What Makes Us Afraid?
It's been a great many years since I have seen a movie that truly frightened me, let alone read a book that scared me. Of course I've stumbled across some with distressing subject matter, if not alarming, but none that have given me the prolonged uncomfortable nervous feeling of anticipatory dread I hunger for when consuming horror genre fiction or film.
In my own effort to write and publish a book that evokes this type of response from people, I find myself facing an obvious truth. It is impossible to scare myself with my own story. I already know the outcomes. I will never be able to measure my success through my own reactions.
So how do I create suspenseful tension for others, if not downright fear and terror? It's really not that different for what I have to do with any type of writing (technical, fact, or fiction) which is to tap into my own feelings, emotions, and experiences and let them flow out through my words.
I have to dig deep into what makes me afraid.
The most terrifying movie I have ever seen is The Exorcist. I was eight years old, and had to leave the movie theater. For several nights afterward, my mom had to sit at the top of the stairs and wait for both me and my older brother to fall asleep. The next film that comes to mind is Alien. This one I saw at the much more mature age of thirteen, and found myself riveted to my seat in fear.
Why did these movies scare me so much? Was it my age? My lack of experience? The novelty of the story? The first time experience of Hollywood's special effects? I also have to ask why things no longer scare me so much now. Have I simply become jaded over time?
The answer is all of the above. I was young, impressionable, and inexperienced. The stories being told were not yet recycled to nauseam, and the technological effects were groundbreaking. Yet, something more caused me to feel afraid and sometimes still does.
What truly scares me, and this applies to both real life and fiction, is the unknown causing me harm and being unable to stop it.
I break this into three distinct elements that only when put all together pack a lot of punch. First is the unknown. This can be supernatural, spiritual, alien, or a predator - an undefined threat. The second ingredient is the knowledge that this undefined threat intends or will cause harm. This could be death, physical pain, or the loss of oneself or something one loves. The third component is the sense of powerlessness, the lack of control or ability one has to stop the threat.
I find myself rethinking the words of our Franklin D. Roosevelt, during his inaugural address, " . . . the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts . . ." Of course, Roosevelt's words were spoken in the heat of the Great Depression, but don't they apply to almost anything we face in life that scares us?
Out of curiosity, what scares you?
TJ Clark is a science fiction novelist. She lives in the heart o f California's Central Coast. Check out her first novel, Invaded .
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