What scares you?

Image courtesy Free Music Archive

By Scott Bury

It’s only two days till Hallowe’en, possibly my favourite celebration of the year. Fantasy writers, I think, probably share my enthusiasm. And that leads to writing about spooky and scary subjects. Which in turn raises the question: what is scary?

The writer’s job is to evoke a deep, emotional response in the audience, and fear is a powerful one. The challenge for the horror writer is to somehow make the reader feel that deep general fear over a specific scary thing.

Back in about 1980, the King of horror stories — even though he doesn’t write horror anymore — Stephen, wrote about “ten bears”: things that scared him. King always included at least one, if not several bears in his early horror novels.

His ten bears were:

  • the dark
  • squishy things
  • deformity
  • snakes
  • rats
  • closed-in spaces
  • insects
  • death
  • fear of others
  • fear for someone else.

Not everyone is afraid of the same things. I once read that there are only two universal fears: fear of sudden, loud noises, and fear of getting eaten. However, some fears are pretty common: extreme heights, lightning, public speaking, for instance. Some are rare: clowns, pillows, puppies.

Which means that, sometimes, things that scare the writer don’t have much of an impact on a reader. While I think I have a healthy caution about poisonous vipers and large constrictors, I have no deep-seated fear of serpents. Soldiers, obviously, don’t have a great fear of death.

I asked around: what scares people. Some of the responses:

  • “spiders”
  • “snakes”
  • “the bar running out of beer”
  • “being powerless”
  • “the unknown”
  • “being trapped.”

I asked for some details on the specific items: spiders and snakes. The upshot is that they tend to move fast and silently, and they could even crawl onto you.

I think there’s one common element. Besides being eaten and sudden loud noises, the universal fear is not the unknown, not chaos, but lack of control or power over yourself. The bear in The Shining was insanity — the hero, Jack, lost control of his own faculties to a real or imagined force within the hotel. In Misery, the hero was literally helpless and dependent on his captor.

Who hasn’t had that nightmare where something terrible is about to happen, but you cannot move?

Fear of the unknown, of the dark around the corner, is a fear of not being able to defend yourself against what might come out of it at any time. Squishy things are scary because you cannot predict, or therefore control, where the squishy stuff will go if you press on it.

So, what scares you? What element can you work into your next scary story, and how will you evoke your audience’s fear of it?


4 comments on “What scares you?

  1. I’ve always feared the loss of control. It can come in many different forms; mentally, physically, spiritually, etc., and has the potential to completely devastate a person. It’s the catalyst of emotions you may not experience often, or may not even know you had. It’s the fuel for your imagination, feeding the darkness of your unconscious and giving life to your deepest fears.

    With my vampire hunter books, I explore how the loss of spirituality changes the entire playing field for the protagonist. No longer able to control his feelings, the source of his strength wavers…and because of it, he finds himself no longer able to do the one thing he was made to do.

    In one of my webseries, the protagonist finds himself losing control of both his spirituality and his mentality due to outside influence. At first, he is just an angry character, but he soon finds himself helpless to fight the urges being forced upon him.

    I think that most people can identify with this. In some way or another, we are all afraid of not being in control of something. Whether it’s our lives, our futures, ourselves…it’s there in all of us. It’s this fear that I hope to play on, to share with my readers and to instill terror for what cannot be helped.

  2. Spiders used to scare me, but I’ve made peace with them. Since I’ve had young children, disease leading to death scares me because I want to be here for them until they’re adults. One of my son’s friends in grade nine lost his mother last month. She was diagnosed and died eight days later. What do you do in eight days for a boy who is only 14. That terrifies me.

    Living in Nova Scotia and working a small farm makes me worried (at times scared) of coyotes. I didn’t have this fear as a child because the coyotes were small. Now that they’re as big as a German sheppards, I’m always on the lookout for them from dusk to dawn. When I hear them howling over the hill, it’s time to lock up and get inside quickly.

    Vampires and werewolves never frightened me, bears, well, I feel much safer when they’re behind a fence and I’m several feet away from it. I think all animals have the ability to scare people to some degree. It all depends on how it behaves.

    In my fantasy novels I often use the fear of a loved one being killed to motivate a character. This makes them act swiftly (sometime not wisely) and creates a lot of emotion.

  3. Pingback: …A Book By Its Cover | Guild Of Dreams

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