Being a fan of the genre, I watch and read a good deal of horror fiction. There are definitely passages from horror novels and scenes from horror films that have given me lingering chills and troubling dreams. But some of the things that have frightened me most have come from works of non-fiction, albeit not necessarily covering subject matter you might be thinking of.
I've never really been into true crime or real world serial killers or anything along those lines. I've read some books on the subject here or there that struck me as interesting, but by and large it isn't my bag, though I think I can understand the appeal it has for some others. Far be it from me to act as though I find the subject too morbid to be of deep interest to anyone, not when one of my interests has long been disasters, man-made or natural.
And some of the images and sentences related to disasters that have stuck with me involve the threat of bodies of water, something we can enjoy and play in as long as it has the proper temperature and temperament. And as long as an option to get out of the water is near enough. When it is not any of those things, when the waves are too high or the water is frigid or there's no safe haven close enough to swim to--or even in sight...just the thought of that can make me a little uneasy.
Images of the Andrea Doria, stricken and listing in the middle of the ocean, can fill me with unease. And yes, that was a more man-made than natural disaster, being that the ship was speared by another ship--although fog did play a role--but nature--water--is ultimately what took the vessel down, albeit slowly enough to allow time for rescuers to evacuate most of the passengers. Still, seeing the ship on its side, knowing that more than enough seawater to drown a 10-story building waits beneath it And that, by ocean depth standards, is practically shallow.
Old pictures of another doomed ship also give me the willies, that of the SS Princess Sophia, which ran aground in what is called the Graveyard of the Pacific. Surrounded by ships that might have helped, different factors--including the disastrous results of similarly stricken ships in that area trying to evacuate passengers via lifeboats--resulted in the captain delaying until a storm came in and rendered rescue impossible. Images of the ship stuck on an outcropping surrounded by choppy, unforgiving waters that will eventually take it off the rocks and under the surface, strike me as incredibly eerie.
Again, a sinking ship can be the product of human fallibility or aggression, but in most cases, at least during peacetime, the biggest posed is mother nature. Water. An element that we can't survive without and can't survive within.
So it is with other parts of nature that we enjoy or even use and rely on, but can inspire awe and fear and do horrifying damage when given to us in extreme excess. Who doesn't love a pleasant breeze? And sufficient wind can be turned into a natural source of electrical power. But when it blows too strong, when it comes with a storm, it can be one of the most frightening forces on earth. Incidentally, as much horror fiction as I've consumed that has given me nightmares, I've had more bad dreams about tornadoes than anything else I've ever dreamt of, and that's without having actually seen one in person.
Likewise, the ground we walk on is also where we plant seeds for food to grow, where the trees that produce oxygen are rooted, and which we think of as so stable that the first definition of "grounded" when you look it up is "well-balanced and sensible." Not volatile. Not in any way off-kilter or unpredictable. Not until it starts moving, of course. Not only are earthquakes frightening and devastating on their own, they can spur other disasters to join the carnage, triggering volcanic eruptions or tsunamis, or starting fires that all but consume a city.
Back to the water, one of the scariest sentences I can recall ever reading in any book came from Erik Larson's account of the Galveston Hurricane, Isaac's Storm. There is a moment where people inside a house are faced with a storm surge that makes the water level on the already flooded island raise four feet in a matter of seconds. Larson writes, "This was not a wave, but the sea itself." Somehow that distinction made it all the more horrifying to me. At that point, nothing and no one on the island was effectively on a flooded island anymore, they were in the Gulf of Mexico, in the midst of the deadliest storm in American history.
I can only imagine, and hope to never actually experience, how ferociously violent and seemingly endless such an event must feel. It is little wonder to me that such disasters were blamed on monsters and deities in ancient times, and are still regarded as modern legends in more recent decades. Some leave behind mysteries that offer no satisfactory explanation. Was the Tri-State tornado really just a uniquely devastating single continuous tornado or an unusually severe family of fast moving tornadoes? Some keep us in suspense. When will the next, inevitable, massive Cascadian Earthquake occur? Some leave us with a lingering sense of dread for the future. How much more frequent and severe will future wildfires and tropical cyclones become in response to our changing climate?
