Updated: Nov 23, 2021
This article is inspired by a recent article in Classical Wisdom, on ‘Horror – Ancient Greek Style’ (https://classicalwisdom.com/culture/horror-ancient-greek-style/). The ancients enjoyed ghost stories, had plenty of monsters in their mythological arsenal, and tales of revenge. I should like to build on this excellent article with a few comparisons of my own between the techniques employed by ancient writers in creating scary stories or dramas and the modern horror genre, both literary and visual.
It's What you DON’T see
Often, what is scarier than a hideous, distorted, or gory sight, is when the scene of horror is left to the imagination. In the fantastic film, The Silence of the Lambs, there is a scene where a kidnapped girl sees a torn fingernail and streaks of blood from a previous victim. The disturbing quality of the short scene lies in imagining a victim trapped, trying to escape, clawing at the walls to no avail. Ominous music can build up tension, even though nothing scary is on the screen. Bernard Hermann’s music coupled with Hitchcock’s mastery over suspense creation was a winning combination. When Marion Crane veers off the road in Psycho to the Bates Motel, the music becomes harsh, and the windscreen wipers synchronize with the rhythm. Genius! In the same film, you do not actually see the stabbing of the victim, you hear her screams and the ripping sound of the knife. It is far more disturbing. Once again, it relies on imagination, but the horrid tearing sound is far more evocative physically in the chills it creates.
What you don’t see, what you have to hear, can be far scarier than anything else. One technique which exploited this was the messenger speech in Greek Tragedy. It is much easier to cover your eyes than block out the score or a loudly declaimed description of pure horror. The messenger arrives usually to report a scene of terrible injury, defeat, or death. The graphic description of the death of Pentheus in Euripides’ Bacchae terrified me. He is torn apart by the bacchants, whipped up into and deluded in their euphoric hysteria. Even more disquieting is the fact that the murderous charge is led by his own female relatives. The fragility of the human body is a common theme in Greek Tragedy, and the eye-watering description of a man being dismembered induces feelings of vulnerability.
In Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, Cassandra sees the past crime of the House of Atreus, the children of Thyestes holding out their eaten flesh and entrails, the goddesses of revenge dance on the roof, and she then foresees the death of Agamemnon and her own. The chorus cannot see it either, so in a sense there is a double play on the unseen element. The description conjures up horrid images in the minds of the audience, who also watch the chorus’ reaction. Exploiting the ignorance of the chorus, Cassandra somewhat cryptically warns them to keep the lion away from his mate. The audience, knowing the story would instantly recognise this as Agamemnon and Clytaemnestra. The chorus (they’re not the sharpest knives in the drawer anyway) fail to understand and ask who the man is who will kill him. Cassandra seems to sigh and bravely walks inside to her death, after prophesying that she and Agamemnon will be avenged.
However, the best messenger speech with the most horrific description for me comes from Euripides’ Medea. The messenger rushes in and warns Medea to flee, before describing the grim deaths of Glauke, Jason’s new wife and princess of Corinth, and her father, king Creon. Glauke prances around her chamber in the new clothes and crown, brought to her by Medea’s children. Her youthful, girlish glee, looking happily at the beautiful gown and admiring herself in the mirror, is short-lived. Medea has poisoned both items. Glauke rushes about the room in agony and her flesh begins to dissolve. Creon also becomes the victim of the robe and his skin is torn from his bones as the poison fuses him to his dead daughter. The totally horrifying nature of the details and the terrified watching audience described by the messenger make this perhaps the most terrifying ‘what you don’t see’ scene in tragedy, made even worse in the knowledge that it is murder.
Too Close to Home
One of the most disturbing things about many Greek tragedies lies in just how human the horror is, discomfortingly so. In Thesmophoriazusai, one of the female characters says that since seeing Medea, her husband’s glances have been full of suspicion. It is a funny remark in the context of a play where the women of Athens take matters into their own hands. Joking aside, however, Aristophanes makes a very real point. How far are we all from being a Medea? There have been cases of women or men scorned who have killed their children to spite the other partner. Could we not all become a Clytaemnestra, avenging a murdered child? Meddlesome deities aside, it is often human emotions and vices that drive the action of tragedy, and the ones that still lie behind human cruelty and unkindness.