Tough on the causes of fear…

causes of fear

UPDATE: I have to admit that the comments section has now become far more interesting than the initial entry itself. Please take the time to read them…if you’re interested in the causes of fear, that is…

“Fear is often preceded by astonishment, and is so far akin to it, that both lead to the senses of sight and hearing being instantly aroused. In both cases the eyes and mouth are widely opened, and the eyebrows raised. The frightened man at first stands like a statue motionless and breathless, or crouches down as if instinctively to escape observation. The heart beats quickly and violently, so that it palpitates or knocks against the ribs… That the skin is much affected under the sense of great fear, we see in the marvelous manner in which perspiration immediately exudes from it… The hairs also on the skin stand erect; and the superficial muscles shiver. In connection with the disturbed action of the heart, the breathing is hurried. The salivary glands act imperfectly; the mouth becomes dry, and is often opened and shut.”

I found this description of fear on Wikipedia. It’s by Charles Darwin in his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.

I remember watching Carrie as a student in the Common Room just about when videos first became popular (I know, that’s a long, long time ago). The film didn’t really terrify me. But it scared the hell out of the girl next to me. You all remember the scene at the end, just when you thought everything was over, when the hand comes out of the grave. The girl sitting next to me chose that moment to scream very loudly and then bite into my shoulder. Obviously I screamed too. And so did most of the other students in the room.

As horror writers, we are duty bound to reproduce this emotion either in the pages of a book or on film. But how do we do that? Most good writing draws on personal experience so, if we haven’t seen a ghost, or encountered a vampire or run from a faceless killer, how do we translate that emotion onto the page so that it scares the hell out of someone we’ve never met before?

Let me tell you about my Grandmother’s house.

If someone asks me about the house, I think green. I get a flash of the dogleg, downstairs hall. The walls are green. The door to the pantry at the bottom is green too. My Grandfather came by a job lot of paint. It was cheap and luminous, the sort of colour you find councils or the armed forces using to spruce up their utility buildings.

That’s what I think of that momentary flash back.

It’s a bit like dipping your toe into ice cold water.

If I hold it there a bit longer, by mistake or some masochistic perversity, it’s not what is seen that comes next, but something felt. The intense, pressing sense of something above. That’s often when I will turn away. Make some dismissive comment. I don’t want to really think about the house.

Move on.

The subject of the house doesn’t come up that often. Most of the time it’s tucked away, hidden beneath inconsequential stuff, the things that make up my adult life, my daily paranoia and dysfunctional dullness. I don’t dip my toe in the water and keep it there if I can help it.

But, just for you dear reader, I’ll make the effort. In the interest of fear and all that entails.

You see…there was something upstairs. And it came out at night. And it scared the hell out of me.

Here are some more flashes. Open fires. A toasting fork. Fresh bread being toasted over the coals (hot buttered toast never tasted so good). My Grandmother sitting in the parlour, reading in front of the fire. The Bakelite phone sat in the hallway. The washing mangle and the coal shed outside in the yard. The high walls. The frosted landing window. The cold in the winter.

And finally, upstairs. The long landing. The bulbs with faintly glowing filaments. The creak of the floor as you stepped along it towards the bathroom. The terrible fear of going to bed in that place. I was seven or eight the first time I was there. I remember the hours wrapped in bed sheets, my eyes squeezed shut, waiting for the night to be over, not wanting to open my eyes, trying to keep every part of my body protected by the sheets, sweating all night.

Old houses creak and groan during the night. The walls whisper.

There was something in the house and it wanted to get me. I didn’t know about vampires and werewolves or even ghosts then. And if I didn’t know about them, where did the fear come from?

In essence, although you learn to fear things, fear in itself is part of your body’s natural protection mechanism – preparing you for flight or fight. My fear, at the time, was not of any particular supernatural being but of the unknown. Of what lay in the darkness. I had come from the new prefab housing of an airbase, where every house was identical, to this red brick building with its creaking floors and cold, green walls. Grandmother’s house heightened my senses to the possible and the improbable, that the shadows could move of their own accord and that something really was whispering in the walls. The fear was deep and dreadful and paralysing.

So really, how do you transfer that kind of fear into words? How do you make your reader feel it the same way you did?

