I’m not talking spiders or big dogs or heights (or any combination of those). I’m talking about the things unique to you, that get under your skin and keep you awake at night. Chances are they’re not supernatural because, after all, we’re rational, thinking people, right? We don’t have time for slithering things or restless spirits or beasts that haunt the lonely places of our world. No. We need to deal with paying the rent, keeping on top of the bills and wondering how the hell we’d do that if we lost our job without warning. We’re scared of the politicians who shouldn’t be in charge of the proverbial piss up let alone countries, let alone the entire planet. We’re terrified of the man who wants us dead at his hand and his bomb or gun simply because we’re other to him and his beliefs, because we’re in the wrong by being who we are. We have enough terrifying crap to deal with in real life; we don’t need to look for more things to scare us.
We may not look for our fears, but they’re certainly looking for us. The stuff we don’t want to face at three in the morning when we get up for another pee; the wondering if everything is all right when your wife, husband, daughter or son said they’d be home at a certain time and it’s half an hour past that and there’s no answer on their phone; the noise in the back garden after dark that you’re sure is just a passing cat out on the prowl.
As a writer of horror fiction, it’s my job to search for those fears, give them to my characters and let the shit hit the fan. The same with anyone involved in creating scary stories (whether on film or in print), it might not be pleasant but it’s necessary to tell the tale honestly. I’m not much for self-censorship or trigger warnings (please don’t crucify me) which doesn’t mean I aim to be nasty or a shit just for the sake of it. I’m happy to pull away from a scene when I think it’s the right thing to do or an editor/publisher jumps in with their red pen, but I’m more focused on telling the story honestly than just about anything else. Because with being honest, I succeed more often than I fail to tell my story.
Fear is one of the most personal emotions. It’s why, back in the late 90s, Blair Witch Project scared some of its viewers and left others completely untouched. The idea of being cut off and in the middle of nowhere with something out in the woods didn’t hit that nerve for plenty of people which is different strokes etc. Some aren’t terrified of the pissing contest between Trump and his secret BFF because we’ve come close to the brink before and the men in charge always pull back or because total global annihilation is one for the films, not our lives of paying the rent and the bills and getting up for another pee at three in the morning. Others can’t get through a minute without wondering if maybe they should stock up on canned food and clear out the cupboard under the stairs so there’s room inside for one or two family members.
Sex is the same deal. How often do you hear a man described as a boob man or a bum man (as if women are nothing but body parts which slot together like fucking Lego)? Or a conventionally attractive man in the public eye is adored by a lot of people apart from those who just don’t see the big deal about a Brad Pitt or a David Beckham? It’s not that they think these blokes are ugly; they simply don’t get the appeal. My wife is a case in point. While she has plenty of time for Daniel Craig in his sharp tux, she doesn’t see it with a Pitt or a Beckham (which worked out quite nicely for me hahaha shut up).
So, back to my original question. What scares you? Like I said, it probably won’t be anything otherworldly (apart from those odd moments when you’re walking in the woods, maybe, and it hits you how old the land and trees are and how it’s not so long ago that people knew there were places like that you didn’t go after dark because it was the time of ghosts, and did you just see something out of the corner of your eye?). What makes you who you are? Something in your past that changed you, snatched you out of childhood and dumped you carelessly in all the shit of adulthood? A memory you’d prefer to forget but one which you never can because life is just that hilariously cruel? Or is it something in your present? An issue utterly out of your hands you’d change in a second if you could? A relationship you can’t leave. . .or one you can’t start? Are you scared of never changing your situation and so you’ve become the person you didn’t think you’d be – the one scared of your life?
I can tell you I do my best with each book or short story to get my own terrors on to the page, to put the stuff which defines me into my characters’ lives, but I do so often without realising it. I do it because (and we’re back to that word again) because all the best fiction, whatever the genre, is honest. But I also do it because what’s writing horror if not an exorcism?
Ultimately, your fears along with your hopes are what make you who you are. They’re yours and yours alone.
So, go on, Wrap your arms around them. Sink into their freezing embrace, drop into their graves.
Just keep one eye on the light above. When you need a break from your nightmares, it’s the way out.