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
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