Fear in Fiction: The good, the bad, and the Downright Scary
The portrayal of fear in fiction has a brutally wide range of success and failure. There are authors and novels well known for their ability to terrify the reader and still others that could be summed up in the phrase “you tried”. From Stephen King’s The Shining which is widely known for conjuring nightmares to R.L. Stine’s adult horror novel Red Rain we can see that the quality of horror novels heavily depends on the quality of fear description. An author can soak the pages with blood and gore but without properly illustrating fear they risk the story becoming merely disgusting and even horror’s most devoted fans could walk away. The accuracy and detail of fear psychology is essential to catching the reader’s attention and keeping them in suspense. True horror authors must be as intent on scaring the main character as they are the reader. To realistically convey fear one must understand its biological, psychological, and chemical components that display themselves as psychical symptoms and the unshakable sensation that something is behind you.
The Psychology of Fear
So, what exactly happens when you’re afraid? Let us say you are out for a nice walk in the woods and suddenly out in front of you jumps a cougar. Before you could think about your response your autonomic sympathetic nervous system kicks in. Your sympathetic nervous system deals with arousal and expending energy so you are ready to either fight or run. Upon seeing the cougar your heartbeat will accelerate, your blood pressure rises, you will start sweating to cool yourself down, blood is drained away from the brain into your legs and arms, and your digestion system is relaxed which is why some people soil their pants when they are scared. When your brain catches up with your body the amygdala, two lima-bean sized structures in the brain, will activate. Scientists have shown that your amygdala can be activated simply by seeing someone angry or having an upcoming exam. Now that we’ve covered the mechanics of fear how does this play into literature? How do authors state the facts without becoming boring or thrill the reader without becoming too sensationalized?
Integration into fiction
The expression of fear in colourful, contemporary ways can come in two forms: What they do and what they think. What they do refers to the description of physical symptoms that were mentioned above. Stephen King does a beautiful job in illustrating a fear stricken body in The Shining when he writes “he turned with jerky, marionette strides, his heart whamming frightfully in his chest”. Here we can get a clear visual of Jack Torrance walking away from what he thinks is a ghost. We can see that his sympathetic nervous system has been activated by his heartbeat and instinctual urge to run. Providing a physical description of fear is imperative and the more accurate you are the more the reader can connect to the character. Have you ever read a story that gave you goosebumps? The writer has successfully transferred the characters feelings to you.
What they think is a nod to the ever famous mind games that date all the way back to Edgar Allen Poe. One of the most well-known examples of this would be The Tell-Tale Heart where the murderer in question has gone mad as evidenced at the beginning of the story where he writes “you say that I have lost control of my mind”. Interestingly enough, he is driven over the edge by the sound of his own heartbeat. Using the physical symptoms of fear Edgar Allen Poe stimulated our human imagination. Intertwining the physical with the mental is the mark of a true horror novelist. Just as the amygdala can be activated during a math test or in a dark hallway it can sound the alarm anyplace where potential danger exists, even if there is none.
Not all attempts of capturing the reader in a spine-chilling adventure have been successful. The most common mistakes, so it seems, are piling on the gore where you don’t need to and overly simplistic characters who constantly throw themselves into danger. Let’s be honest, as humans we tend to avoid danger. Granted, this is not always the case and thrill seekers do pop out of the crowd every now and again but generally if there’s a ghost in the bathroom you sell the house. In order to keep the reader invested your character must have a legitimate reason for being in trouble. In Stephen King’s novel The Shining the Torrance family was snowed in and by the time they realized they needed to leave (Even if it meant braving a tough winter) the hotel had already corrupted Jack.
