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
- closed-in spaces
- 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:
- “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?