As such, legends and modern mythology have even been built around historical disasters. When I was young, on the Mississippi coast, before Katrina made landfall in Biloxi, there was the legacy of Hurricane Camille, which struck in 1969. Years later there was a sub-history surrounding the storm, some of factual, some fabricated or exaggerated. The infamous story of the hurricane party, for instance, nowadays known to anyone who cares to research it to be apocryphal, but when I was a kid it was taken as truth. Then there were physical artifacts of the storm. A boat it had lifted out of the water and deposited inland, left as a sort of monument to the power of the storm surge. There was the island that it cut in two. There were great houses which, having withstood Camille, were seen as legendarily immovable objects. Some of those same houses would be swept away by Katrina, which was not as strong as Camille when it made landfall, but was significantly larger and slower, meaning it had more time to do eventually do greater damage. The legend of Camille ultimately saved some lives while costing others when Katrina came. It prompted some people to flee to safety, knowing what such a major storm was capable of, while it caused others to sadly make the mistake of believing the haven that had sheltered them through Camille would be just as safe a little over a quarter-century later. This was a product not only the facts of what had happened before, but the stories as well.
Horror art and fiction have been inspired by natural disasters or ominous weather, often using them metaphorically or in conjunction with supernatural horrors, or to set the scene for a frightening event, or as a device to keep characters trapped with some form of killer. Edvard Munch's painting The Scream is famously, partially inspired by the red skies that could be seen over Norway, the lingering effect of the eruption of Krakatoa. Stephen King's Storm of a Century sees a powerful blizzard follow a demonic figure onto an island, in part a reflection of the demon's power, but also a way to keep the locals isolated and subject to its whims. The horrors of the Chilean-American co-production Aftershock are initiated by a massive earthquake, but ultimately have more to do with human depravity than a natural calamity. Tim Lebbon's novella White features a ruinous abundance of snow that acts as sort of supernatural terraformation for strange beings determined to claim the earth. One of my favorite novels, Michelle Paver's Dark Matter, is set in an inhospitably icy landscape, which considerably enhances the tale's ghostly terrors. And, of course, countless horror and suspense stories take place in a heavy downpour accompanied by no shortage of thunder and lightning.
All that said, it's a rarity to find a horror story in which the primary antagonist is nature itself. That is primarily the domain of disaster fiction, and even those stories frequently feature a human villain that gives the audience a name, voice and face to hate. Some bureaucrat who cut corners on a safety measure, someone whose cowardice threatens to make the situation somehow worse and get other characters killed, some guy who's a little too arrogant and reckless when facing nature's fury. Most disaster or "man vs. nature" stories are also more concerned with survivalism, excitement and perseverance than intimate, individual or small-group fear. Even the horrifying moments are presented as potentially thrilling, or presented from such a conceptual height that they fall into the "a million is a statistic" territory. Even the least interesting teenage slasher victim, though underdeveloped, is rarely faceless or nameless. Such intimacy and focus on fear is often what distinguishes a horror film.
Still, there are disaster films that give us a glimpse of such fear of nature's power, and it needn't be a long, lingering moment to be effective. When I was young I first saw the film The Devil at 4 O'Clock on television. It's the story of an impending, catastrophic volcanic eruption that will obliterate an island, and the efforts of some men, including a brave local priest played by Spencer Tracy, and a convict played by still-skinny Frank Sinatra, to move the island's residents to safety. It is a solidly entertaining, early 60's adventure drama, and there's never any doubt, of course, that Spencer, Frank and the others will get the island's innocents, including many children, onto boats and into the clear in time. However, when one of Sinatra's fellow convicts, a man named Charlie, played by Bernie Hamilton, sacrifices himself to help the others, it dominoes into Spencer and Frank also staying behind to face the titular, figurative "devil" that is the volcanic eruption. And when the time comes for that eruption, the last time we see these tough, brave men, they do not appear stoic or defiant or at peace in their final moments. Nothing of the sort. We get a closeup of Spencer and Frank as they face the mountain, and they are both plainly awed by and afraid of what is about to happen.
There is something especially frightening to me about seeing an ostensibly brave or tough person scared. It's one thing to see a character who you expect to be easily scared screaming their head off. Typical teenage victims in a slasher film, for instance, are of course going to be horrified by the killer swinging a sharp object at them. And when executed well those scenes can still be effective, of course. But when you hear a scream or gasp, or even just see a startled stare, from someone you don't expect to react that way, even though it's still natural and sensible for them to, that can have an even greater impact.
Another story, a favorite of mine, also sees the threat of nature erode a person's courage, although by the time we meet this character he's already been whittled down to seeming insanity. Except he's not insane, just burdened with a horrific truth. And in this rare case, nature itself is truly, purely the villain of a story that is firmly within the horror genre. It's a short story, and a great one, that can be found in Ray Bradbury's collection, The October Country. It's title is also the name of its evil, "The Wind."
