So Scary

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Have you ever seen a reflecting ball? People have them in their yards and gardens, and they send cold chills down my back. I won’t even walk near them in stores. It’s not a pointless phobia. When I was in junior high, I bought a copy of Jane-Emily at the book fair. It’s the story of Louisa and her niece Jane, who go to spend the summer with Jane’s grandmother. While exploring the empty old house, they learn of Emily, who died many years ago, but whose vengeful, angry spirit is searching for a way to return to life, and thinks Jane might just be her ticket. But what about the reflecting ball, you ask? Well, the reflecting ball plays a significant part in the story, enough that it has left an indelibly frightening image in my imagination for thirty years. There’s something unsettling about the gently distorted image of oneself in the curve of a reflecting ball, as if someone who is you, but is not you, is looking out at you with malice in mind.

It’s the simple things that scare us best.

The success of movies like “Saw” and “Hostel” notwithstanding, there’s nothing so scary as the things that made us hide under our covers when we were little. Stephen King said, “We’ll see if you remember the simplest thing of all – how it is to be children, secure in belief and thus afraid of the dark.” Think about his books, some of which are scarier than anything else I’ve ever read. Most of them are populated with tons of characters, and have loads of subplot to hold up the immediate story, but the main problem is always based on the simplest of fears. The fear of being alone (The Shining), or the fear of big dogs (Cujo) or even the fear of bullies (Carrie). Chop up blonde American hikers, hang stupid frat brothers from meathooks, force people to saw off their own limbs…yeah, there’s a certain frightening aspect to that, but it’s based on disgust, not fear. It’s horrible, but it’s just not scary. If you want to get under a reader’s skin, make the gooseflesh rise up on his arm and make him leave the lights on when he goes to sleep, you have to depend on the simple fears.

F Paul Wilson wrote the Adversary Cycle, a series of six books that began with three seemingly unrelated stories, and ended with all those characters coming together in the last three books. Nightworld is the concluding story. It scared the bedoodles out of me. Not because of the Big Bad Evil who was on his way to rule the world, not the monsters that came out at night. Those were upsetting possibilities, sure, but the real scare happened in the book when the sun began setting earlier and rising later. At first it was hardly noticeable – seconds, then minutes of difference. Scientists noticed, but no one else did. Until there was no way to ignore it. Days were six hours long, then three, then one, and soon the sun would stop rising at all. Fear of the dark made that book an absolute terror. It was great. For several days after I read it, I actually checked to make sure the sun was rising when it was supposed to. That, my friends, is real terror. Something that lasts long after you read it.

I’m afraid of heights, not crazy about the dark and I have an irrational nervousness that toys will come alive at night or when I’m not looking. (Sometime when we’re at a con, ask me to tell you of the Death of Tiny Buzz Lightyear.) If I was going to write something scary, I’d put my characters on the edge of an unlit roof in the middle of the night. Not much scarier than that, for me. I don’t need anything more complicated to be frightened.

Except maybe a toy standing where it shouldn’t be. *shiver*

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22 comments to So Scary

  • Misty> Great post! I always find it difficult to read the inevitable bad thing (whatever it is) that’s coming to happen to characters I like. That helplessness to stop it is something I find really unsettling. I’m scream-and-stand-on-a-chair terrified of cockroaches. I don’t like spiders, I’m a bit freaked out at heights (but in a fun way, so I like ferris wheels), and I’m right there with you on toys. But it’s cockroaches. Because of King’s film “Creepshow.” I’m sure if I watched it now, I’d find it silly, but I watched it as a child (my parents didn’t know) the last story is about a man who tries to kill roaches, and, at the end, they pour out of his body. I get tense just typing about it. Bugs takin’ over my body. Yeah, that’s scary. I was also terrified for years of monsters in closets because of that film. I actually opened a closet and screamed at something that wasn’t there once.

    That being said, I do think there’s something more to the Saw idea than just gore–though rampant violence and gore are the main draws. There’s something terrifying about knowing your (grisley) fate is tied to the actions of someone else–someone who is your enemy, etc. Now, I’ve only read summaries of Saw because I can’t watch that kind of gore. I had to watch the Texas Chainsaw Massacre for a class in grad school, and I slept with the lights on for weeks. The fear of random acts of violence–malice for no reason. *shudders*

  • Emily, the only time I ever tried to watch “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” was in college during a Halloween double-feature on campus. My roomie and I stayed until the meat hook scene. Bleh. I can’t handle gore at all.

  • Misty, though I don’t watch scary movies, gore doesn’t bother me. Seen enough of it at the hospital, and believe me, not one time in all the decades of cinematic attempts, have directors gotten the color, smell, texture of fresh blood and torn tissue right. So that *not rightness* becomes the disconnect that throws me out of a story. That said, I LOVE action flicks, and they don’t get it right either… Hmmm. I am not consistent, am I?

    But centipedes… The ones with long feathery legs… No can do. They seem to be everywhere around us these days. If one gets in the house and I see it before I go to sleep, well, I don’t go to sleep. (shudders)

  • tiffany

    Spiders. Dark room. Formication.

  • We live in a basement suite. We leave by the door at the back. This exit looks upon the backyard and the carport, where for reasons unexplained, our landlord has decided to suspend a mirror. It sways back and forth in the wind, and it reflects light and movement. It is creepy as hell, especially when we emerge from our apartment in the dark. *shudders*

    Misty, thank you for your post last week. You got me thinking about one of my other fears: I avoided certain authors’ works even though I see them in person annually, because I needed to make the mental disconnect between “author I admire” and “fangirl”. Mostly that was because I was dealing with another issue: being able to speak calmly and confidently to a bestselling author. But it’s been five years. I think I’ve had time to face that fear/issue now. So I bought a copy of Outlander this time, and I’m looking forward to reading it.

