In Hergé’s work, it's not just the owl that's scary...
The month of October is drawing to a close, and like every year, it will end with Halloween. The perfect opportunity to see how Hergé went about creating a subtle scent of fear in The Adventures of Tintin...Not for the squeamish!
The big thrill
Extreme. Intense. Primitive. Fear is, by definition, the most extreme of emotions. Which is why it fascinates as much as it repels. But one thing's for sure: it causes a sensation and leaves no one indifferent.
For the benefit of drawing and narration, it becomes a spectacle, and even constitutes a formidable dramatic springboard that feeds the story with tension, interest and, consequently, suspense. In fact, like many storytellers before him, Hergé used it to spice up his plots. But he always used it sparingly, adding a few touches of dread here and there to certain key passages to amplify them or give them a sharp focus.
For example, in the last two vignettes on the fourth line of page 4 of The Red Sea Sharks, a wave of panic blows through Marlinspike Hall when Tintin and Captain Haddock come face to face with a roaring tiger's head. It's a sensational...or rather frightening...moment that Hergé uses to introduce, with great fanfare, the most facetious of his characters: young Prince Abdullah.
And since fear is contagious, Hergé also used these emotional peaks to stimulate his readers and keep them on the edge of their seats, turning the pages - without restraint - to find out what kind of mystery and danger their favourite heroes were going to face.
Like the masters of horror, Hergé preferred to create fear rather than represent it. To do so, he conditioned his readers by playing on the most irrational and universal fears, such as the most famous of them all: achluophobia or nyctophobia - in other words, fear of the dark.
Indeed, there's nothing like a transition to darkness to create a disquieting break, because in the absence of light, everything becomes curiously more intense and heavy. The characters - and the readers - find themselves totally destabilised.
And if Hergé has fun consciously upsetting their bearings, it's to make them vulnerable and therefore more receptive to other external stimuli. So much so, that what is usually anodyne or banal can quickly take on unsuspected, even extraordinary proportions.
It's true that, in these conditions, vision, the primary sensory cue, is undermined and is then naturally supplemented by exacerbated hearing. Indeed, the slightest manifestation of sound is amplified tenfold. For example, in The Castafiore Emerald, Tintin and Snowy are startled by the first hoot of an owl as they stroll through the peaceful, sleepy woods adjacent to Marlinspike Hall.
Depending on the level of tension and intensity he wished to give the story, Hergé also played with the amount of light he introduced into his vignettes, ranging from chiaroscuro to total darkness. Steeped in cinematographic culture, Hergé often used these techniques, similar to those seen in "Day for Night", where blue and its variations dominate. But in this specific case, what interests him most is the disturbing interplay of shadows and silhouettes that are created. Hergé often - and even very often - uses this cinematographic technique in these plates when there are night scenes to depict.
Their cut-out and accentuated graphics give free rein to the imagination. To his own, of course, but also to that of his readers. In fact, sketched in this way, the leopard-man seen in Tintin in the Congo stands out very distinctly against the nocturnal background, without nuance, only materialised by a barely coloured surface.
This minimalist treatment gives pride of place to the strongest element of the scene: the gaunt, hooked hands that are about to close in on Tintin and which, in fact, seem much sharper than they appear. The character's hooked hands resemble those of Freddy Krueger from the horror film A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984).
In Hergé's work, fear is also expressed through the staging of a feared bestiary - especially if it's linked to superstition. Surprisingly, however, its members are more often panic-stricken than those they are supposed to make life difficult for. Tintin's creator's way of showing that fear is quite capable of changing sides.
And that's precisely what happens to the black cat in Cigars of the Pharaoh. The star of popular beliefs makes a remarkable, if short-lived, appearance, all claws out. The miniature feline with the spiky ebony coat may stand upright on his paws, but he's no less frightened when Snowy pounces on him to get him off the floor - as quickly as possible.
Since ancient Egypt, the animal has been closely associated with death and witchcraft, and is sometimes even considered to be the incarnation of the devil. And that's just the beginning! But never mind, because the young reporter and his dog aren't superstitious in the least.
And that's just as well, because now that the ominous cat is gone, the mice are dancing... or rather, the rats! Their presence - especially if they're en masse - is also never a good sign, because it's usually synonymous with a dark or bleak future.