You can pull out Darwin’s goosebumps and eyes-a-popping, the physical sensations, but the actual cause of the fear, that catalyst for the inner panic which fills us all at some time in our lives, remains the Holy Grail of horror writers. At first glance it seems physical, like a punch or something sharp and ice cold grating down the spine. But fear is a reaction to something.

And, on one level, we are all different. The thing that scares me, may not scare you. The good writers, the ones who make us jump, are the ones who drill down to our deepest primordial fears. To really scare the pants of someone you’ve never met, you need to bore down into the darkness and find the essence of what scares us all.

The fear we share. The fear that something is out there, just beyond the darkness. It’s the fear that made us build camp fires and gather together for protection, it’s the fear that, in the end, created our cities and towns.

So, here’s the challenge: What, in the past, has scared the hell out of you and why? How did you feel, and what caused you to feel that way? Answers on a postcard please…or in the comments section below

23 thoughts on “Tough on the causes of fear…

  1. You know what scares the hell out of me? Sharks. As long as I can remember, sharks have been my #1 fear, which is completely irrational because I live nowhere near the ocean or sea. I did not even see a shark until I was 7 years old, and on a visit to the Pittsburgh Zoo. I remember standing in front of the tank, paralyzed by irrational fear. My bladder felt tight, as it struggled to hold itself in check. My heart raced, my eyes blurred and my teeth hurt from clenching them so tight. All I could think about was one of those sharks busting through the glass and chomping me to bits. A lot of people say it’s probably because of JAWS, which may be true. It is one of the first movies I remember seeing on the big screen, as we went to a drive in theatre and I was supposed to be asleep for the second movie. Unfortunately, I was not, and so was born a lifelong, irrational fear of sharks.

  2. There is the irrational fear. Related to anxiety. “I won’t get this job because of…” Then there is the fear that pops up because we are still at one level the privative hunter/gathers. The sound we can’t recognize, the smell, the feeling that some people give you as they pass you on the street, etc. Survival wants to kick in.As for my fears. When I was a kid. UFO’s I was so sure one was going to land near our house. It wasn’t the abduction part, that wasn’t mentioned much, it was the meeting those aliens with those black eyes.As I grew older, the fears changed. Fear of being in a car wreck as I was learning to drive. Fear of tornadoes (that one became a phobia, which is not fun when we were living in tornado alley at the time).Yet, what still scares me, the basic old fears. I just lay down to go to sleep, there is a crash somewhere in the apartment. And before I discover it’s my cats being dumb, I think my life in is danger.As you grow older the monsters are not the ones lurking in the dark. But humans with nasty intentions.

  3. Water mostly, or anything deep enough where I can’t see what’s in it. A lake, a hole, a deep mud puddle. Even a pool I’d just been in that day, if I can’t see the entire bottom at night, I won’t go near it. Nor will I sit with my back to it because I know something’s in there. Something impossibly big and hungry which will grab my leg, or wrap a slimy tentacle around me and pull me down. It’s always been that way, Of course movies like Alligator, Jaws and Stephen Kings short The Raft only made it worse.Apart from deep dark, mostly watery places, I have to echo what Mari M said. Human monsters are real. I’ll place them as a close second on my list of things most feared.

  4. As a kid I was terrified by zombies, werewolves, mummies, daemons, ghost, vampires–-name it! Anything supernatural would keep me up at nights, as I threatened to suffocate myself while hiding under the blankets. I conquered those fears by turning the monsters into heroes, like I did in my webcomic “Skeleton Crew.” All the ghoulies and ghosties have redeeming qualities and sweet personalities, and have had real triumphs and real losses. Of course as a grown-up, the game changes. I’m currently terrified by lack of control; especially concerning driving. If I don’t have complete control, or question my ability, it’s terrifying. Taking that leap of faith is harder to face than the zombies I was terrified of. There’s no blanket to hide under any more.

  5. 1. a giant octopus2. a giant (larger than my hand) spiderI have no idea why.

