What Is Scary?

By , October 19, 2010

I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of fear lately, for two reasons. First, my short story collection, Shy Ghosts Dancing: Dark Tales from Southeast Alaska will soon be released. Second, in the Halloween season my thoughts tend toward such subjects anyway.

What is it, exactly, that scares a person? I sometimes wonder if my efforts might miss the mark, because I don’t seem to scare as easily as some. Certain things scare me very much—losing a loved one, particularly my child, electrocution, and the actions of deranged killers and irresponsible governments, but I don’t write about those things, as I take no pleasure in thinking about them. The subjects I write about give me pleasure, but perhaps they don’t scare me enough?

I once acted in a play featuring dramatic recitations and performances of horror stories and poems presented in an abandoned mining center. We met the audience at a beach fire and led them in small groups down a dark forest trail to the ruins, performing along the way. Eventually, we returned them to the beach. After my last piece I would hide on the trailside waiting to scare the audience as they returned to the beach.

I sat for more than half an hour in the pitch-dark forest each night, my only light a lantern turned down to a blue dot of flame. One night I remembered a “true” ghost story I’d read. It literally made my hair stand up, but as I sat alone in deep darkness, waiting to scare someone else, I couldn’t conjure that same feeling. I reviewed every detail of the story I could remember, but I felt no fear.

If I’m somewhat immune to such stories, how can I hope to create my own—and how would I know if they would frighten people?

I’m fairly confident in my stories. Other people have read earlier drafts of most of them, and they reacted very well. One friend had to close her drapes at night while she read. When she read it in bed, she got up and put the manuscript outside her room before she could sleep!

I avoid labeling this collection “horror.” Few of the stories qualify for that label, in my opinion. Some of them aren’t meant to frighten at all. One, or two could hardly even be called “dark.” I prefer atmosphere to shock value, I guess. The reader will best judge the effect.

I’ll explore aspects of fear a bit more in future posts. ‘Tis the season, after all.

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