The horror genre is a fascinating one, because it aims to do something that is hard to come up with a concrete formula for: scare us. While any story is going to garner different opinions as to whether it is interesting or funny or exciting, there’s nothing as divisive as determining whether or not a story is scary. We all have very different fears and ideas of what makes true horror. Some people scream whenever a pop scare jumps out, while others yawn and call it predictable. Those same people who groan at pop scares may find psychological horror too terrifying to sit through. What scares us varies immensely, but I would argue that almost invariably there is one thing that everyone finds scary: the unknown. What our imagination can cook up will always freak us out more than what is presented to us on a page or a screen.
This is what makes horror in comics such an interesting and tricky prospect. With a written horror story our minds are constantly imagining the worst. We often don’t have images to supplement the text, so our brain has to create those images for us in whatever creepy way it decides. A comic, however, provides us with images and thus naturally cuts down on how much our imagination needs to work to fill in the blanks. Movies do this too, of course, but movies also have the ability to draw on our auditory senses to set the mood. Still, comics can scare us. They just have to do it in a different way.
First, for the major weakness of the horror comic – it has to rely on images to push its narrative forward. This is both a blessing and a curse. Images naturally take some of the work away from our imagination by showing us what that spooky cabin looks like, what pattern the blood makes as it drips down the walls, just how gruesome the eldritch horror is, etc. Many comics like The Walking Dead or Neonomicon rely on horrific depictions of violence and evil to provide shock scares. A common criticism of famous horror mangaka Junji Ito revolves around how heavily he leans on gross and creepy images to provide terror in works like Uzumaki and Gyo, rather than creating genuinely scary situations.
Of course, images can also be a strength. As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Some details do work better with images than words alone, like the expression on a character’s face, or showing objects’ relative locations, or setting up how dark an area is. And there’s something to be said for terrifying pictures as the main source of horror – sometimes that can be all it takes. But then, that wouldn’t give us much to discuss regarding horror in the comic format.
There are other strengths to the comic format. First of all, just like any good horror story, horror comics rely heavily on their premise. This is an area where comics have just as much strength as any other format. Comics like The Walking Dead make sure to keep the origin of their problem (e.g. zombies) mysterious, because not knowing what causes something is much scarier than knowing the cause. We can fix problems when we know how they come about!
Comics can also set up tension in a way that prose struggles to. Clever use of page breaks and color can make flipping a page a scary prospect. Emily Carrol does a great job setting up tension in her horror webcomics, using heavy black borders and spaces between panels to give you lengthy pauses to process the increasing creepiness of a story as you scroll down (or sometimes click onto a new page). This works in print comics, too – many comics use the turning of a page to startle the reader, as they’re now face-to-face with an image they weren’t ready for.
All types of horror have their benefits and weaknesses. Images, used properly, are a major strength for comics, just as a lack of images can be a powerful tool for a textual story. I think comics need to work harder to scare the reader, because nothing can scare us more than our imaginations, but there are certainly terrifying comics out there. With the internet has come many new ways for visual formats to scare us, especially with multimedia formats. Comics can have audio now, and moving panels. Some horror webcomics even incorporate jump scares. The potential for the horror genre is limitless, and people will keep coming up with new ways to innovate it.