What if a force of nature was sentient. What if it grew more intelligent with every person it killed, absorbing the minds of many into its being. What if you discovered this, and that force of nature realized this, and hunted you across the globe to kill you and keep its secret. What would you do? Where would you go? Where in the world could you hide from something integral to the world itself?
This is the inescapable problem faced by a man named Allin in Ray Bradbury's "The Wind." It is, at an immediate level, a very human story centered on Allin and, more so, his friend Herb Thompson. The titular wind could be seen purely as a device, a means by which to deliver a story about how far you are willing to go to help a friend. What you're willing to believe for them, what you can't bring yourself to believe about them. It is not just that Herb cannot believe what Allin claims is happening to him, for instance. He cannot truly believe that Allin even believes it, and so he's unwilling to demand that Allin seek professional, psychological help until persuaded by his wife and her friends. You might think the least Herb could do for Allin, besides pretending to humor his stories about the wind stalking him around the globe, is look into what kind of treatment might be beneficial for him. But he doesn't, not just out of plot convenience, but because he sincerely seems to struggle with the reality of his friend's mental state.
This human element is, of course, critical. It's what makes the story excellent instead of just a good idea. You feel for Allin, for Herb, even for Herb's wife who--like so many wives in such stories--is the voice of reason who might come off as shrewish only because you know the genre of story you're reading, and therefore know from the beginning that all of her logic and reason is impossibly wrong. Still, the wind itself is also important to the story. Yes, Bradbury could have potentially traded it out for rain or snow or fire or earth. Michael McDowell once effectively made a villain out of sand in The Elementals, a book I've mentioned before and ought to revisit soon, I really like it, but out of all the components of nature I mentioned there is something eerier about the wind, and more sinister still about the idea of lifting and carrying the souls and voices of the countless people who have died in storms throughout history and even prehistory.
There is also something specifically scary about having to keep the wind--air itself, on the move--out. It might be challenging to avoid quantities of water large enough to do you harm, but not impossible. Earth and fire would pose challenges as well, but neither is as omnipresent or swift as the air you have to breathe.
Allin happened upon a secret of the wind by mistake. A war veteran, accidentally ventured into a "Valley of Wind" in the Himalayas, so he says, and this is how he discovered the wind's true nature. Herb talks glowingly of Allin, and he's clearly a learned, well-traveled man, but all we as an audience really get to experience of him is what's left after all that he's suffered. After his ordeal in the mountains he's encountered ferocious storms in various other places that have killed many others, but that he's always escaped from. Now nature no longer seems content to capture him in a place where it might also kill others en masse. It is coming to his front door. It is literally blowing his house down to get to him. And while he tries to retreat, all he can really think to do is repeatedly call his friend, just to hear a compassionate voice and caring word. He vacillates between telling Herb he wishes he could come over and telling Herb to stay put, to not endanger himself. He asks Herb if he's enjoying his evening, if he's smoking a cigar, if he's having a nice normal night, just so he can know there's some normalcy out there while there is madness beating down the walls of his house.
And this ties in to something I think about anytime I read about people caught in the midst of a storm or earthquake or other natural catastrophe, especially those that occurred before anything close to the modern era of communication. From back when a hurricane could sweep into the northeast so swiftly that it could catch people out on the beach having a picnic, which occurred with the 1938 hurricane sometimes called the Long Island Express. Back when you didn't know about an eruption that wiped out an island in the Caribbean within hours if not minutes of it happening, but a day later or longer. I think of the people who suffered through those events and try to imagine what it must be like to effectively feel that all of reality is coming undone around you. In David McCullough's account of the Johnstown Flood--an event which, to be clear, was significantly man-made and note just a product of heavy rains--but he quotes one woman from one household telling a child in the house simply that this was the end of the world. And just because her statement is obviously inaccurate doesn't mean she's exaggerating how it must have felt to be there with a giant wall of water crashing down on your town.
I think The Wind captures that extremely well. Bradbury's great at that sort of thing, making one person's tragedy sound like a send-off for all of humanity. He does it extremely well in Kaleidoscope, for example, and he does it here as well. Allin last phone call with Herb almost feels like hopeless last broadcast from a dying reality, and in small way that's what it is, because after Herb finds out the truth about what happened to his friend, his reality is forever altered. He's now faced with the knowledge of what nature can be. Not only dangerous, but malicious. And that knowledge is what made Allin a target in the first place.