by Ron Samul
Sometimes, the things that keep me up at night aren’t the monsters and zombies, but rather a subtle fear that comes from dark corners and empty spaces. I didn’t know what to call this kind of fear. I didn’t know where this article was going to take me, but I did know that I was probably going to write about the creepy state of nothing. And I had a few examples. My two favorite examples of creeping me out is The Color Out of Space by H. P. Lovecraft which takes the horror of nothing into a series of gruesome events described as something terrible happening, with no clear purpose. The second example is the dense and complex House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski. This visual adventure is scary, disturbing, and mind twisting. And then it hit me. I had discovered existential horror.
So, what is existential horror?
Sometimes, horror is the belief that something supernatural is possible. Monsters, zombies, aliens, all fit into that category of the impossibly possible. But if we believe in nothing, or accept the belief (or how a person can exist without belief in God) that there is only us and nothing else, then what becomes of the horror? Is it scary to believe that there is no reason for someone to murder? Is chaos and anarchy more frightening than a purposeful and meaningful murder? What if we can’t imagine the horrible thing in the woods? What if the most horrific part of the dark maze is getting lost? What if the scariest thing under your bed is the empty space waiting to be filled by your imagination? That is the art of nothing.
House of Leaves is a cool book in its complexity and darkness, but there was something more there. I realized that it wasn’t the unknown that brought about fear, but it was the simple act of not having my fears grounded in something rational that bothered me. In an interview with Mark Danielewski, he says, “After all, maybe what we’re so frightened of will turn out to be nothing more than a dark, empty room. Then again, maybe it won’t. That’s what we’re here to find out.” Fear starts with that first glance into the dark room. Might be nothing at all. Could be everything you fear. This book is a fascinating example of how interwoven elements come together and shakes off the conventions of reading in a straight line. It is refined, dark, and creepy writing, and the layers help unravel the story to bring in credibility and complexity. It is a maze of obscurity, text, and confusion. It is closer to real life, with no real answers and more confusion. What really happened here? We can’t be sure, but it was scary to walk through it.
If you like a bit more structure and a little more context to story, then Lovecraft might pull you from the obscure and into the bizarre. In his work The Color Out of Space (1927), he uses this concept of emptiness to draw out horror. “Something was creeping and creeping and waiting to be seen and felt and heard,” the narrator says. The premise is simple, a meteorite or something lands on a farm and infects the land, the farm, the animals, and eventually the people. When you read this story, that “something” is waiting, but is never defined. No alien creatures come out of the crater, no invasion, nothing. Just more infection and change. It feels like a dream, it feels like that moment when you wonder if Lovecraft is just playing a game with the reader. The reason for this response is based on how little Lovecraft gives us concerning the “infection” that is taking over. There is little detail about the cause, it is all reaction to something intangible. It is an empty emotion, waiting for connection and meaning to take over. He then takes it a step further. “But the terrible thing about the horror was that it very slowly and perceptibly moved as it continued to crumble.” This horror was not only moving and growing, but it was falling apart and disappearing all at the same time. This “something” is hardly perceptible, and by the time you might understand it, it will crumble and be gone.
The story is based on something that comes from space and lands on a plot of farm land. Not only does this space thing land on a farm, it begins to wipe out the family. It is “something” but impossible to contain by smell or feel. The smell comes from the decaying animals and people in the well. It isn’t concrete in description. Clearly, there is something terribly wrong. And it’s also clear that something has to succumb to it (the family living on the farm) to satisfy it. The light and the essence was in the trees and in the vegetation. It was making branches and trees come to life and sway from an internal source. And seeing this monster isn’t about facing a mutant, or some alien creature – it is about sensing the horror permeating and effecting the farm and the family. “And yet amid that tense godless calm the high bare boughs of all the trees in the yard were moving.” Eventually, the source is the well in the yard of the farmhouse where terrible things are pulled out and the bottom is never reached.
Existential horror is the subtly of suggestion and innuendo. It is the ability to prove the almost imperceptible. In this story, Lovecraft creates tension and doubt through subtle powers taking over the farm. The monster isn’t what is in the well, it is our own imagination and lack of understanding – the subtlety of horror. Why is subtle and suggestive elements of the story powerful? A monster can be scary, but highly unlikely. Even more frightening, is the scary that is possible. The closer we come to the subtlety of reality the closer we come to our own fear that it could really happen.
In House of Leaves, we feel the same ambiguity. The more we get lost in the maze, the more we feel like we will come out somewhere. Mark Danielewski said, “House of Leaves is certainly about the unsettling nature of fear – and it was my aim to address that – but it’s also about recovering from fear.” If we look at existential horror as the subtly of nothing, an empty place where our imagination fills the space where blood, and monsters, and twisted stories come from, and turn this idea into the very concept of “recovering” then it would have to become part of the definition. I think The Color Out of Space does that. The narrative gives subtle and frightening suggestions that play on in imagination. However, part of the story is that the location of this horrible event will be covered forever under a flooded reservoir. The story is set up to hold on to this idea that the narrator will never be back to this evil farm, and hopes he won’t have to ever recollect what happened again. Closure to the story isn’t based on whether the horror continues, but can we finally cover, conceal, and forget this ever happened? Can we recover from something we don’t understand? Or will the unknown always be our deepest fear?
Virginia Woolf wrote a short piece called “Three Pictures” for The Death of the Moth and Other Essays. In this fictional scrap, she creates three distinct written portraits. The first about a homecoming of a sailor. It is very sweet and pastoral. The second idea is a still dark night that is poisoned by a terrible scream. This cry haunts the narrator. The last picture is about a walk in the countryside, calm and serene. When she comes to a family digging a grave in a cemetery, it is revealed that the sailor died of a terrible fever and when he passed, his wife ran out into the lane and cried out a terrible scream.
Woolf creates this tension in the second picture pushing the existential idea to the edge of the solitude and darkness. She writes, “It was a woman’s voice, made by some extremity of feeling almost sexless, almost expressionless. It was as if human nature had cried out against some iniquity, some inexpressible horror. There was dead silence. The stars shone perfectly steadily. The fields lay still. The trees were motionless. Yet all seemed guilty, convicted, ominous.” This inexpressible horror comes to light and all those pastoral ideas that Woolf wants us to think about is fractured from knowing this horror. And it is her words that bring a better understanding to this idea of existential horror: that perhaps it is some “inexpressible horror” that we are trying to describe.
Existential horror is the fear and the darkness of thing moving through subtly. Often, the reader isn’t clear where the action or the horror might exist. It is a manifestation of fear, of what could be, and what isn’t there. These stories represent the beginning of what would be a fascinating exploration into this shapeless idea of existential horror. Defining new dimensions of fear based on subtle uncertainty creates ambiguity, fear of the unknown, and the sense of dread that we won’t be able to understand what it is that is scaring us. Let me know if you find some existential horror stories, books, or movies. I think The Blair Witch Project is an interesting study in the art of empty fear. The art of nothing or the “inexpressible horror” is an empty promise: something that is closer to reality than to fiction. It brings us closer to the possibility that it could happen, closer to truth.
Cottrell, Sophie. A Conversation with Mark Danielewki. Random House. https://www.randomhouse.com/boldtype/0400/danielewski/interview.html
Danielewski, Mark Z. House of leaves. Pantheon, 2000.
Lovecraft, Howard Phillips. The Colour Out of Space. Penguin UK, 2011.
Woolf, Virginia. “Three Pictures.” The Death of a Moth and Other Essays. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich NY, (repub 1970) 1942.