What curdles your blood more? Is an evil ice cream man the ultimate nightmare fuel, or is being possessed by aliens no one else can see the type of thing that makes you want to sleep with the light on?
Image Comics has gone there, and to other dark corners of the imagination you never knew could give you insomnia; think supernatural diseases and werewolves on chain gangs. At New York Comic Con 2018, Image Comics writers and editors gathered for the We Believe in Horror panel before a captive audience. Editor Will Dennis and writers Pornsak Pichetshote (Infidel), W. Maxwell Prince (Ice Cream Man), Matthew Rosenberg (What's the Furthest Place from Here?), David F. Walker (Bitter Root), and Dennis Culver (Burnouts) exposed the disturbingly real horrors lurking beneath the darker side of comics.
"I think horror is a diversion, a distraction in some way," Dennis, editor of Gideon Falls, Moonshine, and Wytches, told SYFY WIRE. "The real world is terrifying on a daily basis, escaping to a scary world is cathartic in a way."
You just need to randomly turn on the news to realize that the tumultuous world we now live in is its own horror story. Some authors, like Culver, have taken that it-can't-possibly-be-real feeling and morphed it into something that forces you to question whether you might be losing it along with the character.
Culver's trippy comic Burnouts focuses on teenagers who think getting ridiculously high is a great idea — until they start seeing neon green aliens they start beating to death with baseball bats. It only gets worse when the teens realize only they can actually see these aliens, and the lines between paranoia and reality get blurred beyond recognition.
And there's a certain broken familiarity to Rosenberg's What's the Furthest Place From Here, which focuses on hiding from apocalyptic destruction in an abandoned record store for so long that you're frightened to venture out. Others prefer to confront the bitter sociopolitical reality we face by mirroring an actual life experience. While the witches and other creatures that infest Scott Snyder and Jock's Wytches are fantastical beings, Snyder channeled the uncertainty of being a preteen into a story that also draws on his own childhood fears.
"It's a feeling about being a certain age when you're starting to feel like your parents can't lie to you the same way they could when you were little. So it's that nebulous period that's like a train wreck in slow motion," Dennis says. "The horror for the character in the book is the understanding that, after training his whole life with his family of witch hunters, he has a sees behind the curtain more than most kids, and his friend doesn't really understand what exactly is happening."
Pichetshote and Walker both use horror as a way to address racism and xenophobia. The haunted building in Pichetshote's Infidel is inhabited by more than just ghouls and goblins, but crawling with entities that feed off the xenophobia affecting an American Muslim woman and her multiracial neighbors. Whatever these things are, they are fueled by an ancient evil that seethes and writhes with hatred and could leave fatalities in its wake.
Walker takes Bitter Root from the Harlem Renaissance into the dark depths of racism and slavery that reach back to Haiti and Africa. The irony of how African Americans in '20s-era Harlem were thriving while the specter of racism still terrorized the South is unsettling enough without adding an evil supernatural disease.
"It's interesting to see how horror is evolving, especially in comics, since it feels like there weren't that many horror comics out there before, but now it feels like there are many more horror and supernatural titles," Pichetshote said. "That's probably a sign of the tensions of these times. You see something unsettling that works in a different way to evolve the genre."
Ice Cream Man might seem like empty calories next to such heavy metaphors, but there is something sinister hiding beneath an innocent summertime treat.
"I think that one of the parts in adulthood that people don't really prep for is that kind of thing that happens when you get older [and] have to reanalyze all the stuff that you thought you knew as a kid," Prince said of his suburban horror story. "Things start to take on a different shape. As a kid, you see ice cream as a treat, and then when you're an adult it's not really a treat anymore. Every time I eat it I feel terrible. Ice Cream Man is a look at how things in adulthood can change and how that stuff ruins you."
Try eating ice cream again after that.