Horror Comics are more fun than Horror Movies

Beast with Five FingersHow can this be? Apparently, I’m some kind of violent, gruesome nutjob who enjoys horror, at least according to my reading preferences. How did this happen?!

I really thought that I was a nice, quiet girl. Growing up I was timid. When I was 7 years old I saw The Beast with Five Fingers and for weeks I could hardly sleep. I remember the bigger kids laughing at the terrible effects and melodrama, but the film really worked for me, and in all the wrong ways. I had a single thought “I don’t like Halloween”.

Years later I was a 13 year old babysitting for my kid brother, and my friend brought over two horror movies on VCR: Night of the Living Dead and The Shining. He assured me that they were classics, and not really scary at all since they were so old. By the end of the night I was one giant ball of tension, these were definitely not my films. I still get scared in old hallways, and until recently I couldn’t handle people mentioning the words “red rum”. Then last year my friend Angela had a bunch of people over to watch The Shining and all I could think was “What stunning wallpaper”, so I guess I have changed, although there were still moments where I went in the other room to play with the cat (i.e. hide from the scary parts).

The ShiningDoes anyone remember Poltergeist? I suppose I was at least 21 when I saw that, and I know it was right around Halloween because I was going to a very grown up dinner party. In fact, it was the first dinner party that I’d been to where the host asked me to bring something. She wanted some chicken stock, but it had to be fresh, made from real chicken. So I’d bought an old chicken, and dumped it into the pot whole, to boil all the good stuff off of it. Meanwhile I sat down to watch Poltergeist. By the time it was over, there was some kind of half dead thing floating in this pot of fat, meat, and soupy matter. I knew that I needed to get it out of the water in order to pour off the stock, but there was no way I was touching that thing. Eventually I made my boyfriend grapple the chicken carcass out of it’s swampy mess. For the next few years I was a vegetarian.

More recently, I decided that I really wanted to watch 28 Days Later. I knew that it was a horror movie, but I’d read some of the comics and liked the way they looked. In addition I’d heard amazing things about the shots of a deserted London. Still, in deference to my old feelings about horror films, I figured I’d probably be safest if I watched the version that was chopped up for TV, and did my viewing during the day. Despite all of this preparation, somehow it was a lot scarier than I’d imagined, much harder to deal with than the comics. I had to watch it in 20 minute installments over the week and it still gave me bad dreams every night.

Having said all that, you’d think I’d steer clear of horror comics. I certainly would have if I’d known that there were such a genre. But as usual, I just picked up the comics that appealed to me. In this way, I was lucky to stumble onto Swamp Thing as soon as Alan Moore started turning it into something incredible. At that age, I had no idea that these were stories of horror so outrageous that they had to take off the Comic Code Authority stamp. The stories were very strange and seemed to have all sorts of odd imagery, they were unsettling and thrilling, but it never occurred to me that they were supposed to be horror. At some point there was a storyline where it was revealed that Abigail Cable’s husband was dead, had been for a while, and was raping her while possessed by her evil uncle Arcane. At that point, the penny dropped. As the walking dead held her down so that her dead demon uncle/husband could have his way, I thought “Woah! I think this might be a horror story!”.

HellblazerWhen Moore introduced the John Constantine character, I happily followed him to his own grim comic: Hellblazer. In tone (at least initially) Hellblazer had a lot in common with Swamp Thing; eerie tales of the supernatural. Still, it couldn’t possibly be a horror comic — these were stories about my mate John; a bit of a bastard living on the edge of reality. I learned to smoke and felt like a bit of a bad guy, and that was that… Once in a while I’d think “Best not to read Hellblazer right before bed, don’t want another weird dream about melting faces, that’s a bit annoying”, but I still didn’t see that this was another horror comic.

Have you read Black Jack? It’s fantastic. Black Jack is a genius unlicensed surgeon with questionable ethics, he operates on the hopeless for exorbitant fees. He’s mercenary and harsh, his patients are strange and damaged. The operations are depicted in excruciating detail (fueled by Tezuka’s own medical knowledge – he was a licensed doctor, though he never practiced). So there’s a internal anatomical detail, a lot of it, and his patients are pretty messed up. Apparently it was considered a horror comic. I have a pretty hard time seeing that myself, it’s dark and gritty, but far from horror, but as I write this, I’m beginning to think that my understanding of comic genre’s might be flawed.

