The other day I was having a conversation with a friend (that I am now going to excerpt, summarize, and vastly over-simplify for the purposes of this post) about a particular graphic novel. She had liked it, but it had scared her. I asked if it was too scary for the classroom, and she said that, in certain circumstances, yes, and the thing that made it so was the images that went with the text - when something was just words, she said, you could just skim over, and didn't have to see the images in your head, but in comic form, the images were there and you had to see them.
It was, honestly, something I had never thought about before, because for me, seeing something automatically makes it less scary. Having a concrete image, no matter how graphic or horrifying, shuts down the part of my brain that imagines The Worst Possible Thing. So because this new idea completely shifted my worldview, I did what anyone would do in this situation: I asked twitter.
The results of this obviously very scientific study was an overwhelming number of responses saying that scary stories without pictures were scarier than those with. Which I mention not because I think it definitively proves anything (different things scare different people, and horror is the one genre I have consistently seen defined by the emotional response it evokes in the reader, as well as the content of the story), but because it made me continue to think about the question. Most of the people I talk to regularly on twitter are writers. I believe that everyone who responded to my question is. And so I wonder if, because as writers, we work with words, we are somehow wired to respond more strongly to written art than to visual art.
Fairly quickly, I think, the discussion moved to "what makes effective horror," how showing too much of the monster served to negate its ability to frighten someone, and whether too much knowledge can diffuse the atmosphere of horror. I really liked this response, from Gwenda Bond, "I just reread Danse Macabre and directly visualized horror is tougher. Chaos lives in glimpses and the dark."
Another response that I found very helpful in thinking about this question was from Jason Ciaramella, who writes comics, and spoke specifically about the form. He said there were two reasons why he felt that comics, as a medium, couldn't really maintain an atmosphere of horror. One, because you turn the page, and that acts as just enough of a reprieve from whatever the writer and artist were able to do that it stalls the buildup. The other is because, for most of us, our first experience of comics is with cartoons. No matter how good a particular artist is, he or she is working against our subconscious idea that Ziggy and Garfield just aren't scary.
It's an interesting discussion, and if you've read this far because you were hoping I'd formulated a Unified Theory of Fright, I'm afraid I have to disappoint you. The one thing I do know is there are all sorts of horrors, both seen and unseen, and I need to go write about them.