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.
Study #2: “Modern Coyote” by Shane Jones
Shane Jones’s story “Modern Coyote,” which is inspired by coyote myths, terrifies the reader with a series of repeating images that become increasingly surreal. The ending to this story is straight horror. It’s truly disturbing. The story gains its terrible power from the way that the surreal advances within it.
A couple brings a new baby home from the hospital after complications and five days of the baby being monitored. They are worried and sleepless. Like “Stone Rabbits,” this story begins with a strange, though not totally surreal, declaration: the couple’s other son declares that their neighbor is a coyote.
The father catches his older son tying pink string around the baby but, when he goes to find the confiscated threads, they’re gone. The wife has dreams in which children are flying her like a kite; there is a wire attached to her foot; there is a forest of wires below her.
Like the rabbits in Link’s terrifying tale, coyotes haunt the world of Jones’s story. All the oldest son wants to do is watch their mysterious, coyote-like neighbor, who has been improving the backyard endlessly, but seems to make no progress. Next, the husband watches as a small figure with the head of a coyote approaches the window. When it gets closer, he realizes that it is his oldest son. Later, when the husband looks into the sky, he sees coyote-shaped clouds. Strange, blue circles form around the husband’s eyes. The keep growing, until they are unnaturally large.
Most frightening to me has always been the strange, ambiguous transformation of their mysterious neighbor, the one who their son is convinced is a coyote.
“Alan wore his baseball cap so low all Ben could see was a small mouth and several ribbons of greasy black hair that clung to his neck.”
“When Ben answered he noticed Alan had grown a gray beard and his hat was farther down over his face. His ears were more prominent and they too had gray hair.”
“Alan’s head was nothing but baseball cap, beard, and smile.”
All of these images build and become even more unreal until finally they come together in a horrifying concert at the story’s close.
Study #3: “The Emissary” by Ray Bradbury
“The Emissary” by Ray Bradbury follows a single element as it becomes increasingly surreal. A bedridden boy experiences the world his dog brings back to him. The beginning of the story does not stray far from the real: the boy’s dog brings the smell of autumn home with him. It’s in the leaves that are stuck to his fur; it has a concrete, physical manifestation.
The boy can trace the dog’s exact path through the world, each day, from the “touch, feel, the wet, dry, or weather-smell of his coat.” The story is propelled by an idea that, at first, seems simply adorable: the boy attaches a note to his pet’s collar asking people to come visit the dog’s sick owner. The dog brings back visitors for the boy, little tastes of the world.
Then something strange happens in the middle of October: the dog stops bringing in visitors; his sign no longer attracts attention. The boy’s mother dismisses this as everyone simply being busy, but the boy thinks: “Dog had a strange look in his eyes, as if he wasn’t really trying to find visitors, or didn’t care, or—something. Something Martin couldn’t understand.”
Then the dog disappears.
And then he returns, bringing an impossible, unwanted, and horrifying visitor.
It’s interesting to note that these three tales are about children and families. They take place almost exclusively in the home, but it’s mostly not the houses themselves—rather, the families and the creatures and objects they bring into them—that are haunted. The scariest elements in these stories are the ones that are traditionally the most dear and dependable. These stories give up traditional, realist logic to focus on unconscious truths. Two of the stories, at least, emphasize the importance of dreams, the truth that lies within them, and in these tales dreams play a prominent role, as the realities that the characters live become inseparable from the ones that they dream. The surreal elements speak directly to the characters’ palpable fears. These are by no means new concepts, but perhaps ones that are too often forgotten.
These stories call into question what it is we know about the very basis of our lives. They change the constant; they make the familiar grotesque. The scariest tales tell us that nothing can be known for sure. What is more frightening than that?
by Sadye Teiser