From a 1939 Dutch workplace safety poster by Gé Hurkmans.
The book I find myself most often recommending—Grace Krilanovich’s The Orange Eats Creeps—is perfect reading for tonight, or for any chilly evening, when the fallen leaves outside have begun to mold and decay in wet piles. I may originally have read it in the summer, but so thoroughgoing is its tone of paranoia, cold, rot, and subsumed violence that you can’t easily separate yourself from the refracted narrative of the book’s protagonist, an ESP-endowed teenage girl running with a group of “vampire hobo junkies” in the Pacific Northwest. She’s searching for her foster sister, Kim, along the “highway That Eats People,” and the novel reads like an Orphic descent into a bad dream within a bad dream, with the physical landscape—loamy, waterlogged, and dank—doubling as the psychic landscape: “The land was not to be trusted. Its climate had the potential to make those teetering on the edges of decency spill over into murderville … Psychos tried to plug up cracks with bodies, cloth, whatever’s at hand.” —Nicole Rudick
Scary things I remember: a hand coming out of a box on The Electric Company, the dying boar on the cover of my parents’ Four Seasons LP (made them skip the Autumn movement), “Ode to Billy Joe,” reading The Dead Zone by flashlight under the blanket at camp, The Shining (movie), The Exorcist (book), the prophecies of Nostradamus (had to hide the book), Let’s Scare Jessica to Death on TV on a Sunday afternoon (Sunday afternoon movie), the Twilight Zone movie (had to leave theater), Eraserhead late at night alone in my parents’ bedroom (“You are sick!”), the diner scene in Mulholland Drive (the compressed audio), the distortion of Laura Dern’s face in Inland Empire, “Don’t Crash” by Front 242, in the listening room at the school library (do these still exist?), Don’t Look Now, Francis Bacon, Fleetwood Mac, The White Ribbon, the dream sequence in Amour, and the scary-doll movie Sadie made me see last month. The other things I’ve managed to forget. —Lorin Stein
Taylor Swift’s “Track 3” recently made it to number one on Canadian iTunes. The track was a glitch, eight seconds of white noise. I’m open-minded, so I gave it a try, and by lunchtime I realized, rather suddenly, that “Track 3” was stuck in my head; Swift seemed to follow me into the void, filling it with something familiar yet indefinable. In “Track 3” she’s mastered the Freudian uncanny, something that’s frighteningly unknown but brings us back to something familiar. Freud once quoted Ernst Jentsch: “One of the most successful devices for easily creating uncanny effects is to leave the [listener] in uncertainty whether or not a particular figure … is a human being or an automaton.” I maintain that Swift released “Track 3” in all its uncanniness to confess that she is, in fact, an automaton. If you think your costume is good, stew on that: Swift’s has been better, every day, since 1989. —Alex Celia
Alex jests, but I do not: I really adore Taylor Swift. And that’s scary. She’s just released the best pop record of 2014: the most exhilarating, the most addictive, and also the most inscrutable, the most frustrating. Carl Wilson, the best pop critic writing today, understands—his review of 1989 uses Swift’s famously undisclosed bellybutton as a metaphor through which to apprehend the entire Swiftian zeitgeist. He gazes into her navel “as umbilical nub,” “as median point and sore spot,” “as Jell-O shot dispenser,” “as contemplative locus,” “as camera aperture,” “as teen-pop erogenous zone,” “as pretty hate machine,” “as the whitest thing on Earth,” and “as the omphalos of capital,” among others. No one has better identified the qualities that make her such a vital force in pop, so lucid and so obscure. “You could tug forever at the ends of Swift’s elusive, invisible abdominal bundle of avarice and sentiment, art, ego, envy, love and hate, drought and flood, truth and fiction, savior and monster,” Wilson writes, “and it would never come undone.” If that’s not horrifying … —Dan Piepenbring