  6. There are a few things that scare me…. spiders, tornadoes and antique wheelchairs. All these things give me the shivers, the goosebumps and that whole bit. And for the most part, I understand why each thing gets to me,But the thing that absolutely terrifies me, and for the life of me I don’t know why or wherefor it came, is that sometime – when I really need to – I won’t be able to scream. I have nightmares about that….that something is happening, something is trying to get me and if I can just scream someone will come and help me. And I open my mouth, and I scream all the air in my lungs out… but I don’t make a sound. This started sometime in my late teens, as far as I can remember, and it’s gotten to the point now where I’m sometimes even afraid to think about it while awake – for fear it will be true in life as it is in my dreams.

  7. Morgan, I thought that said “tomatoes” at first,and I was like, “wow. A fear of tomatoes would be something pretty freakin’ cool!”

  8. Jenny, I’m sure there are people out there with a fear of tomotoes. That would just make me sad though because I love spaghetti! 🙂

  9. John Robinson May 9, 2010 — 9:27 pm

    Dopplegangers. I remember as a kid I saw a Hammer House of Horror story on ITV called “The Twin Faces of Evil”. It scared the be-jesus out of me for years. Most nightmares I have to this day feature evil dopplegangers of loved ones, so it obviously stayed with me. Still freaks me out today. I was tempted to buy it on DVD but chickened out!

  10. A light that switches itself onA radio that suddenly springs into life Footsteps upstairs when I am “alone” in the houseSpiders& much much more ;D

  11. What scares the hell out of me? Well, I’ll tell you. When I was 15, I lay in the comfort of my cozy single bed. My room was small and every shape, silhouette and shadow was familiar to me. It was my safe place, my sanctuary. Then one night, for no apparent reason, a presence entered my room. I heard a growl right by my right ear. So close I could feel it’s breath. I was PETRIFIED with an incomprehensible fear. I could not move and every sense strained for reason — an explanation, though I knew there was no answer that would seem logical or believable. My breath stopped and held tight in my chest, my body so rigid, every muscle tensed, frozen. I began to pray like I never prayed before in my life. Babbling bits and pieces of remembered prayers, warnings from my mother about spirits and what to do to protect yourself if ever you were unlucky enough to draw their attention. Then slowly I released my breath, listening to the darkness. Just as I started to relax, thinking I had imagined it, there it was again, that low, deep, menacing growl at the foot of my bed. Feverishly I began to pray again, begging for protection and willing whatever it was come to terrify me to be banished from me, from my room. The inky darkness retreated and vanished and the moon shone brightly in my window again; as if whatever it was that had visited me had obscured the moon’s pale, silvery, reassuring light. I have never felt such terror. I was exhausted from it. Immediately I turned on my excruciatingly bright reading lamp that was clamped to my headboard, and lay wide eyed and filled with dread in my little bed. I no longer felt safe, and from then on for many years later, I slept with the light on. Even now, I sleep in the safety of a little nightlight in my room and in the upstairs hallway.I don’t like to think about what happened that night in the darkness for fear of drawing the notice of that terrible entity once more. I have never written it down like this before now. And even now, in the safety of daylight in my livingroom with my daughter playing on the floor, the TV on and the comfort of my laptop on my lap, I tremble. What will I unleash in the writing of this? What did I do to come to the attention of the monster that lurks in the blackness? I don’t know. But everyday of my waking life, I am aware of the things that hover just beyond the light, waiting. Each night before I go to bed, I push away the memory of that night, refusing to think about it.It scares me now, and I think it always will.

  12. I’m with Jenny on the sharks thing. But along with them scaring the hell out of me they also fascinate me. This is going to sound silly, but I’m more terrified of cockroaches than sharks. I actually have horrible nightmares about them pretty regularly and I have no idea why…. still, they FREAK ME THE HELL OUT. And, unlike sharks, they’re actually totally likely to eat me in my sleep 😉

  13. Yesterday there was a tornado. So, to start I would say it’s weather, but I would be wrong. My greatest fear is things that I cannot control. Nothing that I do will in any way effect the ultimate outcome of whether or not I survive the situation. I could barricade myself in the center of the house, but it is still possible that would not be enough. Same with home invasions. I can latch every door and window but it still might not be enough. The ultimate outcome is still in many ways outside my ability to stop it or save myself. That would be my greatest fear.