Basically, you need to avoid avoidable situations because if the reader can find a realistic way out of harms reach they become detached. For R.L. Stine’s Red Rain numerous book reviews agreed that while plenty of gore was present, fear was not. Red Rain used many horror tropes such as evil twins (Sound familiar?) and thus the characters appeared flat and were deemed not relatable. Having these kinds of characters caused the readers to look at the story from an outside perspective and kept them from fully engaging. Morning, Noon, and Night by Sidney Sheldon features a scene of a car crash that goes as follows “Kendall stood there, frozen…she felt bile rising in her throat. She looked up, desperate, not knowing what to do. She swung around in panic”. Again, we find ourselves looking in on a bad situation. Without feeling the pulse of blood rushing through her ears, the perspiration prickling her forehead, or the way her mouth dried up we cannot put ourselves in her situation.
There have been many masters of fear in fiction. Starting, of course, with Edgar Allen Poe, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Michael Connelly, James Patterson, H. P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, and many more. Writers have been crafting ways to tease the brain and toy with darkness for centuries. Stylistically, fear has been evoked in many ways. Some authors relish in suspense, such as our murder mystery novelists Michael Connelly and James Patterson, while others show us through the eyes of the insane (Stephen King and Edgar Allen Poe) and still others demonstrate what it’s like to be a normal person thrust into dangerous situations (Dean Koontz). Fear is an essential emotion that is placed in each of us to help us guide through our everyday lives and keep us safe. For authors, when done correctly, it invests the reader in the story and its characters. The key is to keep readers on the edge of their seats without breaking the illusion.
Edgar Allen Poe (1843) “The Tell-Tale Heart”, pg. 1
King, Stephen (1977) “The Shining”, pg. 373
Sheldon, Sidney (1995) “Morning, Noon, and Night”, pg. 228
What do you think? Leave a comment.
A very interesting look at, and analysis of, fear in fiction, thanks for that.
Fear has become comfortable, like reality TV.
That’s an interesting concept. Desensitization is very much a cultural phenomenon and I think one’s comfort in being afraid varies depending on exposure in childhood. Perhaps what movies you were allowed to watch at a young age for example
Awesome horror seems to have dropped out of fashion. You probably have to go back to the likes of Algernon Blackwood (The Willows, The Wendigo), Arthur Machen (The White People, The Great God Pan), William Hope Hodgson (The House on the Borderlands, Boats of the Glen Carrig) for the good stuff. Also, although I mentioned him upthread and I hasten to add I’m not his agent or publisher, some Ramsey Campbell, particularly Midnight Sun.
I love it when people make the connection between fear and sympathy when it comes to the horror audience. There’s a lot of schlock out there which requires passive consumption and minimal critical engagement, but in order for horror to be effective it does require a level of emotional engagement which too many articles gloss over. Thanks for sharing this x
Great topic. I recommend ‘The One Safe Place’ by Ramsey Campbell. It is a horror story with absolutely no supernatural elements whatsoever. A family move from the US to Manchester for work. They are burgled and when the burglar is caught and jailed, his family proceed to make their lives an utter misery. Authority is indifferent and even hostile. A very grim book – one read was enough.
RC is seriously creepy and sadly underappreciated.
I suppose ‘horror’ without supernatural elements should be categorised as ‘thriller’ but since publishers/reviewers also talk about supernatural thrillers I don’t see why you couldn’t also have non-supernatural horror.
I really want to read some proper pant shittingly scary horror. I’ve been on a Lovecraft binge for most of the year so weird suits but something actually scary would be great.
I read house of leaves, and enjoyed that. Apart from the sub plot of that punk kid being an utter twat.
I think House of Leaves is one of the scariest books I’ve read. It’s so unsettling.
I love Lovecraft with a passion, even his somewhat humourless and verbose prose. It’s astonishing just how many of the things that are now horror clichés actually demonstrate just how many genre writers have read Lovecraft.
I find it quite heartening that he’s finally getting the recognition that he deserves.
I keep reading him. It’s not scary as such you’re right – too clichéd now from our modern perspective. But I just love the clichés. Creepy mansions, libraries filled with arcane tomes, dark stormy nights. Fabulous.
His vision was simply ahead of his time and as a result he died peniless and in agony. I doubt many other writers of horror and weird tales could’ve complied something like ‘The Call of Cthulu’ in the 1920’s or ‘The Shadow of Innsmouth’ in the ’30’s. Yes he was also racist and xenophophic, although there is evidence that he softened as he got older. There’s no doubt that other less visionary authors have built reasonable careers of the back of his work.
