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The H Word: Ambiguity—What Does It Mean?

The first time I considered the effect of ambiguity in horror fiction was while reading Simon Maginn’s excellent 1994 novel Sheep. It tells the story of James and Adele, a young couple who have moved to a small farmhouse in Ty-Gwyneth, Wales, with their young son in order to restart their lives after the accidental drowning death of their infant daughter. The scene that caught my attention opens with the broken family seated around the dinner table where James and Adele are discussing something terrible that has recently occurred on the farm. The dialogue continues for a few pages, and though it’s clear they are upset, we don’t immediately learn why. The couple speaks around the terrible event, but never about it. The suggestion of what’s happened is frightening due to our empathetic suffering of their stress and anxiety, only more so because these emotions have been compounded by our mounting dread over what could have occurred.

Horror, in general, is no stranger to this ambiguity of suggestion. T.E.D. Klein’s short story “Petey” is a near-textbook case of dawning horror borne on the accretion of suggested detail. And the film Jaws famously builds its dread from shadowy silhouettes of its shark swimming beneath the waves, intimating something unnatural is haunting the waters around Amity Island. Suggestion is an important component of Horror, and it provides a foundation upon which some of the genre’s more subtle and effective fears are built.

Not altogether dissimilar is the ambiguity of self. We see an example of this in stories depicted through the lens of the unreliable narrator. Because this character acts as a primary conduit for the story, and because they are by design untrustworthy, any piece of information they provide is suspect. Simple facts or actions through this lens are distorted by the subconscious awareness of the character’s inherent dishonesty, eliciting an ambiguity about what is real in context of the story, which in turn echoes outward to the reader and their experience reading said story. Much like Christopher McQuarrie’s screenplay for the 1995 film, The Usual Suspects, once the narrator is deemed unreliable, every piece of information, no matter how insignificant, becomes corrupted.

The most effective form of ambiguity however may be the ambiguity of story. Here, ambiguity takes on a greater role, shifting from being one of many tools the writer uses to heighten a story to becoming the story itself. This sometimes presents itself as the ambiguity of person or ambiguity of place, but most often it takes the form of the ambiguity of events, where it is no longer clear to the reader especially (and typically also to the protagonist) what exactly has transpired or its nature. We see this quite often in the mode of strange story typically exemplified by the works of Robert Aickman (see “The Trains” or “Ringing the Changes”), where the events that occur are often strange and confounding, and don’t appear to sum up to something immediately discernable. In film, this sort of storytelling is less common, but can be found in Peter Weir’s 1975 classic adaptation, Picnic at Hanging Rock, where a group of young girls on a school outing in the 1900s climb a local Australian landmark and vanish into the aether without explanation. In the ambiguity of story rubric, the unexplained becomes a conveyance of unmooring, unbalancing the reader through the obfuscation of definite detail and the exclusion of ostensibly essential information. The aim is to evoke one of two primary reactions by the story’s conclusion: either for the reader to be left unsure about what has transpired, or for the reader to be left with hope that, despite the odds, things have worked out in the characters’ favor. Never, I submit, does the writer intend the reader to simply accept whatever has been experienced.

Ambiguity of story is best used in modes where the inherent truth needs not to be fixed, but malleable. There may be no greater mode for this sort of telling than the ghost story, and no greater example of it than Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw.” Here, a governess at the turn of the twentieth century is charged with caring for a young boy and girl by their frequently absent and widowed father. It’s while carrying out her duties that the governess encounters unexplained events, soon attributing them to the specters of the deceased Peter Quint, the estate’s former groundskeeper, and the similarly deceased Miss Jessel, his lover and the children’s former and beloved governess. James has structured the story beautifully so that even by the end it’s never clear if the governess has actually encountered the supernatural or if her time isolated with the children has taken its toll on her already fragile mind. There is no way of knowing which is the truth—James’s use of ambiguity obscures any facts that would definitively point to one explanation over the other—so the reader is left in a hazy liminal space between explanations. Much like Schrödinger’s cat, it exists in both states simultaneously. See also what happens to Eleanor Vance in Shirley Jackson’s novel, The Haunting of Hill House.

The examples of ambiguity outlined above draw exclusively from horror film and literature. This is no accident. Arguably, there is no other genre that benefits from ambiguity quite as well or as much as horror. It’s not simply because horror makes use of ambiguity more often but rather because ambiguity is itself a form of horror, tapping directly into one of our most fundamental fears: the fear of the unknown.

Fear of death, of the mystery of what happens to us after we die. Fear of strangers, of the mystery of what the Other wants from us, or wants to do to us. Much of fear can be boiled down to questions that fill us with terror until they are answered. What frustrates about ambiguity is our certainty that those answers do exist but are unreachable—we see the shape of them in the void but cannot make them out. Yet that is also ambiguity’s strength when it comes to Horror, that uncomfortable anxiety evoked by our longing for an end to the unanswerable. Because when that longing ends, when the questions are answered and the curtains are drawn back, what we once found full of portent arrives diminished. The answers fail to move us. And it’s only then that we realize why the sensation of revealed horror is fleeting: because there is little horror in truth.

But there is no truth in ambiguity. Only more questions. One compounding the next. The answers forever out of reach. This is why it continues to unnerve and frighten us, and continues to be a powerful tool in generating effective and lasting horror fictions.

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Simon Strantzas

Simon Strantzas

Simon Strantzas is the author of the critically acclaimed short story collections Beneath the Surface (2008), Cold to the Touch (2009), Nightingale Songs (2011), and Burnt Black Suns—published in 2014 by Hippocampus Press. His fiction has been nominated for the British Fantasy Award, and has appeared in The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, The Best Horror of the Year, The Year’s Best Weird Fiction, the Black Wings series, Postscripts, Cemetery Dance, and elsewhere. He was born in the cold darkness of the Canadian winter and has resided in Toronto, Canada ever since.