Some blog posts are so informative, its scary!
Bad puns! Bad horror-themed puns everywhere!
That Sinking Feeling
Part two of this legendary miniseries is all about fear—its place in the art of writing and how to evoke it in the reader.
Now, depending on your outlook, this may be a highly sensitive subject for you. Not everyone reads books to experience fear, and more than a few people go out of their way to avoid it. A lot of people who use reading for escapism naturally want to read stories that lift, inspire, and sweeten their lives. These people are not enticed by scary stories.
So Why Write for Fear?
Well, for one thing, it’s quite lucrative. Ever heard of a little guy named Stephen King?
The horror. THE HORROR!
As a matter of fact, neither have I.
But on the short list of writers who have “made it big,” Mr. King often ranks near the top, sharing the uppermost clouds with names like Dan Brown and J.K. Rowling, except his clouds are far more numerous and made of more expensive materials.
And yet, Stephen King’s works are best known for conjuring feelings of fear and dread, except, of course, for when they become unintentionally hilarious.
What can be said about this movie that wasn’t already said by the Nostalgia Critic? Go watch his YouTube video review after you finish reading this post (Warning: not appropriate for children).
Obviously, there’s something to be said for works that instill the audience with a looming sense of the spooks.
But, apart from that, fear provides something to the reader. There are, of course, people in the real world who live in fear, sometimes constantly. In some ways, life is a dialog between us and the things we fear, and the simulation we get through fear literature is something of a preparation, or even a coping mechanism, with this feeling that, left unchecked, can completely control us.
As a writer, you need to put interesting characters in terrible situations. It puts the reader on edge and makes them worry over the fate of these people you created. That kind of investment keeps the pages turning. So while inspiration may be the most personally-transformative emotion you can give your reader, fear is the best at reinforcing the illusion you are weaving around them.
So Where does Fear come From?
Well, a great deal of research has been done on the subject. Psychologists divide the matter between the rational and irrational fears. Certain phobias are held up as archetypes. Many people fear snakes or spiders. Or dentists or birthday clowns. Necrophobes fear dead bodies. And triskaidekaphobes fear anything to do with the number thirteen.
“Fear us, puny mortals!”
All these fears can make great stories. Dangerous animals are a good challenge for your protagonist. Dead bodies are intimidating. Not to mention dangerous criminals, as well as the more surreal fears—ghosts, monsters or the devil himself.
But I am here to tell you that none of those things matter.
Yes, this lesson comes with a twist. For in my studies I have made a startling discovery—one that will change everything you know about your own feelings.
Are your ready? Then take a look at this:
There are only Two Kinds of Fear
That’s it. No more than two. And though you may search high and low, you will not find any others. The only reason it seems like there are more is because human beings are always trying to justify their emotions. And both types of fear can be justified in a multitude of ways.
The fear of spiders and the fear of wide-open spaces are the same fear, justified with two different explanations, after the fact, because the victim finds it better to have some kind of explanation, rather than acknowledge that they can’t quite grasp this huge thing they are feeling.
The fear of birthday clowns and the fear of airplanes are also the same fear, wearing two different faces.
These things are all tied together by a secret. Do you want to know what it is?
No. Please stop!
Well, too bad. Because I can’t keep it to myself any longer. There are only two fears, and they are as follows:
- The fear that you are blind.
- The fear that everyone else is blind.
Let’s examine each of them in detail….
Fear #1: You are Blind
Mr. Devil’s Advocate: “He’s a devil and an advocate? What am I doing with my life?”
To begin with, let’s talk about what I actually mean.
I am not talking about permanent, physical, visual impairment. Yes, I’m sure some people are afraid of going blind in that manner. But I have no experience in that dimension, and am talking about something that covers a lot more than a single sense.
Growing up, human beings quickly learn that the world is full of dangers. And with even a little experience, they realize that many of those dangers cannot be perceived until it is too late.
