If you’ve ever been concerned with monsters under the bed or gotten lost in the woods at night, you’ll be familiar with the classic narrative trope that most often it’s not the things we see that trouble us the most, it’s the things we don’t see. Fear of the unknown is a very basic, very human condition. And it’s personally why I refuse to go scuba diving. Who knows what the hell is down there?
Many stories play around with this concept, teasing and troubling you with the shadow under the door, the sounds outside the house, the whispers in the darkness, but all too often this tension is clumsily shattered by a reveal that does not match the suspense that comes before it. Use this trope too well, and you’ll have put yourself in a corner, because whatever you reveal in the third act can’t possibly match the horrors conjured by your audiences’ minds.
That’s why some stories take the bold step of subverting The Reveal and go with The Unreveal, where you never do find out just what’s out there. Used right, it can be all the more unsettling. Here are some examples of when they got it terribly, bone-chillingly right.
Grizzly Man – Werner Herzog listens to a bear attack, but we don’t
Insane genius Werner Herzog, who once made a movie about making good on a bet called Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, chronicles the story of Timothy Treadwell’s life with, and death at the hands of grizzly bears. I watched this movie years ago, and Treadwell comes off as almost painfully idealistic and borderline nuts. Most of the movie is footage of Treadwell taping himself around the bears, just his normal day to day life living with grizzly bears (whom he fiercely wanted to protect from all manner of perceived dangers).
The footage is made all the more chilling because you know that he was attacked and killed by a grizzly bear. The actual attack is never shown, but it was captured – with the lens cap on. There is an audio recording. And there’s a scene where Herzog goes to Treadwell’s friend’s house, who has the tape, and listens to it.
Damn. Herzog, his voice controlled but face ashen, tells her, very calmly, “You must never listen to this recording. You must destroy it, and never listen to it.”
Your mind fills in the blanks about what he heard. I’m sure the reality is pretty horrible, but it’s somehow worse just imagining it.
“The Reaper’s Image” – Stephen King tricks your brain into scaring itself
Here’s an oldie but a goodie. Published over 30 years ago, oh my god time is a bitch, this is a short story by noted novelist and all-around creepy guy Stephen King. (Side note: if you ever want to write fiction, King’s On Writing is an incredible resource. King’s been called a lot of unkind things over the years, but for those of you who’ve read The Dark Tower, you know he’s masterful storyteller and a pretty terrific writer).
“The Reaper’s Image” is about a mirror. Nothing scary about that, right? This mirror appears normal to most everyone, but some people see a dark smudge, a discoloration, or a piece of duct tape. An imperfection. The small, casual nature of the “blemish” is the key here. It’s not an intricate satanic pattern. It’s not the face of pure evil. It’s just a dark spot. People who see the smudge become horrified, gibbering wrecks and flee the mirror, and once they’re out of sight of anyone else, they’re never seen again.
King steps back and lets your mind do the heavy lifting, letting you extrapolate from a dark spot to unimaginable horror. Speaking of unimaginable, feast your eyes on this little gem…
David Langford’s “BLIT” makes you want to see the unseeable
Langford, a sci-fi writer, takes a concept that’s pretty well-worn (an ‘infohazard’, some kind of information input that short-circuits the brain), and puts a pretty interesting twist on it.
Original story: BLIT
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The idea of a visual representation of a paradox, something that circumvents your brain’s ‘filters’, is a seductive one. By definition, you really can’t look at the Parrot without instant death. But… don’t you kind of want to? Don’t you want to know what it looks like? This is a twist on the whole “Unreveal,” because he does tell you what it is. The twist is, it’s not something you can ever actually see. It’s unseeable, and in the act of trying to see, your brain can’t process it and you die.
“BLIT” takes about ten minutes to read, and it’s well-worth it. The gritty story is broken up by scientific commentary, and the end is just masterfully done. There’s something frightening about the unknown and unknowable, but there’s something seductive about it, too. You can’t help but look when you should probably turn away.
The SCP Foundation has this down to a science
The SCP Foundation (Secure, Contain, Protect) is a collaborative short story community that hammers the art of the Unreveal down to some pretty alarming depths. Entries are written from the perspective of a shadowy agency, something like whoever was in charge of the massive conspiracy in The X-Files, complete with redaction, agent reports, and strategic blacked-out words.
Those are my examples of good Unreveals. I tried to stay away from obvious ones like The Blair Witch Project. Anyone have any other chilling examples?