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.
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