Opinion

The scariest line in the English language

Forget jump scares. Read horror lit.

For many years, I was convinced the scariest words in the English language were: "Humans can lick, too." 

You probably need to have attended slumber parties in the mid- to late-1990s for that sentence to scare you rather than make you giggle. Still, those four words had the power to make me carefully tuck my hands alongside my body at night, just as a precaution, even long after the reasonable expiration date for being thrilled by an urban legend.

Fewer things scare me now. I still won't say "Bloody Mary" three times in a dark bathroom, or look too long at the illustrations in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, but I've become one of those obnoxious people who will gripe that a horror movie "wasn't scary enough." Jump scares, not sentences, are what usually get my blood pumping.

With exception. Though horror movies have something of an unspoken claim on being "scarier" than books — with their ghastly images, anatomically inaccurate buckets of blood, screechy scores, and tickling of our amygdalas — horror literature absolutely reaches the same spine-tingling heights as its on-screen counterparts.

But it's not paraphrased retellings of Campfire Stories that freak me out now. It's Shirley Jackson. By my more mature estimation, Jackson wrote the actual scariest line in the English language.

I'll reveal the line in a moment, but first let me say: It's a close race. Author Benjamin Percy made a compelling case to The Atlantic that the scariest tect can be found in Cormac McCarthy's The Road, while Den of Geek attempted to get to the bottom of the question last year by talking to top horror authors like Stephen Graham Jones (who picked a sentence in Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door), Paul Tremblay (who picked a sentence in Clive Barker's "In the Hills, the Cities"), and Tim Lebbon (who picked my runner-up: "'Darling,' it said," from Stephen King's Pet Sematary). 

But four separate authors featured in the Den of Geek piece picked passages from Jackson's 1959 gothic horror novel, The Haunting of Hill House, by far the most cited book on the list. The specific "scariest line" from the story varied. "God god — whose hand was I holding?" (arguably a forebearer to "Humans can lick, too") was selected by both Catriona Ward and Mike Carey. Ellen Datlow, editor of Best Horror of the Year, chose the story's entire first paragraph:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone. [Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House]

As Datlow told Den of Geek, that paragraph has "probably generated more commentary and criticism than any other first paragraph in a horror novel. I love it."

I do too, though maybe I'm biased: I attended Bennington College, and our definitely haunted music building, Jennings Hall, was the supposed inspiration for the titular Hill House, making it exceptionally easy for me to visualize what Jackson meant with that strange construction in the second sentence. (I had a firm rule against going to Jennings at night). But it's the last sentence that draws me back again and again: " ... whatever walked there, walked alone."

That this is the scariest line in the English language is not a novel opinion. As Datlow recognized when she picked the paragraph, it is essentially the Babe Ruth of horror literature. Jackson's phrasing is just strange enough as to give it a feeling of ominousness as it builds ("Hill House, not sane…"), so by the time you reach that final observation ("…and whatever walked there, walked alone"), the sense of foreboding is so great it verges on real dread. The concern with sanity brings the focus inward, where you begin to feel a little off-kilter yourself. It's not that the lines make me fearful of haunted houses, or even ghosts — rather, there's something unsettled and lonely in that paragraph, something I can't shake or even, especially, explain. It's like trying to articulate what about the dark makes it still scary when you're old enough to know better; that it's not the knowing that makes any difference at all.

The sentence is also a textbook example of how literature can be just as disquieting as anything on screen — so textbook, in fact, that Random House copy chief Benjamin Dreyer uses the whole paragraph to discuss use of semicolons in his style guide, Dreyer's English. I highly recommend reading his whole annotation of the paragraph here. Dreyer can't resist digressing to "celebrate that paragraph's final comma, perhaps my favorite piece of punctuation in all literature":

It's not grammatically necessary; you might, if you were so inclined (I'm not), argue that it's incorrect. But here it is, the last breath of the paragraph, and I like to think that it's [Jackson's]s way of saying, "This is your last chance to set this book down and go do something else, like work in your garden or stroll down the street for an ice cream cone. Because from this point on it's just you, and me, and whatever it is that walks, and walks alone, in Hill House." [Benjamin Dreyer, via Penguin Random House]

To my immense satisfaction, Jackson is very much having her moment in the sun (or under the full moon?), and her overperformance on the Den of Geek list might have something to do with that renewed attention. Hill House was adapted in 2018 into a popular but vastly disappointing series by Mike Flanagan for Netflix, and Jackson, who died in 1965 at the age of 48, was back on shelves in 2015 with a collection of previously unpublished writing in Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings. She was also the subject of a 2016 biography, Shirley Jackson: ​​A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin and the central character in a 2020 biopic starring Elisabeth Moss, Shirley. A collection of her letters was published this summer, edited by her eldest son, and just this past week, Bill Ryan wrote an appreciation of the author for The Bulwark

With all this fresh interest, it's almost a cliché to focus on the opening of Hill House, but that line demands contemplation. " ... whatever walked there, walked alone" loops through my head at inopportune moments, lying awake in bed in an unfamiliar room at 3 a.m. or when the upstairs floorboards creak softly while I know my neighbor is out of town.

Images of horror can be seared into the brain, but they often degrade with time, losing their clarity and, with it, their power to scare. Words, once memorized, have no such deterioration — if anything, each recollection reveals a new angle of their fright.

The scariest line in the English language is just as scary every time, forever. 

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