Writing and Fear

It’s October, and what better time of the year to explore things like fear and the writing of it than the month that only exists because of Halloween. September is the beginning of the school year, November is Thanksgiving, December Christmas, but what the hell would you say about October if it weren’t for that most beloved of holidays, that wonderful free candy fest known as Halloween? Nothing, that’s what, we wouldn’t even know we we’re in October if it weren’t for all the stores peddling big sacks of candy. This month should be interesting because as the world’s biggest coward talking about all the scary stuff I’ve read and seen over the years will be a bit like walking into a cage of Goliath Bird-Eating Spiders (you’re welcome). In fact, I’m so easily frightened I’ve yet to actually complete the game Amnesia and watching anything related to Slender Man leaves me sleeping with the lights on for several days afterward.

Seriously, screw Slender Man.

You’d think writing something scary would be easy, right? I mean you just throw some horrible monster, a big spider, or a deranged serial killer into a story and boom, horror is made. Of course we’ve all seen enough terrible “horror” films to know that’s not true, writing something truly scary is one of the hardest things to do. Why is that?

Well because fear is a tool that we humans have been sharpening with loose bowels and terror-urine for thousands of generations, ever since we came creeping out of our caves and were startled by our own shadow. Fear often gets a bad wrap because, as big manly men with beards, we’re expected to stand up to eldritch horrors like spiders and bumps in the night. Yet really, it’s because of cowards like me that the human race has evolved to this point, because all the brave morons from our caveman days ended up getting eaten by spiders, falling off cliffs and running into the open mouths of sabertooth tigers. It’s fear that kept us alive, and what keeps us alive today. And it’s because we’ve had so long to perfect our fear that we writers have such a hard time coming up with something truly horrifying.

See while fear has its uses, if we were afraid all the time, we’d never get anything done. So our fear has learned to size up threats in a mere glance, and if it’s not impressed, then the threat is cast aside and ignored. I’m sure we’ve all had a moment where we see movement in the corner of our eye and immediately gone tense, ready to run or fight for our lives, only to realize that it’s your pet cat or a shadow. The relief is almost instantaneous isn’t it? That’s what makes writing fear so hard, if the audience senses weakness in your monster, even for a moment, than it loses all its credibility as a threat and the fear it is meant to instill. For instance let’s take Scream, that most famous of cheesy slasher flicks from the 90’s. Once the ghost mask was gone, and you found out that this infamous serial killer was actually just a pair of emotionally disturbed teenage boys, did you really feel like they were still a threat? Of course on some level they still were, but they no longer had that otherworldly visage and were revealed to be mere humans. Before the mask came off, it could have been a zombie for all we knew, and it was our imaginings of what were behind the mask that was the root of our fear.

There’s a great scene in The 13th Warrior that really embodies this idea. For those who don’t know, The 13th Warrior, was a realistic interpretation of the epic poem Beowulf and how a small group of Vikings (and one Arab) hold off a horde of monsters, or rather what appear to be monsters. It’s basically 300 without the slow motion camera and CGI pecs. Anyway, these marauding monsters are so scary to these Vikings that even to speak their name aloud is forbidden, and it’s that fear that completely paralyzes a village of swarthy Vikings. Then, about midway through the film, the Arab Ahmed (played by Antonio Banderas), unmasks one of the “monsters” where he finds only the face of a man. Ahmed has been terrified by these monsters the entire film but when he sees that their only men wearing bear skins, his fear evaporates.

“It’s a man, it’s a man, it’s a man.”  Ahmed repeats this to himself as he throws himself back into the battle, no longer afraid of his enemy.

Personally I found this guy a hell of a lot scarier than the Wendol.

It’s a great scene because it illustrates just how easily our fear can evaporate once we understand the threat. The greatest fear of all is the fear of the unknown. It’s why Slender Man is such a horrifically scary monster (or whatever the hell it is), we have no understanding of what or who he is. Why is he killing people? Is he killing people? Most of them are simply vanishing, and those that end up dead are usually killed by other people rather than Slender Man himself.

Think about some of the most famous horror movies:




The Thing

What do all these movies have in common? In all of them, you don’t get a good look at the killer until the very end of the movie. Psycho’s famous shower scene was effective because all you see is the knife and the woman’s expression of fear. In Alien, the titular alien spends most of the time skulking in the shadows. We only get glimpses of The Thing, and most of the time it’s posing as one of the humans. Jaws doesn’t show you the shark until the final scene of the movie.

These movies worked because instead of showing you a rubber monster and saying “be afraid”, it showed you a glimpse of something terrible and let your imagination do the rest. They basically let the audience scare themselves, and that’s why they worked so well, because our imagination will always conjure up something so much worse than the reality. It’s the same reason people will diagnose themselves with horrific African diseases on WebMD instead of the common cold, and why I hate flying, my imagination always conjures up images of jetliners going down in flames rather than tranquilly floating through the air like millions do everyday.

This is what I see when I look at planes.

Using your audience’s own imagination against them will always be one of the best ways to scare them, because only they know what will scare them the most. If you can let your audience do all your work for you, then so much the better.

Of course that’s not the only way to scare someone. There’s also the Uncanny and the Gross, but I got to leave some subjects for the rest of the month! Also coming this month will be a review of The Walking Dead seasons 1 and 2, a commentary about zombies, and more terrified whimpering about Slender Man.


  1. Yeehaa, looking forward to your future articles 😀
    Didnt see the thing yet, guess ill have to do so ^^
    Something i didnt try out yet, but was scared just by the wiki-article alone, is Freddy Kruger ^^
    Well, maybe im scared because i didnt see the movie and therefore imagined everything scary enough xD But theres one thing i hate, even if its a cheap trick, and thats when the horror doesnt leave the protagonists ^^ I mean, it hasnt to be an obvious ghost busters light show, eliminating all the evil spirits, but its even better if they all die instead of them all or part of them being trapped in the freakshow xD

    Btw. ive watched “looper” yesterday. Very nice movie! It had awesome suspense and emotional impact. And the fiction and how the fiction was shown to the audience was amazing. It wasnt that style of science fiction which loses itself in showing you ALL the gizzmos and fancy gadgets of the future, but a mixture of telling and showing, giving the biggest bites in the most calm and seemingly off-the-show moments. I also read on the internets that on some toronto film festival it made quite a good stand! Now i understand why ^^

    1. I’d love to see Looper, I’ve been too busy to get to the cinema for two hours though! Heard it was great.

      Personally I never found Freddy Kruger scary, but then that’s more because I’m watching the cheesy special effects of the 80’s. It’s a great idea in theory, and I can see why it freaks people out, I just didn’t find the execution worthwhile in that movie. Just my personal opinion though, plenty of people have told me how I wrong I am 😉

  2. Oh and one more thing:
    I dont know if you were one of those who played wing commander, X-Wing, Tie-Fighter and so on when young, but maybe youve heard of chris roberts new project, star citizen

    Im a huge fan of space sims, played both Freespace and Freelancer, and wish hard for the game to become true (one day… ^^) 😀

    1. That does look awesome. I loved X-wing and Tie Fighter, and Freespace is still my all time favorite game, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve played through the campaigns. Was actually thinking of a doing a post on Freespace as an example of how video games can tell amazing stories with only action and dialogue. I mean I still get chills thinking about seeing that fleet of Sathanas juggernauts orbiting the Capella sun.

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