The Book of Horror: The Anatomy of Fear in Film
Ellis Reed reviews Matt Glasby’s new book, The Book of Horror, about the scariest films ever made…
“The horror genre,” Stephen King once said, “is an extremely delicate thing. You can talk to filmmakers and even psychologists who’ve studied the genre, and even they don’t understand what works or what doesn’t work. More importantly, they don’t understand why it works when it works.”
The proposed antidote is The Book of Horror: The Anatomy of Fear in Film. A “sincere attempt to collate the scariest movies ever made and examine how they work,” with thirty-four essays, numerous infographics, and more than a hundred suggestions for further viewing. It’s a challenging goal, but Matt Glasby is something of a veteran; he’s written for SFX, Total Film, The Radio Times and many more. Horrified were able to pore through a copy and ask the author some questions in advance of its September publication.
The resulting book is brisk, plain-speaking, and beautifully organised, which is by design rather than good fortune. “The best film writing is accessible,” he explained, “because the best films are accessible.” He boils the topic down to, “seven specific techniques, or scare tactics, that horror films rely on to work their dark magic,” which are set out at the start of the book. They take just three pages to cover but include everything from mangled bodies (The Grotesque) to more subtle ploys, like the unnerving use of miniatures in Hereditary (The Uncanny).
“My favourite ‘scare tactic’ is probably dread,” he told us. “You see it in everything from the ghost stories of M.R. James, which I adore, to films like It Follows, and it’s really powerful. If you can get viewers into a state of dread, you can do anything to them.” Despite his preference, he writes persuasively about all seven in the opening chapter, and again in the essays that follow.
The main course is the detailed analysis of thirty-four films, with infographics throughout, and the films are scored against all seven themes with line charts dictating overall scariness (a key is provided so you can map the spikes to major scenes). Each essay has suggestions for further viewing, which are thankfully light on spoilers and make great recommendations.
“The true power of (Hereditary), is not in its preordained plot or petrifying imagery, but the sense of real people pulverised by pain.”
– Matt Glasby
As you might expect, the quality of writing is high throughout. The essays are thoughtful and engaging, and encourage you to revisit — or reassess — each film. In the preamble, the author describes himself as “a horror critic for nearly two decades and an obsessive fan for three.” It’s the kind of passion that most of us struggle to put into words, but Glasby expresses his thoughts deftly and concisely. “The true power of the film,” he writes of Hereditary, “is not in its preordained plot or petrifying imagery, but the sense of real people pulverised by pain.” It’s a moment of effortless insight, typical of the quality of writing throughout the book. The analysis is peppered with quotes and trivia, and the resulting blend is a fascinating read for horror fans.
An interesting nuance is the author’s quest to collate the scariest horror films, rather than the best. It sounds like a fine distinction, but Glasby knows the difference: “You could argue that Ring isn’t a great film,” he reminded us, “but not that it isn’t scary.” In his analysis of Psycho, he remarks that the second half of the film “is somewhat pedestrian, with boring leads… and just a few moments of pulse-quickening virtuosity.” The film is included for obvious reasons, but The Book of Horror is not, as the preamble makes clear, an exercise in hagiography.
The focus on pure horror takes us to unexpected places. As well as all-time classics like The Exorcist, we have chapters on The Eye and The Strangers. “There’s something very democratic about including films based solely on whether they’re scary or not,” Glasby explained. “It opens up the field to things like Lights Out, which lacks subtlety but really does get the job done. Plus, there are tons of books about ‘important’ horror movies, so they’re not being forgotten.” This is why, despite a “disappointing final act”, The Eye makes the cut. Put simply, it has some “fantastic scares”. By the same token, The Strangers is an exemplar of “dead space”, which is also one of the book’s seven themes. The final selection is refreshing and diverse, and all the better for it.
Aside from the text, the infographics are, at the most basic level, a lot of fun. Anyone who played Top Trumps as a child will enjoy the seven different stats for each film. For my own part, I love the line charts because they give an unrivalled view of someone else’s emotional journey. In the chart for Don’t Look Now, we see a spike of fear at the famous climax, which equals — though doesn’t surpass — the paternal agony of the opening scene. It’s a fascinating glimpse of subjective experience, and the approach is, as far as I know, unique.
In addition to infographics, the book has a beautiful set of illustrations by London artist Barney Bodoano. The artworks are black and white, giving the feel of a classic ghost story, and make stunning use of chiaroscuro. My favourite is the night-time scene from Venice, but they’re uniformly good, and the finished book is a thing of beauty. (In fact, I’m tempted to buy two copies, so I can cut one up and frame the pictures.)
In short, The Book of Horror: The Anatomy of Fear in Film is a feast for the eyes as well as the mind and bound to delight any horror fan. Heartily recommended!