If the small rodent with an unattractive face enjoys a bad reputation, it is because in addition to intruding everywhere and multiplying like wildfire, it is a carrier of diseases, including the epidemic and very deadly plague. That was all it took for them to earn their rightful place among the pests.
Tintin comes across one in The Shooting Star, but he doesn't have to play a flute to get rid of him. All he has to do is leap onto the shaft of a lamppost and let him - quite wisely - go on his way in the company of his evil horde.
Another pet hate - sometimes dangerous and hostile - that symbolically represents a threat to be avoided or eliminated, is the spider. The spider is almost always universally feared by so many people. It is even one of the top 10 most common phobias in the world.
Apparently, it's the spider's appearance that's the problem. Its large - and too numerous - hooked and hairy legs, to be precise. So much so that even the smallest of specimens is capable of arousing horror.
Just imagine if its size increased... which is the case in The Shooting Star, where Hergé twice confronts his hero with extra extra large individuals. At the observatory, first, on the magnifying lens of the telescope, then on the meteorite floating in the open sea. Does this macro vision reflect the perception of all phobics? Undoubtedly.
Legendary creatures are no slouches when it comes to size, either. The gorilla in The Black Island and the yeti in Tintin in Tibet are indeed oversized. But in the end, their secret weapon is bestiality rather than gigantism. At least, that's what Hergé would have his readers believe…
In fact, like the famous King Kong - whose myth was also created from scratch - they both scream and growl with unprecedented blood-curdling violence. But that's as far as it goes, because if they're scary at all, it's only because of the gossip and false beliefs people harbour about them: "Laugh not, laddie. I speak of the beast of Black Island that bides its while amid the ruins o' Craig Dhui castle, and devours all that dare approach", explains a local man, wearing a kilt and beret, to dissuade Tintin from going to meet it. Or: “He very mean! Eats eyes and hands of men he kills”, says a sherpa about the Abominable Snowman.
But as Captain Haddock so aptly put it in Tintin in Tibet: "You're imagining things!" because it's just fairy stories… old wives tales designed to frighten the gullible. And anyway, as every reader knows, Hergé's stories always have a happy ending. And in this case the moral of these two stories is clear: cruelty and hearts of stone only exists in humans, because no animal – no matter how imaginary – kills for evil. What's more, Hergé always knew that animals were sentient, so he gave them souls and feelings.
By the powers conferred upon them...
In the collective unconscious, fear is always associated with death, and it goes without saying that the spectre of death hangs over The Adventures of Tintin.
The most illustrious representative of this army of shadows even appears in the first adventure, with a nocturnal sequence devoted to it. In this case, when Tintin and Snowy are trying to get rid of a trio of Soviets who have come to get them out of bed.
But the joke's on them, because when they enter the bedroom, they come across two ghosts who have appeared as if by magic. Beneath his long, immaculate sheet draped over him readers will recognise Snowy's silhouette more easily than Tintin's - especially as his ears and tail stick out. For here, there is no supernatural manifestation, but rather a clever subterfuge to scare off assailants who are a little too troublesome.
In Cigars of the Pharaoh, on the other hand, the silhouettes of Osiris and Anubis form spontaneously in the wisps of thick green smoke that flood the tomb of Kih-Oskh, where our two heroes are trapped. The presence of these major funerary deities is far from reassuring, since their main mission is to accompany the dead on their journey to the afterlife.
But that was without taking into account that Egypt is a land of mystery, and so, miraculously, they narrowly escape "eternal life". Readers even find them safe and sound, a few pages later, navigating the sarcophagi that were intended for them.
In Egypt, Tintin really does seem to have a death wish, as a little later in the story he is (supposedly) executed before being buried...alive. Although terrifying and traumatic, this macabre ploy was nevertheless put in place to get him off the hook. His undertakers had ingeniously thought of everything to enable him to breathe from this dismal underground hiding place.
But in Hergé's kingdom of the dead, there's one who stands out more than any other. Since his creation in 1948, the mummified Inca known as Rascar Capac has single-handedly terrorised several generations of readers. And the reason is simple: according to the dictionary, he's...the living dead! But a living dead capable of incredible spells, as he juggles both fire and crystal balls.
By giving life and power to this skeleton, which is supposed to be frozen in eternity, Hergé is making a mockery of popular belief, which holds that anyone who desecrates a grave must be punished.
A word to the wise!...