Spiders are frightening for this reason. They wouldn’t be so bad if you knew where they were at all times, but you can’t. And it always seems like they’re coming out of nowhere. Even after they appear, and you’re staring right at them, you are paralyzed by what you can’t see. They stand perfectly still. You can’t see their heartbeat or guess their future movements. After waiting long enough, they scurry up walls in a way that boggles your perception, or they plummet from the ceiling on invisible tethers.
Sharks are also terrifying because you can’t see them. They slither through the water, just under the surface. They could be salivating onto your ankles, and you would never know.
The same goes for ghosts and snakes and stalkers. Once they make their appearance, then all other emotions give way to the fight or flight response, where exhilaration, panic, or rage take over. Before that, there is only fear.
But it is not the only kind.
Fear #2: Everyone Else is Blind
Were you ever a child, once?
No? Hm, that makes my job so much harder. Let me try to explain it, then.
When you are a child, you are afraid of many, many things. If you were anything like me, then you were afraid that dinosaurs were going to break into your house. And you woke up in the middle of the night, inconsolable, because you knew that dinosaurs had gotten into your house and were going to claw your family to pieces before your eyes.
And, after making a lot of commotion, your mom and dad hear your lamentations, and come to your room to comfort you.
Imagine, you who never had a childhood, the kinds of things they say to their distraught little toddler. The only rational approach is to educate the child, let them know, with parental assertiveness, that there are no dinosaurs anymore, that the scary night terrors aren’t real and can’t possibly hurt anyone. Wouldn’t you agree that this is the best way to turn back the imaginary terrors?
Wow, you really are an idiot.
Your parents aren’t going to tell you that there are no dinosaurs. Or ghosts. Or gremlins. Or vampires. They’re smarter than that. And after years and years of dealing with your childish nightmares, they’ve wised up to this one most important rule about fear:
When you tell someone that monsters don’t exist, it makes them more afraid of monsters.
If your parents are stupid enough to tell you that dinosaurs aren’t real, you immediately think, Of course they’re real! They were in this room just two minutes ago. And then the real fear—the one that traumatizes you forever—sets in:
Your mom and dad are not going to protect you from the dinosaurs.
They don’t see them. Or, if they see them, then they don’t care. When it comes to dinosaurs, you’re on your own, kid.
And, in that moment, all the psychotherapists on Earth raise their hands and rejoice, for on this night a customer is born.
That’s why all GOOD parents know that, instead of denying their child’s fear, they walk them through it. Dad checks under the bed to make sure no dinosaurs got down there. Mom opens the closet so you can see that the dinosaurs all got away. Then they tuck you into the covers with your teddy bear, and your glow bug, and that rune-graven sword that the old wizard gave you for the express purpose of defending your family from dinosaurs, and suddenly all is right with the world.
More Examples of Fear #2
Earlier, I talked about birthday clowns and airplanes, and how they both were expressions of this kind of fear.
They make really good examples, because they are both things that most people don’t have problems with. Because you’re the only person who is afraid of flying. Sorry, but it’s the truth.
Everyone else on the entire plane is acting like nothing’s wrong. They don’t know that they’re all about to die screaming, killing each other to get to the exit, but it’s no use BECAUSE THEY’RE ALL GOING TO DIE. And you’re the only one who knows it.
Everyone else is wrong. They’re all so content to let it happen, but you don’t have to die. If you make a scene, if you stand up and shriek in the aisle, they will take this murder tube back to the airport and set you free. Do it. Do it now!
The same goes for clowns. To everyone else, they’re so approachable. But you know something is up. Don’t get close. Quick, draw your rune-graven sword.
How to do It
Now that you know what the two kinds of fear are, it is a simple matter to build a story out of them. If you are writing a longer work, such as a novel, then fear need not be the only building block you use. You can have scary situations, but still be more centered on action, adventure, romance, comedy, or whatever. Or you can go all out on a horror story with little, if any, side content. But whether it covers the whole work, or only one chapter, the “scary part” of your story will follow one of two templates.
- Your main character is surrounded by dangers they cannot see.