  14. This blog has brought forth a very intriguing question for me to ponder over, as if I needed anything else to ponder over, but oh well. I gauge fear differently than most of the people in my life, and most of the things that people would take as a feeling of fear, I simply dismiss as anxiety to something unknown Aside from brushes with danger/health issues surrounding my children, which is true of any mother, there is one instant that brings forth crippling fear from my past. Makes my heart speed up when I even think about the feelings surrounding a certain memory.My father was the kind of pranks, loved Stephen King movies and books because they instilled a sense of fear in him where others failed. During a power outage when I was 12 I was told with a solemn face, that power outages in small towns (we lived in a town of 500) were caused by criminals who cut power to the towns to rob and murder the town. Little did I know in my child mentality, he was only joking. 3 weeks later while babysitting my younger siblings, my parents were 40 miles away, the power went out while watching Unsolved Mysteries, a show that always instilled a sense of dread inside of me. I sat for 3 hours, huddled with my younger siblings, crying, underneath the piles of blankets in a makeshift fort on my parents’ bed, waiting for the ‘robbers’ to break in, convinced that my father had been trying to warn me. Even at 12 I had a very overactive imagination and let my mind convince me my father was some sort of psychic in disguise, warning me of future doom. Needless to say when they returned, my mother was less than thrilled at my father’s inability to control his giggles over how panicked I was.I believe it to be all in delivery. How you convince a person to be fearful. My father had told me something I believed to be factual all because of how he said it. Didn’t matter if it was the truth, his delivery of the message made it believable. To this day, even though I know it to not be the case, that power outages happen for a multitude of reasons, every time we have one, my heart speeds up and that chilling instant of panic sets in.

  15. For me it’s the unseen… the bump in the closet. As terrified as I am, I will go into the room, to the source, because I feel quite certain that if I could just see it, I could manage it. But it always becomes worse when I get to the closet, cabinet, nook, and can’t find the source. My shoulders will hunch up with a shudder I can’t let loose…. not until I find the thing that isn’t there.

  16. Being in a situation where you have no control and feel powerless is frightening. I used to have regular nightmares about interrupting someone robbing my house. This caused me to fear the unknown. I was always fearful of how I would react under those circumstances. Ironically the thing I feared most did eventually happen. The good news is that it turns out I am a stronger person than I though I was, both mentally and physically.Less seriously I did also used to have nightmares about being stabbed by Tony Danza. I’m glad to report that hasn’t as yet happened.

  17. My family has owned a cemetery since the 1800s. As a child, I used to play with my cousins amongst the head stones and dirt mounds over fresh graves. It never occurred to me to be frightened of the cemetery’s occupants six feet below. In elementary school I was one of the weird kids. Being a bit of an outsider, I was never frightened by the classic monsters. I pitied Frankenstein’s monster and thought the Wolfman got a bad wrap. And Dracula? Well, Dracula was just plain cool.When I was eleven years old, a movie about Jack the Ripper came on television one Sunday night. The hook was that this movie would reveal the “true” identity of the killer. I had to beg mom and dad to let me stay up past my bed time to watch the ending. I immediately regretted doing so. In the last scene that I remember, the authorities dragged away a royal physician as he ranted about “killing whores” and slashed at the air with his empty scalpel hand. For some reason, that image was even more disturbing to me than the recreations of the killings themselves. Later that night I was just settling down to sleep when I caught a glimpse of my open closet. There in the darkness stood Jack the Ripper, brandishing his scalpel and waiting for me to fall asleep. I leapt out of bed and closed the door. I returned to bed and pulled the covers tightly over my head. Five minutes later, the handle clicked and the door glided open with a slow, agonizing squeak. I knew Jack the Ripper wasn’t really in my closet. I knew my closet doorknob didn’t work well and was prone to popping open. I also knew that the door had squeaked like that for years. That didn’t make it any less terrifying.What scared me the most about the Jack the Ripper scenario was the fact that there was no discernable motive. It was unexplainable brutality and, no matter what the movie said, they never found out who the killer really was. With most monsters, books, or other scenarios there is some sense of order. The villain is eventually revealed and has some grand scheme in mind. It may be horrible and barbaric, but there is a reason behind his or her heinous actions. The Ripper killings show that human beings sometimes do despicable things for no reason at all. For my painfully logical mind, that is far more frightening than playing in the graveyard.

