Eric B. doesn’t think so. In response to my post on contemporary horror comics, he wrote:

“How’s this for a random unsubstantiated claim:

I don’t think comics can be scary, period. Too small…
too quiet…too temporally static. Never been scared
by any horror comic I’ve read…not a one. Yet…I
can’t watch horror movies–predictable or not–too scary.”

After thinking over the horror comics that I’ve read, I’m forced to agree with him. Even when I enjoyed a horror comic, such as The Walking Dead or some of the earlier Hellblazer comics, I didn’t find them particularly scary.

There’s certainly no way that comics can be scary in the same way that movies are scary. Comics can’t use mysterious noises or creepy music (textual representation of sound is a poor substitute). Also, since movie-goers instinctively understand that the world of the film extends beyond the view of the camera,  horror films routinely have their monsters lurk just outside the frame. And they can startle the audience by having the monster (or a fake-scare cat) pop out from outside the camera’s view. In comics, establishing clear spatial relationships from one panel to the next is difficult enough without also having to imply that there’s something lurking off-panel. And the “temporally static” nature of comics makes it impossible to startle readers with anything popping out.

But the greatest advantage that horror movies have over comics has less to due with the technical differences between the media, and more to do with how the average person watches a movie. Over the decades, Hollywood and the theater chains trained audiences to watch movies in a certain way: you turn out the lights, ignore everyone else in the room, and stop thinking. Movie-goers become completely immersed in the narrative, and horror films exploit this immersion like no other genre. As an example, when the soon-to-be victim wanders through a dark hall to investigate a strange sound, the camera forces the viewer to follow the victim and vicariously experience everything they see and hear.

Comics simply can’t offer the same degree of narrative immersion. For starters, reading comics with the lights off is rather difficult. Also,  immersion requires a passive mind, and comic readers can never turn their brains completely off. Even the most moronic superhero title still requires some active thought in order to read the text and interpret the narrative flow between panels. None of this is meant to say that comics can’t be engrossing page-turners, but comic readers generally don’t lose track of reality to the same degree that movie-goers do.

So does this mean that comics can never be scary? To the extent that “scary” refers to the visceral, immediate fears that horror movies deliver so effortlessly, the answer is yes. But if “scary” also encompasses the deeply-rooted fears and common anxieties of the readers, then perhaps there is some hope for horror comics.

Novels have many of the same technical limitations as comics, and yet there is a long literary tradition of horror dating back to Frankenstein, and horror writers such as Stephen King continue to enjoy great success. Obviously, a medium consisting entirely of text could never scare readers with startling noises or monsters jumping out of closets. So novelists tend to downplay immediate physical terror and focus on social fears and unnerving concepts, particularly of a religious or existential nature. Frankenstein reflected the major anxieties of the Romantic era, particularly the fear of a godless mankind. H.P. Lovecraft scared his readers by envisioning a universe that was essentially hostile. Most ghost stories exploit the fear of death and the the unknowable nature of the afterlife. There’s no reason why comics couldn’t tap into similar social or religious anxieties (and it’s worth noting that the best horror films already do so).

But horror comics have largely failed to measure up to the standards of horror novels. The earliest horror comics like Tales from the Crypt were designed to offer nothing more than the cheapest and shallowest entertainment. Plus, individual comic issues were simply too short to contain a plot with any complexity. And it was always easier to just add more gore than to write a gripping story. The visual element of comics may have also convinced comic creators that their medium had more in common with film than with literature, leading to futile efforts to re-create the thrills of horror movies on the static page.

Comics have the potential to be scary, but it’s a potential that remains unrealized. There is, however, the possibility that my knowledge of horror comics is too limited, so I’ll pose a question to the commenters: have you ever read a scary comic?

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