Peter Merrill, staff writer
Horror is in almost every case completely destroyed by overarching mystery. Imagine that you are a knight riding off into the countryside to dispatch a dragon that has been terrorizing the village. As the dragon reduced your village to cinders, its concrete, non-mystical mastery over fire and air were clearly demonstrated. To complicate matters further, you do not know if you will pull a legendary sword or a pool noodle out of your scabbard at the moment of confrontation, and you might as well be clad in thermal underwear rather than shining armor. Mystery as to what the dragon is and what it may be capable of may cause heightened anticipation before you actually meet it; the milky way may be a mere glimmer in its eye. It might kill with a thought, or it might actually be a gargantuan millipede.
In short, the dragon, if not seen, smelled, observed and studied before the confrontation, is whatever scares you the most. This means, that instead of the dragon’s den reeking of cinders and burnt copper, it will reek of anti-climax because it is not a giant millipede and it is not larger than makes any kind of sense. The reader is likely to be disappointed by the heat of the dragon’s breath as it sears their thermal underwear and reduces them to a pile of dissatisfied ash.
A feeling of helplessness is of the utmost importance. The dragon must be confronted, and if he is not, he will come to you, with disastrous result. Whether you have a pool noodle or Excalibur, the dragon must be slain. “Dracula” is a perfect example of this principle. The epistolary format ensures that the reader always knows more than any one character, and so they know what is coming but the character does not. The urge to shout at the page not to open that door, is better than not knowing what is behind the door yourself and being awarded with a cheap scare.
In “Dracula,” Jonathan Harker, and the reader by extension, witnesses the full breadth of the Count’s power. Even though it might be scarier to you if Dracula reached through the page and took your mother by the neck, he doesn’t. He never breathes fire or becomes a dragon. He is a vampire; he can fly, ride moonlight, turn humans, c o m m a n d animals and shapeshift. All of these abilities are demonstrated in the first five chapters, and that is what the reader is aware of for the rest of the book. Every bat could be Dracula; every shaft of moonlight presents imminent danger. Dracula never becomes a dragon, despite his name.
That covers the dragon, but what of the pool noodle? In the opening chapters of “Dracula,” Harker does not witness any of the Count’s weaknesses. He assumes that he is a creature of the night but does not suspect that his powers wane during the day or that the box of earth that he sleeps in is full of Transylvanian soil which binds him. Dracula has many weaknesses, and once they are discovered, dispatching him is trivial. His weaknesses are not known until the end of the novel though, much like a blind knight who does not know what he is striking with until his arm is already in motion.
The vampire himself is not scary, what engenders fear is watching Lucy Westerna slowly fade away, every second a missed chance to save her that the reader sees but are powerless to do anything about. It is knowing what she will become, because of Jonathan’s visceral descriptions of Dracula’s concubines. The reader will be discomforted and afraid if the characters are. Trying to engender these feelings in the reader themselves only ends in failure because fear is a deeply personal, primal and subjective feeling. In short, when resolved, mystery is the antithesis of horror, and when unresolved is deeply unsatisfying