I love scary fiction but hate the way it is treated and demeaned by snobs who can’t look past genre to see that the best literature transcends genre and can be enjoyed by anyone who enjoys a good read. Also it takes a lot of creativity and skill to scare someone with the imagery and words a good writer can utilise. I remember reading an article where a few people were against Stephen King receiving literature awards because they view him as just a horror/thriller writer.
Steven King himself reports this bias in his book “On Writing”. Personally, I love Steven King. Fear in fiction is very difficult to master and it goes beyond horror novels. Fear can be found in adventure and fantasy novels too! I think fear can be an important element in any book and deserves discussion as it’s one of the things that can really move the reader and convince them to turn that page. You’re absolutely right, this transcends genre and when it is done correctly can be pretty impactful.
I agree and King is a master at character development as well as the rest. I love his style of writing, those people who disagree should read The Green Mile or The Dark Tower series, both of which made me cry in places. I am yet to finish Green Miles as I cry like a baby on public transport
I agree totally: King is a master both of his genre and of sustained character narrative (I’ll forgive him his down-home sentimentality, irritating but essential for establishing contrast) who has been denigrated wholly by the literary fiction types.
Luckily for him (and in contrast to Lovecraft) he has a hundred million dollars in the bank, which must help him feel not too unloved…
Great article, thanks.
This is a nice, wide-ranging exploration of fear. One element of fear that I believe is often overlooked is how it treads the boundary between our known and our unknown worlds. Fear is often a distortion of reality, because we lack the faith in ourselves to cope with mystery. This stems from a fear of chaos, a fear of sudden instability brought into the order of our lives. Horror fiction about dragons, ghosts, etc. that is so popular just deals with archetypal representations of ordinary circumstances we face (or try to avoid) every day. More accurately, maybe these fantastical creatures and scenarios may represent the fear/anxiety as it exists in our minds. As Terence McKenna once said about fighting worry with pure curiosity and wonder, “Dream the impossible dream and the world will not grind you under, it will lift you up…This is how magic is done. By hurling yourself into the abyss and discovering it’s a feather bed”. There is a lot more I could say about this, but that will have to wait for an article of my own!
I believe that fear psychology plays an essential role in captivating audiences. Blood and gore themselves are not scary without context. If the public just views a bunch of random people dying with no conceptualization, they cannot connect to the motivations of the monsters or murderers. Fear and horror novels that play on the human psychological trait of avoidance tend to become more engaging, not to mention horrifying!
The horror genre has stagnated over the years. They have been filled with tropes and gore-porn (with the exception of Green Room, which while gory, maintained its tension). Hopefully, with films like the new It remake, we might see a true horror renaissance on the horizon.
I agree there’s quite a few out there that focus on gore. When I first read The Shining I was actually surprised at how little deaths there are. Creepy, yes. Scary, yes. But it wasn’t simply killing people in disturbing ways. This is what I mean when I talk about the value of fear. You can make people afraid with anticipation, mystery, and empathy for the main character. Senseless violence isn’t nearly as chilling as a child muttering the word REDRUM
Timeless horror is about ideas. The more you think about it, Norman Bates carrying his embalmed mother down the stairs while talking in her voice is downright terrifying! (even though the movie isn’t anymore)
I know my taste is a bit niche, based on the offerings of my library and bookshop horror shelves. For me vampires, serial killers, horror-as-social-commentary is just cheesy entertainment and its rare thing to find something different.
One feature of a lot of genre fiction is that it has become very self-aware in a sense that it is constantly trying to reinvent itself – to be ‘original’ in a very self-referential way. Horror often looks back at the horror fiction that has gone before and knowingly seeks to re-invent it but the experience of fear and what actually frightens or disturbs and unsettles us is not related to some notion of originality at all – its very basic and primal. I think that our sense of genre familiarity can lead us to seek to be ‘original’ but being ‘original’ never beats simply writing well and authentically. It can even detract from those things that do frighten us as we can become absorbed by the novelty and end up with stories that are actually more about action or romance than horror – the horror becomes a stylistic gloss not a deep part of what drives the tale.
