BBC Radio 4 has established Frightnight as an annual Halloween event. But can Radio be as scary as a film or book? Consider the five storytelling tricks that scare us.
Number One: Nothing is Safe
A horror often begins in a very safe world. Ghost-story master M R James takes a domestic (often academic) setting then turns objects and locations against the complacent protagonists. 'Poltergeist' and 'Ring' update this trick and use very the TV you're watching as a vehicle for horror.
With radio not only is your toy-box haunted, but the space between your ears too. You can't hide behind the sofa or close the book to escape the sound of horror.
Number Two. There's no escape
The bridge is down, thunder rolls and a mismatched group of people are trapped in an nonnegotiable situation. This gives 'The Shining' and 'Alien' their intensity. If you combine One with Two you get 'Rosemary's Baby'. And 'Attack the Block'.
In radio environment is character. It has a voice and a point of view. Sound places you right inside the story and the stereo picture surrounds you. That's you being buried alive in a well. You're in the bedroom with the demon roaring through the girl. You are lost in the 'Blair Witch' forest, and that's you inside the tent.
Number Three. It's not what you see, it's what you imagine.
In Greek tragedy, violence happens off stage. You don't see Oedipus gouge out his own eyes but the chorus tells you all about it. So when Oedipus walks on in bloody bandages, you experience the double horror of violence and aftermath in one hit. In the shower scene in 'Psycho' you don't see the knife penetrate flesh. But think you do. Your mind creates the violence the censors wouldn't let you see.
Why does this work on radio? Because a non-visual medium is all about what's hidden: the ghost in the machine, the hand under the bed. It is like Stephen King's 'It' personalised for every individual listener. Without the specificity of prose or pictures you imagine YOUR OWN greatest horror.
Number Four. Its the suspense that kills you.
Some of the scariest cinematic moments are about suspense. Any Zombie movie will involve moving quietly through hair-trigger danger. Vampire movies are about being powerless to stop a slow, deadly seduction. 'Paranormal Activity', 'Badadook' and 'The Woman in Black' are all about waiting in terror for the next supernatural event: usually you jumping out of your skin.
You'd think 'waiting' on radio would be dull, as there's nothing to see, but... suspense is about listening, holding you in that moment of stillness before everything changes. Radio does that 'must be silent' journey through the cellar, attic or creaking house so well. And it isn't the character listening, trying not to breathe, it's you: waiting for flight or fight, or for everything to be all right. (It won't be, trust me.)
Number Five. It's going to get messy
The outcome of Four is often gore. For classic horror, that's the pay-off, the moment you've been waiting for. It's the kick of ultra-violence, the gross out biology and transformations of 'The Fly', 'The Thing' and 'The Human Centipede'.
Again gore is visual, so you'd think radio would be a let-down in that department, but... consider how important sound is to on-screen gore. Recently, viewers were horrified by to the pressing-to-death scene in 'Gunpowder'. But was it the pool of blood that upset them, or the small stone and the small crack that broke the back?
Horror sound can be subtly unsettling or gleefully vile. Remember the rip and tear of the 'American Werewolf in London' transforming, or the thwack and scuttle of the Alien. Splat, rip, squelch? Take that sound and then apply Number Three, and you've got something really nasty.
And just when you thought it was safe...
After all the screaming and running, hiding and jumping, squelching and thwacking... Sometimes the thing that holds us and haunts us is simply a strong story and a commanding voice: like Hannibal Lector or Owen Teal reading The Omen.
Following the success of Ring I'll be adapting five short horror classics for Frightnight 2018. Until then... sweet dreams.