Recently I was part of a discussion that has cropped up several times over the years, in relation to the Stephen King classic, ‘Salem’s Lot.’
Whether you’ve read the book, seen the film adaptation or both; one scene sticks with everyone I speak to. If you haven’t already guessed, it’s the night time vampiric visitations of the Glick boys: first Ralphie to ‘convert’ his elder brother Danny. Then Danny, to sire Mark Petrie and bring him into the fold.
The first – brother on brother – is creepy and reminiscent of the Count’s visits to his victims in Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula.’
But it’s the second visitation that haunts readers/viewers over forty years on: eerie clouds swirling outside Mark’s bedroom window. The floating approach of his school friend, sporting evil eyes and protruding fangs. A scratching of fingernails on the glass. The vampire calling out for Mark to let him in. Then Mark vacillating between acquiescence and confrontation; culminating in the latter as he snaps a cross from his graveyard diorama to drive the creature off.
Since the 1979 film production, audiences have grown accustomed to blatant gore and vivid portrayals of demonic forces. In a desensitised world of splatter-punk eviscerations, the afore-mentioned scene might sound banal. But it isn’t. Had the vampire been some OTT special effects horror that burst through the window and drained its victim dry, that might have been shocking – for a moment. Then viewers would have forgotten all about it and probably never given the encounter a second thought.
To my mind, Danny’s visit is memorable and frightening because it utilises one of the key tools in the horror writer’s kit: ISOLATION. Stephen King wields it with masterful brilliance.
Isolation can be both blatant and/or subtle in horror. We’re all familiar with the blatant scenarios: A person/people get cut off on an island/up a mountain/in a forest. Bad things are coming to get them and nobody’s riding to the rescue. Typically there might be a chance to escape, but it will involve a perilous trip into the monster’s den to retrieve a vital item, etc. Along the way, someone will probably die.
Subtler forms of isolation often revolve around societal mores and expectations, or being a misfit in a situation. Anyone who has suffered a mental health issue, physical disability or disfigurement knows what it’s like to feel all alone in a crowded place. Even introverted, loner types like myself are still social creatures at heart, despite a need for plenty of solo downtime to recharge. Being all alone is such a common human fear, some people go to extraordinary lengths to avoid it.
In horror, this subtle isolation may manifest as someone who knows supernatural things are going on, but is afraid nobody else will believe them. Perhaps an entire group suspects creepy forces are at play individually, but none will discuss it collectively. If they did and banded together, maybe survival would become possible? They’re all isolated. A ‘dinner bell’ for the hungry antagonist, no doubt. Cue blood-curdling screams as it starts devouring the low hanging fruit first.
With regard to ‘Salem’s Lot,’ you have Mark Petrie as a victim of isolation. Earlier, his father rags on him for playing with magic tricks and building monster model kits. This gives us an insight into the kind of lad Mark might be: creative, imaginative, sensitive. Not a jock. An outsider from the ‘group’ in school. Someone who prefers one or two close genuine friends to a gaggle of surface relationships. In that sense he’s already isolated. Now King adds another layer of isolation, because his father instructs the boy to grow up and stop daydreaming about monsters. Great. So who’s he going to tell when his best (and probably only) friend appears at the window as a vampire?
Let’s add it all up:
He’s isolated as something of an introvert to begin with.
He’s isolated from his parents and can’t tell them about the real monster.
He’s isolated by losing his close friend to the vampire’s curse.
He’s isolated because there’s nowhere to run, nobody to tell, and the vampires could be back at his window any time they choose.
He’s isolated because he’s still a kid in an adult world.
As we know, Mark goes on to battle the creatures with the central character, Ben Mears. Even then they end up on the run, an isolated pair looking over their shoulders for those in pursuit.
Psychological fears remain scariest of all. I’ve no objection to gore – it features in my work. But sometimes it’s what you don’t show that stays with people. A scene like that can keep your audience drawing the curtains as soon as darkness descends forty years later, and not because they’re fastidious and organised…