t mean to duplicate tonight.
Westley: I wasn’t finished. The next thing you will lose will be your left eye followed by your right.
Prince Humperdinck: And then my ears, I understand let’s get on with it.
Westley: WRONG. Your ears you keep and I’ll tell you why. So that every shriek of every child at seeing your hideousness will be yours to cherish. Every babe that weeps at your approach, every woman who cries out, “Dear God! What is that thing,” will echo in your perfect ears. That is what to the pain means. It means I leave you in anguish, wallowing in freakish misery forever.
Prince Humperdinck: I think you’re bluffing.
Westley: It’s possible, Pig, I might be bluffing. It’s conceivable, you miserable, vomitous mass, that I’m only lying here because I lack the strength to stand. But, then again… perhaps I have the strength after all.
[slowly rises and points sword directly at the prince]
Westley: DROP… YOUR… SWORD!
Prince Humperdinck: [Humperdinck’s mouth hangs open, drops sword to floor]

That’s horror.  That’s the sort of thing that will give you nightmares if you really think about it.  That’s a life not worth living any more, and yet still alive.

So I suppose what I learned, what I got from all of this, was that death really isn’t all that scary.  It’s living that’s the real terror.

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