- Your main character can see all the dangers that everyone else in the world cannot.
A classic example of the first scenario is the “ghost story”. A person (or group of people) is stranded in a haunted house/hotel/hospital/ship/cave where they are assaulted by invisible stalkers who won’t leave them alone. In this scenario, the less the protagonist sees of the threat, the more successful the story. Of course, if your protagonist never encounters the threat, then you have no story, so they have to see something. But what they see should most often be a suggestion, a whisper, a cold spot in an otherwise-warm room, and then, by the time they can make out what they’re looking at, it’s too late to save themselves.
The second template is best exemplified by the “dystopian horror” genre. In a world where everyone tacitly agrees to unspeakable, institutionalized horrors, your protagonist is the only one who dares question the benevolence of the system. “I love the new technology that takes away people’s need to fall asleep. What’s that? You don’t like the new technology? Why would you even say that? Don’t you like how much more productive you are? Don’t you know that the Malefico corporation is only looking out for us? Why do you hate good things?”
The end result is the one sane person left in the universe, fighting to run against the tide of the mindless mob.
The rest of the world has all become zombies. You are the only one left who still has their soul.
Who has done It
The perfect example I can give, for using these two kinds of fear, comes not from a novel, nor from a movie.
It comes from a TV show.
“Terror at 20000 Feet” is perhaps the most iconic episode of The Twilight Zone, a classic science fiction anthology series. In this particular outing, the main character is a man who is flying home after a lengthy stay in a mental institution. The doctors say he is all better, but during the flight he looks outside his plane window and sees a hideous humanoid monster on the wing of the plane. Eventually, the creature starts savaging the wing, attempting to bring the plane down. And the man knows he cannot be too assertive about the existence of the creature, seeing as how no one will believe him, anyway.
This sketch is particularly effective because it leaves the audience guessing which of the two kinds of fear is at play. Is the protagonist blind, unable to discern that the real danger is his own madness? Or is he the only one who can truly see, and everyone else is blind to the horror that lurks outside the plane?
In a desperate bid to scare the monster off, the man opens the plane’s boarding door in mid flight, endangering everyone on board. Surely he is the only monster here. But wait: after the plane lands, the technicians discover damage on the wings of the craft, just like the man said there was. Both kinds of fear are present in this story, but which of them is the real one? That the episode keeps the audience guessing until the end is its strongest virtue.
The Achilles’ Heel
But, naturally, there are a lot of people who fall flat on their face when attempting to evoke fear. Fortunately, one of the most clueless figures in the history of horror movies is not only alive today, but still producing.
Yep, if you really want to kill your scary story, just do what M. Night Shyamalan does. Because you can never be better at this than he is. Not even if you tried with all your heart and lived for a thousand years.
So what does He do Wrong?
The bulk of his films would make for good examples of what you should never do with the horror or thriller genre. But for sake of brevity, I will focus on only one.
This film is the exact opposite of “Terror at 20000 Feet”, in that it reverses the equation. Where The Twilight Zone episode tantalized the audience, presenting both kinds of fear but forcing them to choose which one they were seeing, this movie nullifies both sides by making them equal—the hero and the rest of the world are blind, all at the same time.
In other words, something is “happening,” but no one can tell you what it is. Certainly not the people who saw the movie.
It is not the story of one man running against the complacently wicked world.
It is not the story of a malevolent, invisible world closing in on one man.
It’s the story of people stumbling in the dark. Yeah, some of them get hurt (as people would when they stumble in said darkness), but there’s nothing all that menacing about it. The hero has no reason to doubt himself, since everyone else is literally having the same problem. And he has no reason to doubt everyone else, because he is in the same boat as they are. It’s a paragon of non-intimidation.
Fear is an important tool in any writer’s arsenal. With just a little bit of forethought, it can be used by even the least experienced of writers, and yet it adds heft to any work in which it is woven. Just remember to respect its power, or you may begin a…
…reign of horror!
[This week’s tagline: “Where people come…undone.”]