for writers and readers….
(Horror fiction) shows us that the control we believe we have is purely illusory, and that every moment we teeter on chaos and oblivion – Clive Barker
Karl Albrecht writing in Psychology Today in March 2012 described five basic fears from which all our other fears stem.
Extinction – fear of annihilation, of ceasing to exist. The most basic and the most universal, but it also includes a range of more specific fears, such as a fear of heights.
Mutilation – including the fear of being invaded, taken over. It also includes phobias about animals and insects.
Loss of Autonomy – fear of being paralyzed, restricted, imprisoned, smothered – physically or emotionally
Separation – fear of being lost, abandoned, rejected, fear of losing respect
Ego-death because the worst thing that can happen to us isn’t always something we can touch or see, but how it make us feel. This includes fear of disgrace, shame, of being unworthy, unlovable.
Stories often combine a number of these basic fears: the Alien film series deals with extinction, being invaded and also includes the fear our earliest ancestors must have known: the fear of being hunted
The Blair Witch Project – one of the most successful independent films of all time – deals with another primitive fear that we have all experienced, getting lost.
The theme of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jeykell and Mr Hyde is ego death. The part of ourselves that we like, the nice part that can tell a joke and be a good friend, the sensible part that works reasonably hard and does more or less what is expected (like not knocking old ladies over in the street), is taken over by our uncontrolled wilder nature who only cares about one thing: self, self, self.
That’s the core material we are working with as writers, but to create genuine fear the story has to be real to the reader. That’s not the same as saying that it is has to be realistic. You can allow your imagination to roam free, looting fairy tales and fables for inspiration, creating dystrophic tomorrows and fantasy worlds.
Jot down somewhere you personally (not a character – YOU) feel safe and secure. Maybe it’s even a bit dull. It could be the local library, at home in bed, driving along the coast road singing a duet with the radio…
Next shut your eyes and select at random one of the five fears listed in Psychology Today. Pick up your pen. Your task is to find some way of connecting the fear and the situation. If you can scare yourself you know your reader is going to be terrified.
Your combination could look something like this.
Bed and Fear of Separation
Your main character wakes up and everyone has gone. Mum, Dad, younger brother, cat. No warning. No note. The neighbours don’t know anything. The car has gone, but all their phones are still at home. And then there’s a noise…
Favourite café and Loss of Autonomy
Sipping a double shot espresso to clear a hangover the main character slowly becomes aware that crowds are gathering outside the cafe. Police run past in riot gear, gas is released and seeps into the coffee shop. Everyone is coughing, choking, in distress, but only the main character is paralysed. Only the main character realises that something very strange is happening as s/he is carried away by someone who is most definitely not a doctor or the police…
Now you’ve seen these examples, make your own horrifying set up . Push the boundaries. Scare yourself.
If you can’t sleep tonight you can always write.
If you enjoyed that exercise, there’s a pretty good chance you will like the rest of the book. It’s recommended by creative writing lecturers and been praised by bestselling novelists AND absolute beginners. It also has over 150 five star reviews on Amazon UK and now has 199 ratings with a score of 4.6 out of 5.