I have often argued that electricity and door locks make us brave. It is easy to scoff at the idea of “wicked things in the dark” when one has the comfort of a secure and well-lit home. I find it to be of no coincidence that the first industrial revolution brought to an end many public superstitions (in private folks were much less willing to let these go). After all, with the wide spread use of gas street lamps, the dark was a much less frightening place…at first. You see with the death of superstition and with all those warm, glowing lights to guide them, people took to staying outside much later. Under this false sense of security they risked the darkness believing that their technology had slain all the world’s demons. Instead what they found in the dim glow and half shadows of night were the real monsters. And those monsters were us.
I believe “Horror” owes its birth not to the darkness, but to that dim, false light. It was, after all, in that light that Shelly saw her Frankenstein monster(1818), where Poe watched the Fall of the House of Usher(1839), where Henry James spotted his ghost in A Turn of the Screw(1898) and where Stoker introduced us to Count Dracula(1897). But perhaps the closest we came to the monster’s real face was in Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Stevenson gave us our first look at the mind of madness just two years before a man named “Jack the Ripper” brought the madness to the front page news. It would be over a half a century before Robert Bloch would again remind us that the monster lives next door in his classic, Psycho. Of course some of the greatest human monster stories never appeared within the pages of a book. These fearful warnings pass among children on hushed playgrounds and by the beam of “sleepover” flashlights. They are the root of our horror stories, our dark folklore, and tales of terror in the ordinary world. They are those childhood fears we bring into adulthood to remind us that perhaps the world is not as safe as we’d like to believe. I speak, of course, of the Dark Urban Legends – Those Grimm’s Tales of the modern age.
Last evening two friends came to visit and as often the case we began to discuss horror ( I think this is mostly for my benefit that they engage the topic). They shared with me a legend that I was unfamiliar with, Slenderman. It is typical of the legends in that Slenderman is a creepy somewhat disfigured fellow – very long arms and a face that apparently lacks eyes. He has, of course, a propensity to steal young children and he has been around since the 1800’s…because they’ve always been around for a loooong time. I was astonished to see all of the pictures available on the web in which Slenderman is present in the background. One guest suggested they were photo-shopped (of course because imagine the loss of sanity if you were to consider that they were not). I was thrilled however to find that someone had created a free download-able video game. Your mission is to walk through the dark woods with your fading flashlight and collect the notes left by a missing child. As you collect each of the eight notes the scary music gets louder and Slenderman gets closer. Do not turn around. Do not look at him. These are the basic rules of survival…and it is creepy as hell.
Urban legends are the foundation of our beloved dark fiction because they remind us that locks and lights are not enough protection. And why should they be? Sooner or later you must shut off the lamp and what good is a lock if one slips in during the day and waits in your closet? Or the backseat of your car? Or a friendly clown asks for assistance finding his lost puppy? The dark urban legends remind us that terror sometimes waits in the most ordinary of moments or under the most innocent of circumstances.
One of the first “legends” I heard was “The Hook.” It was told to me by my cousin Laurie when I was maybe four or five years old. Years later I would be unable to resist writing a version for my own children that I called “old cotton road.” I was thrilled that it gandered the same reaction. And that is what is so intriguing about these little tales. Something so short and concise can give rise to such fear. It does not matter if we know they aren’t true…because we also know that they could be true…that any of these situations might, if we are not careful, happen to us. I love these urban legends because they remind us that it is not the probabilities that instill fear, but the possibilities. Horror isn’t about the monster…it’s about imagining running from the monster. Horror isn’t about being stabbed by the crazed clown…it’s about knowing if you turn you will see his face in that dark window.
So I will leave you with one of my favorites ~ I didn’t write this one, all though I wish I had:
A young girl named Lisa was left alone on several accounts as her parents worked late. They bought her a dog to keep her company.
One night Lisa was awoken by a constant dripping sound. She got up and went to the kitchen to turn off the tap properly. As she was getting back into the bed she stuck her hand under the bed, and the dog licked it.
The dripping sound continued, so she went to the bathroom and made sure the tap was turned off there, too. She went back to her bedroom and stuck her hand under the bed, and the dog licked it again.
But the dripping continued, so she went outside and turned off all the faucets out there. She came back to bed, stuck her hand under it, and the dog licked it again.
The dripping continued, drip, drip, drip. This time she listened and located the source of the dripping — it was coming from her closet. She opened the closet door, and there was her dog hanging upside down with its neck cut, his blood dripping to the floor. Written on the wall behind the dead dog was, “Humans can lick, too!!!”