VOYANTS: The Promise of Violence in Seeing and Being Seen
by Bracken MacLeod
What I apprehend immediately when I hear the branches crackling behind me is not that there is someone there; it is that I am vulnerable, that I have a body which can be hurt, that I occupy a place and that I cannot in any case escape from the space in which I am without defense—in short, that I am seen. – Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness
Every story I read or write involves a promise. It is the pledge that an author makes to the audience that they will be rewarded for their faith in the story. In romance, the promise is love. Mysteries guarantee the satisfaction of the unraveling of a puzzle. In horror, the promise that the writer makes to the reader is the he or she will evoke fear.
I understand the attraction of “subtle” and “atmospheric” tales; well done (and how I love them when they’re well done), they can produce a wholly satisfying sense of fearful dread. But I’d also say that even in atmospheric horror, the dread the reader feels is the result of the promise of what is being subtly revealed. And that pledge is exactly the same as it is for extreme horror. The deepest root of fear is the threat of violence. Just because someone doesn’t have whip welts on their back don’t think there hasn’t been violence. That is to say, all horror assures violence of some kind: physical, psychological, spiritual, etc. Without it, what have you got? A ghost isn’t scary merely because it is a ghost. Neither is a man holding a knife. Both must offer something to the reader to evoke fear.
To expand on an example given by Alfred Hitchcock, a bomb underneath a table is more terrifying if the people in the café carry on their conversations unaware of its presence while we, the viewers, know it is there. But the bomb is only frightening in the first place if three conditions are met. First, we must understand the underlying concept of a bomb. Since most of us possess an understanding of a bomb’s only purpose (destruction), we can leap into the conceptual future and imagine the result of the ticking timer reaching zero. The second condition is the story-teller’s willingness to make us believe that the device might actually go off. If we know the bomb’s a dud or the hero will always defuse it at the last second, it is simply not scary. Finally, and most importantly, is our ability to put ourselves in the place of people in that setting—to be present at the table with violence and death. Fear exists is the moment of transformation from the known to the lived—bridging the gulf between academically understanding danger exists and being in danger. Thus, the sine qua non of good horror, as I see it, is the transformation of the reader from subject (i.e., conscious observer) to object (i.e., victim).
In a horror story we want the babysitter to hide because we are vicariously experiencing events from her perspective. As long as she remains an observer hidden from view behind slatted closet doors, the tension dissipates and we relax. Until she is discovered. The scariest scene to me in John Carpenter’s Halloween (to stray again from the written word for a moment) is when Laurie Strode believes she has defeated the Shape and collapses in the doorway of the bedroom from which she has just escaped. Behind her, perfectly silent, Michael Myers sits up and turns his head toward her … and keeps going all the way toward us. In this subtle breaking of the fourth wall, Carpenter assures us that being seen is the onset of violence.
Let me give a more concrete example. My wife and I are what I like to call shoe-leather tourists. That is, we like to see the cities we visit on foot, moving between neighborhoods without mediating our experience from behind the barrier of a cab or a rental car window. On a trip several years ago to Salvador, Bahia (Brazil), however, we were told that we could we not walk the neighborhoods between the hotel and the historic district without endangering ourselves. The hotel concierge assured us also, once at our destination, that we should stay on the main thoroughfares. As long as we could see shop signs, he explained, we were reasonably safe. Wander down a side street, however, and we would again be taking unnecessary risks with our well-being.
Taking his advice, we stuck to the main streets. But it is impossible to move in a city without at least passing those side streets. And it’s just as impossible (for us, anyway) not to look up them, curious what wonders or terrors await. Passing by a narrow alley in Cidade Alta, the Upper City, we paused. Half way down the alley, three men vigorously kicked and beat a fourth who lay motionless on the ground. It was a sobering experience until one of the men administering the thrashing looked up from the object of his wrath and made eye contact with me. Then the promise was made and it became a terrifying experience as I became an object in the gaze of another.
Reflecting upon that moment, I came to understand in a visceral way (the known becoming the lived) the existential horror of a shift of perception. Years later and thousands of miles away, those men are still present with me. I’d had a direct experience dreading the shifting gaze of The Other. What was scariest about Salvador wasn’t its reputation for violence, but rather the actual in-context promise of it. The difference between being and not being a body in an alley for me was merely a matter of shifting observations and the promise of what may follow upon.
That experience, has helped me truly understand the blurring of lines between the observer and the observed and between voyeurism and engagement. Emotional and psychological detachment from someone else’s suffering—what Michel Foucault would call the “medical gaze,” the dehumanizing separation of the patient’s body from the patient’s identity—is anathema to good story telling and the frequent problem with all bad story-telling, extreme or atmospheric horror or in between. The beating heart of fear is found at the point where the wall between knowing and experiencing comes crashing down, leaving the observer exposed.
And it all begins with a look. I promise.
 The observer who identifies with the monster is either missing the point or is in it for a different kind of titillation.
 To finish the tale, we fled and found a sympathetic policeman with a smattering of English (not an easy task on either count) as quickly as we could, doing our best to describe what we saw and where we saw it before going on with our vacation.