There once was a time when the scariest thing imaginable was what one never saw: creaks in the floorboard, the rustling of branches against the window, whispers floating in the wind. It used to be that the monsters in horror films were never seen, which got under your skin: think of the spiral staircase of the original The Haunting, the eerie sobs of an unseen woman in The Uninvited, the psychological violence in later films like The Entity. Then slasher flicks and the “video nasties” of the early 1980s came, and we evolved into the terror porn of the Hostel series to laughable films like The Human Centipede. These films are indeed horrific, but are they scary? It’s pretty unlikely that I’ll stumble upon some sadistic German surgeon, but I turn the lights off every night. So it totally makes sense that The Blair Witch Project made millions of dollars—that last image in the basement is still ingrained in my head because—besides being absolutely terrifying—you never know who was behind the terror. (I still can’t go camping without thinking of the film.) One recent film that stands out, and one that gets better with repeated viewings, is The Orphanage (2007). There’s nothing innovative in the storytelling—haunted house, missing child—but it expertly builds the atmosphere of the remote orphanage and the characters who inhabit it. There aren’t as many thrills as something like The Descent—a great example of what is still possible within creature features–but when the scares come they are genuine. The rest is waiting, anticipating, dreading; there’s nothing scarier than what haunts one’s imagination. —Justin Alvarez
A gory horror flick can disquiet even the most courageous moviegoer. But I’m more haunted by 1950s women’s film, a genre that explores female dramas and dreams: romantic entanglements, major wardrobe malfunctions, and domestic crises of all shapes and sizes. Jeanine Basinger (of no relation to Kim), a film scholar and the author of A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women (1993) shares my horror, and investigates this shiny pink brand of cinema, deftly placing our favorite heroines—Bette Davis, Ava Gardner, Jeanne Crain, Jean Arthur, et al—under a microscope. What does a love triangle really signify? Why is the vixen wearing red, and the virgin bedecked in floral? Why does the has-been actress/mother resent her ambitious daughter? With conversational ease and acerbic wit, Basinger reminds us of the many ways that writers in Hayes Code–era Hollywood spoke subliminally, with cues and winks. —Kate Gill
David Foster Wallace’s “Mister Squishy” (from Oblivion, 2004) has mirrors, masks, and poison—three of horror’s tropes, deployed here to clinical, even banal, effect, which makes them all the more terrifying. The story follows a midlevel advertising exec as he conducts a focus group for a new line of superbly chocolatey snack cakes called Felonies!; he’s so fed up with his career, and indeed with the trajectory of his whole life, that he’s elected to turn his focus group into act of terrorism against the advertising industry. His methods, as you’ll see, are the stuff nightmares are made of. And Wallace’s alert, anxious prose taps into our deepest fears about society: about the loneliness, estrangement, and resentment produced by corporate culture; about the way that language, in such a culture, functions as an alienating, dissociative tool rather than a way to communicate; and about the sense that under late capitalism we’re all complicit in a kind of hypnotic consumerism, that we’ll never get out from under “the jargon and mechanisms and gilt rococo with which everyone in the whole huge blind grinding mechanism conspired to convince each other that they could figure out how to give the paying customer what they could prove he could be persuaded to believe he wanted.” —D.P.
I recently rediscovered Lisabeth Zwerger’s selected and illustrated fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen on my bookshelf. It’s a beautiful collection with some of Andersen’s most treasured stories. For me, the most bizarre is “The Tinder-Box” (1835), about a witch with an under lip that hangs down on her breast; three dogs with eyes as large as teacups or windmills or towers; a tinderbox that, with each spark, summons the elephantine-eyed dogs; and a soldier so avaricious it’s chilling. What’s most intriguing is the story’s princess: she’s locked in a tower, as most princesses are, kidnapped and kissed by the nefarious soldier as she sleeps soundly, and when her parents are slaughtered, she sheds not a tear. By the end, fear reigns, the soldier becomes king, and it was all “very pleasing to her.” Now, this could be another display of the vilified damsel. But what if the princess was in on it all? —Caitlin Youngquist
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