Dead SpaceContinuing my creepy reading, I jumped on Fell when it came out. I only picked it up because I usually enjoy Warren Ellis’s work, but the art was great too, a perfect compliment to the sad little stories (which again, I never really saw as horror). My appreciation of Ben Templesmith’s art led me to Dead Space. The way I saw it, (in my complete and willful ignorance of the video game) it was about time we got a bloody science fiction comic, particularly one with some good old religious zealots and zombies thrown in for extra fun.

KurosagiHow about that Kurasagi Corpse Delivery Service book I liked the pretty cover on so much a few weeks back? I recently showed it to a friend, saying “They say it’s a horror comic, but it’s really not, it’s this team of young monks who are hired by the dead, to take  their bodies where they need to rest, or exact revenge on their murderers…” As I said that, I felt silly, it does kind of sound like a description of a horror comic.

Then this week I was decrying Halloween, and the prevalence of horror films at this time of year. “I can’t deal with horror one little bit!” I whined. But I was reminded that just the other day I was saying that Dead Space hadn’t been gruesome or grim enough, and suddenly I realized that not only do I enjoy horror in comic book form, but I love it! It’s one of my favorite genres.

Why is it that I’m completely unable to watch even a little trailer for most horror films without getting completely twitchy and jumpy, yet I’m perfectly happy to read horror comics all the time? What’s so different? Is it that I can control the pacing? Or is it the absence of atmospheric music? How about the fact that I don’t have to watch the creepy players moving around? Clearly it’s a combination of all of these things, but I think that the latter reason is the key here. By reading about these horrors, frozen and literally trapped in the frames of their pages, they become contained and controlled. They only live and have true dimension to the extent that I allow them to in my imagination. It’s entirely possible that the very nature of comics has helped me to explore my more visceral, negative emotions in a safe place.

It’s interesting to consider and to question these kind of inconsistencies, but at the end of the day I’m going to continue randomly reading whatever comics pique my interest, regardless of the label someone else is putting on them. And if a story veers into strange and unknown places, well that’s even better.


Sonia Harris was born to haunt the dark, foggy streets of London, but for the last 12 years, she’s been haunting the dark, foggy, hills of San Francisco instead. If you’d like to send her some scary stories, mail them to her at sonia@ifanboy.com.



  1. Nice piece, Sonia. I’m a fan of both horror movies and comics, but i think you keyed in on a major difference at the end there with your revelation about absence of music and being able to control the pacing, etc. You watch film passively. Thus, filmmakers have a lot of tricks they can rely on to scare you. They know how to make you jump. comics dont’ have the same luxury. So you end up with all that creepy atmosphere, but it’s still a series of still images, and you ultimately control the pace at which you read. There are definitely frightening images and situations that stick with you, but it’s just a bit different, isn’t it?

    That said, I love horror comics on their own merits. Maybe I just love those supernatural worlds of ghosts and elder gods. I can’t honestly say there’s a horror comic that’s kept me up at night, but… I’ve read almost every book you’ve mentioned above, and I continue to scan the racks for new horror comics… so something definitely draws me back.

  2. Great piece – I’m a huge horror fan, but must admit I prefer movies to comics, mostly due to the fact that there’s more out there. A great horror comic (EC, some 70s horror titles, the first 30 Days of Night series) can be scary, but a great horror movie (Dawn of the Dead, The Shining, any Sandra Bullock vehicle) can change your life. Like daccampo, it’s all about the entire sensory experience, while comics are static images and words.

    Also, I DVRed The Beast With Five Fingers, along with Mad Love, this morning from TCM – great horror line-up this year. Tod Browning triple-feature, some great Bela Lugosi stuff, and a Herschell Gordon Lewis (the grandfather of gore) double-feature. Screw the costumes and candy – this is what Halloween is all about!

  3. Horror Films are much better then anything comics can deliver. You did a nice peice Sonia and those comics are great to read. But in terms of being scared it usually never happens in comics for me. Stuff by Templesmith or comics like Swamp Thing are definied as horror; but I dont get scared by them. Maybe it’s because in print form I dont usually get frightened unlike the motion in films.

    The stuff we see in horror films look real when we see them. So stuff like a guy getting stabbed or someone getting eaten alive on film looks more scary because it’s happening to a real person. Subconciously I probably think because comics is more of cartoons I dont get scared by it as much. We have a zombie GN at my work and I read it and yes it was graphic at points, but it didnt scare me. But when I watch Romero’s Day of the Dead I cant watch it fully cause those scenes with the zombies tearing the soliders apart at the end is just so gruesome.

