Tamara Thorne has collected ghost stories, true and fictional, since she saw her first Twilight Zone as a tot, and continues to this day. In addition to writing novels and stories of the paranormal, she also writes non-fiction and is an active ghost hunter.
Kenginston recently reissued her novels HAUNTED, CANDLE BAY and MOONFALL in new paperback editions and brought out her novels THE FORGOTTEN, THUNDER ROAD and BAD THINGS as e-books. Her novel CANDLE BAY is also available in an e-book edition.
She makes her home in southern California with her husband and their feline family, and when she’s not writing, can be found haunting ghost towns, phantom-filled hotel rooms, and other spooky places.
Anticipating the Unknown
When I was a kid, Halloween was the official best day of the year, though for me, there was a little bit of Halloween in every day. Walking home from elementary school, or to a friend’s house, there was always a house that I deemed haunted. I’d slow down and study it carefully for phantom faces in the second floor windows and tell myself stories, raising the goose bumps, wondering what I’d do if the front door opened by itself while I stood there, staring.
What was behind the door? Was it a who or a what? Maybe it was just a mean old man who didn’t like me looking at his house, but could it be more? A ghostly woman with black holes for eyes? An invisible something lurking, waiting, in impenetrable darkness? The possibilities were endless.
Then, as now, my real fear was of the unknown. If I’d encountered a mean old man or a ghost, I would have run. But it was, and is, anticipation, that kept me interested. If a grumpy geezer had opened the door and yelled at me to stay off his lawn, damn it, I’d have lost all interest in the house. Anticipation evaporated. But if a ghost greeted me, I would have remained interested — and wonderfully scared — forever, or at least until I’d proven it to be a trick.
Fear of the unknown and anticipation of that fear are universal; they’re part of our caveman brain and always with us. As adults, we are able to ignore those noises in the walls at night, knowing we’ve got squirrels, noisy plumbing, or just an old creaky house, but as children, these are invisible monsters, indefinable and relentless. There are monsters in our closets and under our beds. We know, to paraphrase Carlos Castenada, that there are things living in the dark that aren’t there in the light.
As adults, we know better, yet basic fears are never far from the surface, and those of us who create or simply enjoy the horror genre, regularly do everything we can to bring those fears front and center. I doubt most of us are entertained by thoughts of real-life horrors, but when you go in knowing it’s for entertainment, whether by book, movie, campfire tale or a Halloween house of horror, it becomes fun and thrilling. In my mind’s eye, I see our ancestors sitting around a fire telling tales to scare one another just as easily as I see myself doing the same with friends. Fear gives us a delicious thrill, makes us jump, makes us shriek and maybe giggle. It’s an outlet and a way to cope with real horror. It’s relief. Ghostly footsteps outside your door at night is not the same thing as a live prowler in your house, but the fear a ghost stirs up helps take the edge off the stories of break-ins and serial killers on the evening news.
Fear of the unknown is the ultimate fear and there are many examples. For me, the supreme moment of terror comes in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House when Eleanor, in darkness, tells Theo she’s squeezing her hand too hard and Theo says she’s not holding her hand. Another comes in the same scene — the knocking on the bedroom door, the turning knob, the slithery sounds as something examines the door frame. What’s out there? What wants in? It’s a terror so perfect that it made its way into Disney’s Haunted Mansion.
Hill House is the ultimate in unknown terror. I read it when I was barely eleven, and knew I’d truly found the thing I loved most. But before that, when I was eight, I read David H. Keller’s The Thing in the Cellar. That was my first real taste of unrelenting horror of the entertaining kind and it still holds up today. It’s about a little boy who fears the cellar that’s behind a heavy door in his family’s kitchen. He’s so terrified that unless the door is shut and firmly locked, he can’t even stay in the room.
We don’t know what’s below, waiting in darkness so thick that the stairs are swallowed up only a few steps down. It’s a blackness alive with the unknown. The little boy can’t tell us what’s down there, even if he knows. He’s simply afraid. His fear is our fear. At one time or another — probably many times — we’ve all felt that same terror.
For me, keeping the monster hidden as long as possible, sometimes forever, is what makes a story great because no matter how horrific a monster is, the not knowing is worse. Whatever your personal bogeys are, they are always scarier in the dark. Just ask that little boy who’s staring at the cellar door, so afraid that he can’t even bring himself to check and make sure it’s locked.