Thats why a writer like M.R. James can still deeply unsettle and frighten us with tales that are very much about the fear of the unknown – because the fear of the unknown is still there. Novelty does not drive fear – our own sense of insecurity in the face of things we cannot control and do not understand does.
I think horror is at its best when it extends our imagination. Horror is at its best when a new territory is discovered or a brilliant reworking of the familiar.
Pleasingly, if you’ve got a Kindle, you can get much of the Blackwood/Machen/Hodgson stuff for pennies or for nothing. Back in the day, it used to be a case of trawling second hand bookshops and charity shops and scanning the contents pages of tatty anthologies for the stories. I admit to missing that a bit.
You might be interested in We Are All Completely Fine by Daryl Gregory as a recent example of modern horror.
The difference between being afraid and fear are not explored in this article. Being afraid is where the physical, chemical and reactions are observed: the character, being afraid, behaves in a certain way. Fear is the psychological manifestation where the actions appear to belong to the object/entity that triggered the response.
Fear is when circumstances outside the control of the character are deemed to be malicious and intent on causing harm. The character being afraid, determines how they will react.
Escalating the sense of fear is done by cutting out options for the character, such as removing the means of escape or raising the risk level and potential of harm resulting if the character fails to front up. Being afraid should not stop the character from resolving the issue.
I see a theme through Joe Hill’s books of taking the horror of real life and giving it a supernatural twist. Out of all the horror I have devoured in the past few years Joe Hill still makes for the most uncomfortable read.
I have never read Red Rain, but I can see from the provided excerpt where the author went wrong; Stine has slipped into telling rather than showing his characters fear. Thanks for the article, I especially appreciated your break down of the physiological process when someone gets scared.
Nice article. 🙂 I really appreciate your explanation of fear’s psychology, the body and brain’s response to fear, and the union of physical and mental within the reading experience. May I suggest a follow-up article on what situations or characters scare certain readers and why? That is, why do you think some people are more frightened of supernatural horror vs. horror through the eyes of the insane? Why might someone choose Dean Koontz over Stephen King–and why are some people completely turned off by horror, period?
I love this idea! Expanding into the minds of the readers is an incredibly intriguing thought and I will definitely do some research into the topic.
Horror has been one of the branches in the literary world which has been abused like no other, thanks to all the adaptations and movies.
When it comes to reading horror vs seeing it on the big screen, big screen now drives the expectations which literature seems to follow now.
The Monkey’s Paw and Greek God Pan are the kind of works that would no longer come or will no longer be appreciated in the same vein as they originally were.
I feel that much can be done to boil the senses with very little dialogue or circumstance. There are two monolithic works that can attest to this. The first is the film Jaws based on the Peter Benchley 1974 novel. The majority of the ocean sequences are only loosely implying the presence of a shark yet the sheer atrocity of what’s to follow is exacerbated by music score, and colored water and plenty of bubbles. The second is William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel The Exorcist. Blatty has been documented as vehemently denying that he intended to convey the story as a tale of horror. The film adaption went on to become the greatest cinematic rendition of terror ever set to celluloid; but, where is the fiend? Blatty was studying at Georgetown University when he was inspired by the true story of a documented case of exorcism. A reading of the pages within the novel is a harrowing experience to say the least and disturbing in precisely the way set forth in your article.
This article was interesting because it shared what happens to you physically when you are fearful. I enjoyed the description of this. I think that sometimes authors try to hard and should keep it simple and leave more up to the imagination so that audiences believe the writer.
I’m a little late to this… by about three years (!) but it was just what I needed, particularly the King quote. I’ve read a lot of his work but had forgotten that particular quote. Great verb use, astute mannequin metaphor; a reminder of what I’m trying to achieve