  4. @Dan and @TheNextChampion. Yes, horror movies are scarier. That’s why I don’t like them as much. I thought I covered that in the article – Most of the so-called horror comics that I read don’t even seem like part of the genre to me, they’re just good fun.

  5. Sonia, have you stayed faithful to Hellblazer over the years?

  6. This is something I’ve been thinking about recently, as well, and I think you’ve hit the nail on the head re: why horror comics aren’t as scary as horror films. I love both, of course, but if I truly want to creeped out I’ll usually pop in The Shining or The Exorcist rather than sit down with a comic. I agree 100% with your assessment of Swamp Thing…I think that the storyline you refer to is some of the best horror ever committed to the printed page.

  7. My first experience with a horror comic was a Danish reprint of an old 70’s book, maybe Tales from the Crypt?  Something like that anyways.  I have a vivid memory of a tap being hammered into someone and turned on so the ghouls could drink blood.  I assume it was an ironic torture but I couldn’t read it so I’m not sure.  Later there was a tale of a man being followed by Vultures in the desert.

    I couldn’t have been more than 8 or 9 at the time but it still sticks with me.

    Anyways great stuff Sonia.

  8. Are we kindred spirits? This has obviously been on my mind this week. In comics, I have sung the praises of the traumatizing, abominable Walking Dead at great lengths; in film, I cannot even bear to sustain eye contact with the "Thriller" video. I am a dainty buttercup.

  9. That’s cute that they gave you nightmares.

  10. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    I don’t love being scared, but I LOVE the trappings of horror.  The characters, the mystery.  Stuff like BPRD, Hellboy, Hellblazer, Fell, even Conan and Solomon Kane, are my bread and butter.  Anything that suggests a world beyond our own understanding, something older and weirder.  

  11. @SunnyvaleTrash: Yes, I’ve been reading Hellblazer for ever (it feels like). Only stopped for a brief moment after the "Beast of Man" storyline. The story itself pissed me off (just didn’t like the way the kid was used), but also because while the kid was saying ridiculous things like "I’m going to give birth to this demon through a slit in my belly of course", he was drawn like a Disney character.

    I just remembered a horror comic that worked for me, Alan Moore’s The Courtyard. Scared the hell out of me.

  12. @Sonia: I thought it was impossible but you just showed me an Alan Moore comic I’ve never heard of. Where did this come from and how did I miss it? Now I must go on ebay and try and get it.

    As for the debate about films and comics; let’s just say would I rather watch Dawn of the Dead or read The Walking Dead for more entertainment? I’d go with watching a zombie film then reading a zombie book. Most zombie comic books (sans Walking Dead) are usually boring and the gore just doesnt appeal to me. But I would watch the original or remake of Dawn 1,000x then any other zombie film.

  13. @TheNextChampion: I meant to post an amazon link to it, but apparently I failed. Anyways, it’s available on Amazon if you go to this link (don’t know why I couldn’t make it work in the text, so you’ll have to cut and paste this url into your browser – sorry).


  14. @Paul — I’m right there with you. That weird mystery… that idea that the world is far stranger than we imagine… that’s great stuff.

    That said, I do also enjoy that feeling of being scared. Maybe I love that I hate it? Or hate that I love it? Do you ever have that bruise that you can’t stop pressing on, even though you know it’s going to hurt? That’s a scary movie for me. While the film High Tension had a terrible ending, I do remember the way the filmmaker created palpable suspense early in the film; you’re right in there with the woman, trying to avoid the killer who is in the house. It’s terrifying, but it evokes such a reponse. And I like when movies give me such a reaction.

    Another one that sticks with me is Rosemary’s Baby. There are not really any "jump" scares in Rosemary’s Baby, but it successful builds that sense of dread and paranoia, as the world spins out of Rosemary’s (and your) control. Totally effective, but not based on gore or sudden scares.

  15. Maybe it’s because of the art fixating a story. I was afraid to turn my back to my bathtub after reading The Shining but I doubt I’ll get the same creepy feeling with a comic version because it is just one way of interpreting the story and fixating it so it might take out the oomph my imagination adds to the text.

    Some of the best horror movies have room for imagination on what is happening or what would happen next, wether it’s Psycho of Rear Window, or even Hostel.

  16.  i lent arkham asylum to a friend and she had to read in daily  intervals it freaked her out so much. i feel like i’m missing out.