  • Yeah, this is a trap. I know it is. Misty and Faith want me to write down my fears for all to see, so that the next time we’re at a con together they can torture me with them one at a time. Well, fine. Two can play at that little game.

    I’m terrified of 15 year-old Balvenie Single Malt and brand-new Canon “L” series lenses. Really, I am. Hit me with your best shot….

  • I’m not a big fan of slasher horror anymore. I started making a game out of Friday the 13th films. How many people does he kill in what period of time and with what item. I think my favorite item was death by party horn. Really, suspense horror or supernatural horror is more my thing. I haven’t watched past the first Saw film. Just didn’t care for it. I have written screenplay material that’s slasher style, but it’s not my favorite. Most of those movies just seem to be gore for the sake of gore. I don’t find gross scary. I make gross, so I end up seeing the FX behind it in films. I don’t really read gore/slasher horror novels at all.

    However, darkness still gets me. I get creeped out walking the garbage cans the 60 yards to the side of the road in the dark when the moon’s not out. There are no street lamps where we live so it gets very dark out there. Likewise, in the short period of time I close my eyes and stand in the middle of a room when I turn off the lights, trying to get night vision to kick in quicker, I can almost feel the darkness closing in on me. It’s sort of cloying and I can imaging something creeping closer and reaching out to brush wispy tendrils of fear over my back or shoulder while I’m standing there. I make myself think of other things to push that thought away. Likewise, claustrophobia. I’m not claustrophobic normally, but watching someone move through narrow spaces in horror scenes seems to make the horror more intimate somehow, more urgent, more suspenseful. I think this is why Aliens and The Descent in particular worked well for me. They both had darkness and a more claustrophobic feel to them.

  • Unicorn

    Scary things… well, first and foremost the thing that can reduce me to utter, trembling, wretched terror is the fear of something awful happening to any of my nearest and dearest: my immediate family and my horse, Skye (seriously). That fear is undoubtedly the worst. I can’t watch a movie or read a book where an animal, especially a horse or a dog, is badly harmed. Another fear is the fear of failure – you know, that nasty little pessimistic voice that goes “you’ll never publish anything” at about three o’ clock in the morning.
    Normally, dark don’t bother me (lucky for me), but a lack of stars does. I can stand in a pitch dark room without a qualm but a starless night is scary. I’m also really claustrophobic.
    Oddly enough, the two former fears – of harm coming to a loved one, and of failing a dream – have become so much part of my work-in-progress; the main character has the same fears. It happened quite unconsciously, but I find it rather an interesting, er, phenomenon, for want of a better word.
    Unicorn

  • I was going to share some fears until I read David’s comment. Now I’m afraid of Misty and Faith.

  • Be afraid, Stuart. Be very afraid.
    Mwhahahahahahaha!

    And David — reverse psych? (laughing) Really?

  • Faith, I live with a teenage girl and a tween girl — I’ll try anything.

  • This is great, Misty! Wish there were a way to squeeze it in the How-To. I guess we’ll have to file it away under ‘one more reason to do a vol. 2’. Really nice work here.

  • Two words: Ventriloquists’ dummies.

  • Stuart and David, I am shocked that you would suspect sweet Faith and innocent me of anything underhanded! 😉

    AJ, when I worked at the school library, my boss liked to display a set of puppets on the tops of our bookshelves. It wasn’t so bad when I was busy, but when I was completely alone in the library, I swear they were watching me and making plans. *shiver*

    Thank you, Ed! 😀

  • Tiffany, the other night I crawled into bed and noticed that a spider had built a web on the headboard! I’m not afraid of spiders, so I caught it in a cup and carried it outside to let it go (with a stern reminder that spiders do not live inside my house) but I couldn’t help wondering how someone who WAS afraid of spiders would ever have been able to go back to sleep again.

    Moira, when my son was little he used to love to get the free balloons at the grocery store. He loved them until the next day, when they had only enough oomph to rise about three feet off the floor. Somehow a balloon hanging that low is very scary!

  • Daniel, I find it funny that more than once, I’ve been told something I wrote was “too bloody”, even though I really don’t enjoy gore. Apparently I can handle more than I think I can. Still not watching “Hostel”, though.

    I’m okay in the dark inside the house…it’s going outside in the dark that gives me the shivers. I immediately start wondering who’s out there, sneaking up on me.

    Unicorn, yes! My son is nearly grown, but books in which a mother loses her son will send me into an emotional tailspin.

  • Sarah

    I love your point about the difference between disgust and fear. I think you’re absolutely right. Bugs ick me out, but I’m not really afraid of them. (Emliy will tell you I’m the spider killer when the two of us are in the same place.) Likewise the woods at night don’t scare me because I spent so much time camping as a kid.

    On the other hand the dark in a city – the unknown stranger on the other side of the door – scares the bejeezus out of me. I always check my locks twice before I go to bed. The big bad wolf from Little Red Riding Hood scared me as a child and, in some sense, still does. It’s the thing that I can’t see that might be there that’s scary. Once I see it it can be dealt with.

  • Speaking of ventriloquist dummies, you should check out an obscure British horror film made in 1945 called Dead of Night. Wonderful, classy stuff.

  • AJ, I think you’re setting me up….

  • Being alone. Drowning.

    Primal fears. Gotcha. You won’t find me swimming by myself, ever.

  • Young_Writer

    AJ, I hate dummies. Ever since I read a book about one in irst grade they just freak me out. And small spaces. I can’t be in a small room with another person or I’ll start freaking out.

  • Young_Writer

    Oh, I forgot Renfield from Dracula– sometimes he’s cute, like a littel boy, but otherwise he’s just insane and eats bugs– and sewer rats. And South Park… My cousin and I get kicked a lot becasue of that TV show.