40 SHADES OF BLACK: FLAVORS OF FEAR
Because there’s 40 different shades of black
So many fortresses and ways to attack
–Pavement, “Elevate Me Later”
Welcome back, 24-hour horror people. Today we are going to delve into the meanings of several english words used to denote fear, and see what the differences are between them, with some illustrative examples from film/television. We’ll start with the mildest form, and end with the big kahuna itself, the H-word. (Please keep in mind that my use of these terms is NOT objectively scientific, and is more a theory than anything else.)
Definition: sinister or ghostly in a way that causes fear and unease.
Spookiness is the most mild form of fear. When we walk through a haunted house attraction, we might get some good jolts and a kind of permeating nervousness, but our rational minds tell us there is no real danger. A graveyard at night is generally Spooky.
Kid-oriented scary stuff tends to fall in the Spooky category. SCOOBY DOO is a good example.
Definition: Inspiring inexplicable fear, dread, or uneasiness; strange and frightening.
Eeriness is the next step up the fear ladder, where a threat is detected, but without a centralized focus. Having a strong negative reaction to a place, for no obvious reason, is Eerie. Meeting someone who looks just like your dead grandpa is Eerie. We are uneasy, but not enough to trigger a fight or flight response in us yet.
Most films that exude Eeriness will eventually ramp up to something more viscerally frightening by the end. CARNIVAL OF SOULS is a great example of a film mostly in the eerie mode, though the carnival imagery by the end is definitely less Eerie and more terrifying.
Definition: Of or producing a sensation of uneasiness or fear, as of things crawling on one’s skin.
Creepiness is that back of your neck tingling when you hear a strange sound outside, or the shivery feeling of wrongness when we walk into a room and the light is on, though we distinctly remember turning it off. If meeting someone who looks just like your dead grandpa is Eerie, then having that person lick you and run away is Creepy. Being Creeped-Out is a reaction to an obvious threat, enough that our hackles go up, and our fight or flight mechanism begins to idle in the background, ready to throttle up as needed.
David Lynch’s movies are almost all made up of one Creepy scene after another. He is the Spielberg of Creepiness.
Definition: Intense, overpowering fear.
Terror is the distilled feeling of full-bodied fear. Someone chasing you with a knife would be Terrifying. Here, the threat is completely real AND very serious. All any human being can do when filled with Terror is to respond by either fighting or trying to get away (or falling apart to the point that they can’t pull off either option, and are then eaten by the enraged grizzly).
Movies that are filled with terror are those with concrete threats, generally, realistically portrayed. ILS and THE STRANGERS come to mind as Terrifying, rather than Creepy or Eerie. In both, the main characters are set upon by mysterious (but obviously human) weirdos and there is extended chasing of prey by predator. These kinds of films really get us at a physiological level, and tend not to have much in the way of theme (except maybe “masks suck” or “I rather dislike bad people”).
Definition: An intense, painful feeling of repugnance and fear.
If you take the wrongness of The Eerie, the dread of The Creepy, and the full-bodied alarm of the Terrifying and mix them together, you get the full cocktail of fearful emotions: HORROR. This kind of fear hits us in all aspects of ourselves–bodily, emotionally, intellectually. A feeling of true Horror is one that tells us not only “I am about to die here!”, but also “The world is much worse place than I ever realized.”
For a great example, I’ve got three little letters for you: T, C, and M. THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE is a film that starts creepy, turns terrifying, and then finally explodes into full-on insane horror. It has remained a scare champ for 40 years because of the intensity with which it goes for its vision of true Horror. If you’ve avoided this movie (like I did for many years) because the title seems kinda cheesy, or it looks dated, etc., my HEARTY suggestion would be to seek it out asap, because there is nothing else like it.
Thanks for playing! More tomorrow…