Look on the Bright Side: Sunlit Terror and the Subversion of Horror Tropes

As the heat of summer fades into autumn, the usual melange of seasonal items are blooming in stores. As always, there are pumpkins to be carved, wreaths to be laid, candy corns to be consumed (or at least scorned by the non-believers).  The season lends itself well to horror, as the days shorten and night blurs the boundaries of the possible. However, it is worth taking a moment this year to reflect on the oft-downplayed sub-genre of sunlit horror, which tends to be ignored in favor of the obvious powers of the dark and grotesque.

Nowhere is this deficit more pronounced than in the leadup to Halloween. From early September through the day of, there’s no shortage of morbid imagery in shop displays, from grinning sugar skulls to the ever-present Scream mask and reaper robes. The intensity may vary by customer (stores are wary of parental complaints), but the underlying awareness of mortality is a constant theme. Rarely will you find decor that combines the balm of sunshine with the blight of decay.

In movies and books alike, the return of day is something of a threshold event. Once the sun exposes our surroundings, we are far less wary of being attacked by skulking predators. Likewise, in mainstream horror, the worst events are restricted to the ambiguous night. Using dark settings is perhaps the most intuitive way to write horror; after all, it’s hard to beat horror that’s been woven into our species’ psyche over millions of years of evolution. Sunlit horror lends itself particularly well to movies, from classics such as Jaws to more recent hits like Midsommar. Movies provide an easy scare with their ready-made horrific visuals (we will never forget Midsommar’s ritual cliff-jumping suicide and bloody mallets), but sunlit horror stories require an extra level of work to properly imagine and savor a horrific scene. However, this extra stretching of imagination’s tendons has a way of strengthening our sensibilities and capacity for savoring the finer, less-obvious aspects of horror. 

Perhaps one of the best examples of pretty sunlit horror is Bernard Taylor’s 1977 classic, Sweetheart, Sweetheart. In this forgotten gem, English ex-pat David Warwick abruptly returns to his home country after a disturbing premonition about his twin brother and his new wife. David soon occupies a centuries’ old rose-filled cottage fit to make HGTV swoon. Much like the pitcher plant that tempts the insect with nectar and bright colors, so does the house enfold David in a disturbingly pleasant embrace while he chases the mystery of his brother’s death through the nearby village. And like the insect, David only realizes the true nature of the threat when it’s too late for him and his loved ones, as he desperately tries to escape his rose-scented hell. 

Thomas Tryon’s 1973 chiller Harvest Home masterfully uses the sun-drenched, bucolic setting of a New England village as a backdrop for a family’s gradual immersion into ancient horrors. In this book, the Constantine family, seeking a change from their frenetic lifestyle in New York, buy a house in the tiny, close-knit village of Cornwall Coombe, where the corn farmers maintain their cultural traditions with a near-Amish fervor.  Though the villagers at first appear friendly and protestant, a series of sinister events at the town’s summer fair and autumn festivals slowly reveals that first impressions can be deadly wrong. As the episodes progress from a surprise sheep slaughter at the summer fair to the discovery of a tongueless man in the woods, Tryon suggests that sometimes, darkness is kinder in its ambiguity. After all, when we hear a bump in the night, we can reassure ourselves that, more likely than not, it’s really just the fridge. Or the dog. Or maybe a serial killer. But when we witness horror in the bright light of day, there can be no doubt. 

Perhaps the most popular sunny horror story is Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” which hits the ground running with a lush description of an idyllic summer day — June 27, to be precise. In this piece, the residents of a small village gather on the town common for an annual ritual with all the nonchalance of a city council meeting. Jackson matter-of-factly describes the procedure of the lottery drawing, interspersed with town gossiping and socializing, until the grotesque outcome of the ritual is revealed in the last couple of paragraphs. By spending so much space on the mundane details surrounding the rite, Jackson invokes a subtle “business as usual” vibe that heightens the ultimate horror of the reader’s realization of what the drawing is for. 

One of the more mainstream examples of daylight horror done well is Stephen King’s Cujo, the tale of two Maine families whose lives are torn apart when the titular Saint Bernard contracts rabies and goes on a killing spree. The book climaxes in a multiday siege as the sick animal traps a mother and child in a malfunctioning car during the heat of summer. As the temperature rises, so too does the reader’s anxiety as they visualize the bright sun sapping life from the four-year-old boy. Only the night brings temporary relief as it cools down the car. In this story, what should be a source of life and joy has become a deadly foe, just as much as the monstrous creature lurking outside. 

As we enjoy our pumpkin spice lattes this autumn, it is worth expanding our usual repertoire of horror devices into brighter territory. Oftentimes, the best terror to be found isn’t lurking under our beds at midnight. It’s on a sunny porch with a smile on its face – and a knife behind its back. 

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