As autumn rolls in and we find the days growing shorter and the nights growing longer, we also start to imagine the things that may be moving through those nights. Since mankind first made complete words on paper, we’ve found ourselves enamored with the possibilities of this time of year. Most of the creatures we fear are nocturnal, and the nights are making them much more active. So the questions we find ourselves asking are appropriately filled with hush tones of fear and reverence. It’s no surprise this is when we start to put more effort into our stories of ghouls and ghosts.
It’s strange, really, that someone who writes so often about monsters and creatures of the night like myself hasn’t written that many horror stories. I’ve written things that were a bit grotesque, maybe even disturbing, but actual attempts at horror are few and far between. The genre’s never really gripped me like most. It’s not too unusual, most people are too creeped out by these stories to be able to read or write them. But my problem is a little different: few stories really capture the things I’m most afraid of.
Most of the things you’d find in the horror genre just doesn’t do it for me. Monsters intrigue me mostly as creatures of fantasy. I joked through most of Paranormal Activity that it was just Casper trying to make new friends. And as a child I fell asleep through a Friday the 13th Marathon. And as for books, while I appreciate the work of someone like Stephen King, I always liked his less horror oriented stories better.
So it’s strange to say, if you knew me better, you’d think it’d be easier to scare me with these things. I actually had some pretty severe phobias, almost crippling in some cases, and still have one of them to this day. Generally that would be enough for most people, but what scares me doesn’t take center stage as often. So when it comes time to give writing tips to horror authors, there’s really only one thing I can help them with:
How do you scare someone like me?
Making Me “Nope”
The human animal is a jittery thing. Millions of years of evolution have driven us to be afraid of a lot of things that we probably don’t need to be afraid of anymore. In just my personal circle of friends I know of one person afraid of dolls, another afraid of clowns, and one person afraid of so much that they’ve deemed all horror movies off limits. So when offering advice, I generally imagine that trying to give you advice on how to scare someone like them is moot. If you’re writing horror, you’re probably familiar enough with the standards to know how to torment those types.
But if you’re hunting for the big game, you may need to become a bit more familiar with what makes some fears tick. Everyone has a fear of some sort that will prevent them from crossing certain thresholds. Hell, fear is so common that someone without fear is generally considered rare or insane. It’s one of the emotions we see as the driving force of human nature and, often, it really is. So everyone has something that digs at them, it’s just a matter of what.
So, to you twisted people in the world, I present to you a few of mine.
This one, I’m afraid, is going to only be applicable to filmmakers. Acrophobia, the fear of heights. Though I’ve long managed to battle it back and put it behind me for the most part, i have to tell you that when it does strike it is one of the most gripping and unreal fears I’ve ever felt. For most truly powerful fears, your first reactions are fight or flight. It’s natural for you to want to either punch something or run away. The really horrific part of a fear of heights is that your biggest fear is that a wrong move will result in going in the worst possible direction…
It’s the fear you literally can’t run away from.
This is something rarely tapped into in any movies. Some films will put a character out on a ledge for a single scene. These scenes can be terrifying, especially if the angle and lens are just right. Few take the time to actually try to tap into this as more than just a set piece, however, and those that do are generally not trying to be horror. One of the best examples is a trailer that, despite my best efforts to put this fear behind me, makes me a little uneasy.
I know this is based in a real story, I know I can just look up the results, and that doesn’t do a fucking thing for my peace of mind. Every shot in those trailers looking down at the impending doom that could be brought forth by Mother Earth and her mistress Gravity is just a bit uneasy for me. Anyone who could tap into that sort of fear and make it integral to what they’re working on would have my utter dread in a heartbeat. And while that feels like something out of the reach of independent filmmakers… one of the scariest fucking things I’ve seen in recent memory was done by a jackass holding a camera.
Aw hell no.
A lot of people think they understand this one, but it’s a bit more complex than they would believe. Picture a scene for a moment, and understand the thing that haunted me for much of my childhood.
It’s the dead of the night and you just got home after a long day. Fumbling around through your things, you’re confronted with a really unfortunate situation – you forgot your house key and have locked yourself out. No one has a spare key, nothing is open, and there’s a very real chance you could be stuck outside for the rest of the night. A single thought springs to mind after racking your brain in a momentary panic: maybe one of the windows isn’t locked down.
