What is the scariest nightmare you’ve ever had? I’ve had dreams that terrified me in which my cat turned into a turtle, my family morphed into strangers, and I picked handfuls of snakes off my childhood playground. It’s not the complete unknown in my dreams that scares me, but rather the transformation of the known. The familiar becomes less real. The same holds true for the stories that give me the deepest chills.
Merriam-Webster defines the adjectival form of surreal as “very strange or unusual” or “having the quality of a dream.” Like a dream state, the surreal presents the familiar to us . . . altered. In the stories that follow, authors use the surreal in conjunction with the domestic (dishwashers, pets, strange neighbors, soap, household pests)—to terrifying effect.
Study #1: “Stone Animals” by Kelly Link
“Stone Animals” is a classic example of a scary story that takes the ordinary and slowly distorts it. It begins with a conversation that isn’t flat-out surreal, though it is strange. What are those stone animals outside the house that this family is considering buying? The son thinks they’re dogs. The mother: lions. The real estate agent: rabbits.
The family moves into the house, and their everyday lives start to break down. The family begins to discard and avoid household objects because they feel off: first, the son refuses his toothbrush; then, the husband throws out a bar of soap; the kids, then the wife, stop watching TV; next it’s everything in the father’s office that feels wrong, down to the paper clips; the list continues. The pregnant wife can’t stop painting and repainting the walls. The daughter sleepwalks.
Rabbits begin to infiltrate the family’s life. They congregate in droves on the front lawn. They consume the family’s thoughts. Before the surreal takes over the “real world” of the story, it dictates the family’s dreams. The father has a dream in which: “He tries to sell a house to a young couple with twitchy noses and big dark eyes. . . . ‘Let’s stop fooling,’ he says. ‘You can’t afford to buy this house. You don’t have any money. You’re rabbits.’” The mother dreams that, over cups of paint with sugar, her neighbor asks her what color she plans to paint the rabbits.
When the family first moves into the house, before the surreal elements have begun to take root, the wife, Catherine, thinks of her husband: “It worried her, the way something, someone, Henry, could suddenly look like a place she’d never been before.” This is the scariest suggestion: that you don’t know what (or who) you think you know. The surreal in scary stories works in much the same way as the terrifying rabbits in “Stone Animals”; it’s a surprise when something we expect to be friendly turns out to be menacing—the initial comfort the object offered makes it all the more frightening once transformed.
I’m not going to summarize “Stone Animals” because I don’t want to ruin the suspense; and, the truth is, it doesn’t sound scary in summary. It is a testament to the strength of Link’s writing—and the power of the surreal—that the storyline is terrifying because of the off-kilter world that has been built around it.