  18. I have to say I find your original post strangely familiar- I grew up in my Nan and Grandad’s house, and although I spent most of my happiest days there I was a kid with a hugely over-active imagination. I was scared of the space above my wardrobe, the dark place under my bed, the attic, and pretty much everywhere after bed time.Interestingly, I still dream about that house almost every night, and despite all the happy memories it still makes me a little uneasy. Other things I have regular nightmares about include needing desperately to make a phone call and pushing all the wrong buttons, dark cloudy tanks full of unseen sea creatures, and flying.Gawd, I ain’t half scared of flying.

  19. Nothing on the standard menu scares me, neither do I fear death — in reality or the abstract. My preference is not to be drawn-and-quartered, or slashed a thousand times by a meth-freak pissed off that I had fewer than $100-bucks on me. So, it isn’t pain either. Even the more likely possibility doesn’t freak me out that I’ll live to become old and indigent, finding myself at the mercy of creepy, smelly people who actually enjoy beating up, torturing, or raping the extremely old.Nothing scares the living daylights out of me quite like normal-looking “yeah, I’ve known him/her twelve years–nicest guy…”, but capable-of-heinous-evil people.Take, for instance, Bruce Jeffrey Pardo, wearing a Santa suit, went bonkers and killed 9 people. The trigger: a divorce settlement. A new mother, worn from wildly fluctuating hormones, no sleep for days, slipping a soft pillow over the face of a sleeping child. Kids who’ve been beated, ignored, exposed to god-knows-what, molested, abandoned who discover a few moments of respect in the eyes of a victim with a knife or gun in their hands in an alley or convenience store. Mighta been you. Shudda been me. I’ll quote two of my favorites observers of human nature:The greatest evil is not done in those sordid dens of evil that Dickens loved to paint … but is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clear, carpeted, warmed, well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices.–C. S. Lewis (Screwtape Letters) We have met the enemy, and he is us.–Pogo (Walt Kelly, 1970)

  20. I’m sad to admit that I have several fears. Some are rational or commonplace and some are just whack. My common fear is that of clowns, commonly referred to as Coulrophobia. My mother tells a story of how she took me to the circus as a very young girl and I was fine until the clowns came out. According to my mother, I had a full throttle meltdown at the sight of them. I hid under the bleachers and refused to come out. To this day, they completely freak me out. John Wayne Gacy and Stephen King’s “It” did not help matters at all.My irrational fear? Aphephobia. This is the fear of being touched. I can’t explain it. I have no deep dark tormented past that I’m repressing. I just can’t stand it – especially when it is someone I do not know well. Anyway, I’m sure a therapist could make a career out of me.

  21. I do have a few mundane fears. Arachnophobia is the chief among them. I avoid spiders whenever I can. In a twisted way, I have come to a truce with them. I will only kill them if they invade my space and they should avoid me at all costs. I do not know if they are completely aware of the truce, but it is binding nonetheless. Unfortunately there was a brief skirmish last weekend as I prepared to mow the lawn and found two black widows that had taken up residence in my shoes. They now exist as small stains in my garage, a reminder to the spiders of our agreement.Oh sure, I came off as the Terminator to the spiders, but inside I was screaming and trying not to have a mental breakdown.

  22. Neil Colquhoun May 15, 2010 — 10:09 pm

    Clowns.

  23. When I was a kid, it was the Mummy. I hated how it just ambled along, steadily gaining on you. It could take an hour or a decade. You could run, drive, fly, or whatever, but eventually, that stinky shuffler was going to get you.Then it was Buffalo. When I was eleven, I was minding my own business at a tourist attraction and just missed getting squished against a wall by one of those things. I remember a huge rolling eye. A hump of hair and muscle. A grunting, huffing sound in my ear. I had bad dreams for years. Now, I eat buffalo burgers once a week. Tastes Goooooood.Lately, it’s been bears. They look like buffalo to me. When I let the dogs out, I stand there, listening, my heart in my mouth. Cuz they are big, bad, stinky creatures that aren’t afraid of me.Raven

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