You start to scour the outside of the house to find something that you can open up to enter your home and you finally find one, just one. It’s a small, narrow window that you didn’t think to lock down because it’s so small. Any other time, you’re sure no one would have tried. It’s only in your moment of weakness that you consider this tiny porthole to get through. After taking a second pass, assessing your chances, and finally giving up – you go for it.
It’s so easy to squeeze through at first. Your head, arms, and midsection slip through relatively easily besides a few uncomfortable grunts and some rough hits that might leave a bruise. It only becomes a problem when you get to the waist and find that, somehow, you’ve been caught on the window frame. Thrashing and trying to push forward or pull back, trying to get yourself free, you become increasingly aware of the fact that the frame isn’t budging and neither are you. It’s growing increasingly uncomfortable, the weight of your upper body pulling down on one side and your legs on the other. Holding yourself up is becoming tiring and if you rest for a moment the blood starts to rush to your head. As the situation wears on, things start to feel tighter and you start to realize that, if you can’t get yourself out, there’s a chance no one will be coming to help you.
This is about when Foxes chew off their own foot, or men cut off their own arms.
That’s Claustrophobia in a nutshell. You’re not afraid of the area because it’s tight, you’re afraid because you have no means of escape. If you’re in a closet with an open door, you know you can step outside that door. But if you’re in a tunnel where the exits are hundreds of feet in either direction – you’ve got two directions to go and both are so far away. And if that tunnel is only wide enough to crawl through, you’re not getting to those exits very fast. Once again, you can’t run from this because it won’t let you. The only option left for you is to fight…that’s why the Fox chews off its foot.
And if there’s literally no way to fight your way out of the closed situation…
Aw hell no.
This one is the first on the list that can actually be run from, and it is very common, but the extent to which some of us feel it is unreal. This is actually one of the only fears I had as a child that I have not only not improved on but may have gotten worse over the years. As a full grown, adult man, I have rather bravely walked towards hornets with little problem – but a black widow?
Few things have made me jump up, run out of a room, and stay out of that room for long periods of time. I have gone through elaborate schemes using vacuum cleaners and WD-40 to kill those bitches at a distance so I wouldn’t have to be within arm’s reach of them. My arm, at that, not theirs. I’m still terrified the fuckers might evolve the ability to jump at me in the middle of our encounter. Or, worse, that they’ll fall, scurry under something… and disappear.
I once slept on a couch until someone else could tear apart my room and confirm the spider was gone because of this.
The thing is, despite it being a relatively common fear and being one of the major viral memes that you should burn everything if you encounter them – few high profile examples exist of this in horror. And, honestly, I’m probably a bit grateful for this as I even flinch whenever I see the bite scene in one of the Spider-man movies.
And this feeling should be incredibly easy to tap into. Everyone knows the uncomfortable feeling of something crawling across your skin. It’s so faint and light as the miniscule mass drifts across your skin, like a finger barely brushing across your skin and dragging along you unseen. But it’s not a simple glide as that thing grabs at you and you feel each of its many legs step one by one. Most people would have brushed it off in great fury by that moment. But some have a horrible thought creeping through the back of their head.
What if I miss…?
But then there’s the fear which does get a lot of play out there, but not as often in more modern offerings. As I mentioned before, I really appreciate Stephen King’s work and, while a lot of his work doesn’t reach me, there are some things he’s done I approve of. Because there’s a real threat presented by one creature above all others, even spiders (though I still fear spiders way more than these). The greatest threat to human beings….
Man, the most dangerous animal alive.
The thing is, this is often a lot scarier as a concept than simply throwing an immortal monster at your cast. What are we going to do when pushed to the bring? What would we do if we stopped caring about social expectations? What happens when we’re removed from the higher thinking that makes us humans? Not only is it an unknown, but it’s not just something that could happen to others – it could happen to us as well.
Within everyone there’s a small part that feels like that trapped animal from before. There’s a whisper in your mind telling you that fire may be an actual solution to spiders at times. There’s that need to keep a weapon handy from fear of what could be lurking in the dark. We always hope that we’ll keep our wits about us, but when push comes to shove.
Anthrophobia is a general fear of people, not one that I really have, but it’s one that a lot of us have on a level. It’s one that’s easily tapped into, the kind that makes things like serial killers, stalkers, and certain strangers haunt our imaginations. And there have been a lot of classic horror stories centered around this. But the thing is, not as a slasher. Not as a series of jump scares. No, the real terror comes from seeing the true darkness within us all. If you can tap into that truly horrifying darkness…