Plateaus or How Horror is Like Addiction

I just finished painting the ceiling in the bedroom.

It’s been over a half a year since I did any house painting, so I actually enjoyed the project at first. There was a little damage, caused by the house settling, which had cracked the old paint and the plaster underneath. I made a foray to the hardware store, bought some new fangled putty stuff, drop cloths, that annoying blue tape, primer, and a gallon of flat, white paint.

At first, it was kind of fun. Putting the tape up was monotonous, but mindless work that did not distract from the audiobook I was listening to. The resulting horizontal blue line blended with the vertical lines of the wallpaper to make something that resembled the holodeck on a Star Trek ship. I laid out enough clear plastic to protect the room from a full on Dexter murder. I scraped out the broken pieces of plaster and anything that looked like it might decide to jump free of the ceiling in the near future. I washed the ceiling.
1 I filled the gaps with the putty. Forty-five minutes later I was able to prime the spot. Two hours after that I was painting.

The painting process involved alternately standing on a ladder or the bed, my arms over my head, pushing a roller around. By the end I was achey, but had a sense of accomplishment.

This all vanished when the paint dried and it became obvious that the patch work needed to be sanded down.
2 This was less fun. Then there was a little more patching, some more sanding, and another spray from the primer can.

Today I went back up in my painter’s gear
4 to put on a new coat of paint. There was a marked decrease in the sense of fun I was having and a noticeable increase in swearing.

I had reached my plateau for paint enjoyment.

The plateau seems to be a natural part of every day life. It insinuates itself in thousands of different places. Any time something goes from being enjoyable to being boring or even nauseating, you’ve hit that plateau. Just about everyone is familiar with the description of how our brains create addiction. An ingested substance triggers chemical reactions which stimulate increased dopamine production which makes the user feel the euphoria associated with the drug. Unfortunately, to reach this high, one has to take more and more of the drug. The effects last less time, the high is less intense, and a horrible cycle is born.

This is just one example of a naturally occurring plateau. Chocolate is wonderful, but if you eat too much of it, you become sick. The same thing happens with alcohol. Even recluses need to get out into the world every once and a while.

There is a theory first discussed over a century ago which has direct bearing on the future of robotics known as the Uncanny Valley. Simply put, there is a correlation between how closely something resembles a human and how human will react to it. These positive reactions begin to approach empathy until a certain point is reached. At this point the object, say a humanoid automaton for example, will look “too human” and “not human enough” at the same time and the reaction changes to one of revulsion. We subconsciously react to the fact that there is something about the thing which is not right, perhaps its movement, speech patters, facial reactions. Our response goes from empathy, to “get me the Hell out of here.”

This is a partial explanation for why anime characters with their big eyes and wild hair are cute, but the “humans” in
Polar Express are just frakin creepy.

What does any of this have to do with horror? Hang on, I’m getting there.

This provides one reason why people have an atavistic dread when viewing a zombie on television, movie screen, or in real life.
6 We are hard wired to avoid the dead and the diseased. Something that looks like us, but a rotted out, decayed version of us, we want to run. If it stands like a person but walks with jerky movements and groans instead of speaks? Put two in the brain pan.8

Plateaus. Right, I was talking about plateaus.

It is important for those who create horror-themed content to remember this plateau theory. Seeing something once is scary. The second time, less so. The thirteenth time, not at all. This is part of the reason that the endless cycle of sequels and remakes being churned out by Hollywood is so detrimental to the horror genre. We’ve already seen the axe to the head in the previous movie. If all you are going to do is rehash old stuff, you are not going to scare the audience.

I’ve discussed this before when talking about the nature of fear and the necessity of having a refractory period. You can only scare someone so much before the ability to further shock them simply shuts off. The viewers hit that plateau and then the show, movie, book stops being frightening. They need a calming down period where they can readjust to this new level of anxiety before you can hit them again.

The exception to this is the slow build up of horror using atmosphere. Some of the greatest works of horror fiction (regardless of the medium) use this technique. Think of a stereo
9 slowly being turned up. As you go from one to ten, the music is getting progressively louder, but the listeners don’t realize it until the bass, and their hearts, are pounding. Applying this to the previous example you would start at one, skip to four which seems like quite the jump, leave it at four for a while then blast it to seven. Both are affective.

Constantly going from one to ten to one to ten is going to lose its effectiveness very quickly.

I’ve discussed how horror and humor are opposite sides of the same coin many times. Another practical example of this has been some of the websites I have recently stopped visiting. The humorous true-life confession sites like FML and Collegefessions had me rolling for a while but after a short bit of time the material all started to sound the same. It stopped being funny and got boring, even a little sad.

So, bottom line, if you want to make it as a horror content creator, don’t rely on the same tricks over and over. Be original and stay scary.

1 Ugh.

2 As pointed out to me by The Mrs.

3 Ten years ago it would have been sloppy but fine. A decade of home improvement and real estate shows on the DIY channel killed any chance I had of doing slipshod work.

4 Old scrub pants and a free tee shirt. It’s amazing how many things involve wearing scrub pants now.

5 So I’ve heard. I’ve never actually hit that plateau known as cabin fever.

6 By which I mean at a haunted attraction or a charity zombie walk. I’m not saying that zombies are real and walking among us, waiting to take a big chomp out of our nice juicy brains.7

7 Not saying that at all. There are perfectly good reasons for why I own a crossbow and a machete.

Zombieland Rule #2 — the double-tap.

9 Fine, think of an iPod. Damn whippersnappers.