Monday, 24 October 2011

13 Days of Halloween: Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself

Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself

by D.A Lascelles

October is the month of scary fun with Halloween marking the start of the slow decline into the dark and cold of winter. With this in mind, it is worthwhile considering what it is that fear actually is. What do we fear? Why do we fear it? How can this knowledge help a writer produce a better horror story?

Speaking purely as a physiologist, I will start by stating the obvious. Fear is a physiological reaction caused by perfectly understandable responses in our bodies to external stimuli. Certain stimuli present in the environment will trigger the secretion of particular hormones which stimulate or suppress the actions of various organs and systems. Its purpose is to allow us to recognise danger so that we may take an appropriate action – either fight or flight. This response has been more or less unchanged for millions of years. The physical bit of it, anyway. What has changed has been the psychological bit – what we are actually afraid of.

Now, the classics never change. Darkness, spiders, snakes... the common phobias will probably always get some people, darkness especially. Darkness is really a fear of the unknown, of not knowing what might be lurking out there ready to kill us and eat us. It’s an old mammalian fear from the days when we hid in holes lest the big scary monsters came to get us and human imagination takes that fear and paints on it any number of strange and wonderful images – a pile of clothes becomes the head of a monster, a coat hanging on the back of a door becomes a man waiting to attack you, the sound of the wind rustling in the trees outside takes on a sinister note. These are tropes that writers and film-makers have made much use of over the years and they work well because they speak to a deep, instinctive part of the human psyche which still thinks it should hide in holes. As a writer the fear of the unknown can be an effective tool. The best forms of horror are not the ones which go in for explicit description or gory imagery but those which are light on the description and allow the reader’s own imagination to fill in the gaps. This minimalist description is not as easy as it looks, it is not just a case of not describing something but rather of tracing in some hints of what is there and giving just enough detail to stimulate the imagination. Once you have that, the reader will do all the rest of the work themselves.

Other things that lurk in our fears do change, however. They change as we age, for example, and there are also changes in what society considers frightening. With age, there is a move away from childish fears – the ghoulies and ghosties And long-leggedy beasties And things that go bump in the night as the Scottish (or Cornish) prayer goes – to more mature things. Adult fears are more subtle and elaborate and often don’t wear such a blatant face as a warty old witch. Adults also fear more ephemeral things – war, particular nuclear war, financial troubles and the like. Things that carefree children have no fear of. As Terry Pratchett’s Death comments in Hogfather, you have to start out believing the little lies (the Tooth Fairy, Father Christmas) as practise for the big lies (truth, justice and mercy). Therefore, you can also argue that to prepare you for the big fears you have to practise on the little ones.

As for changes with history there is one example I would give for this which, I think, demonstrates how society as a whole can influence how we interpret ‘the darkness’ – what picture we paint on it to attempt to make sense of it. That example is the Succubus.

The Succubus is, as I am sure you are aware, a demon. In particular it is a demon which takes on the form of a highly eroticised female form, seduces men into having sex with them and, mid coitus, sucks out their soul. There are examples of this in literature the world over though my favourite has to be the character of Juliet in Mike Carey’s Felix Castor series of novels ( mainly because she is such a modern and interesting character for a several millennia old demon. I am also fond of Erica Hayes’s portrayal of Succubi in her novel Shadowfae ( You can even, at a stretch, consider the typical sexy female Vampire to be an example of this – though they drink blood rather than souls there is little difference to the recipient. Of course, if being fair, I cannot neglect to mention something for the ladies in the form of Incubi – the male equivalent of the Succubus which manifests as a sexy looking man. Again, quite a few urban fantasy novels of late have used Incubi, including Shadowfae again.

What is interesting about Succubi and Incubi is one of the theories of their possible origin. Imagine this: a monastery, late at night. It’s dark and you are in a tiny cell. Because of the rule of chastity, you are not allowed any sexual release and you have been told that any sexual release is evil and will have you taken to hell. Being a young man, you of course have a healthy sexual appetite which has not been satisfied for a long time. Naturally, you are going to have erotic dreams and these dreams are going to be coloured by your religious teachings which could, feasibly, cast the images of your desire into a more sinister and evil form. Now, there is a condition called Sleep Paralysis ( One version of this condition leads to the sufferer being conscious but unable to move and subject to ‘terrifying hallucinations (hypnopompic or hypnagogic) and an acute sense of danger’. It is not impossible to imagine our poor monk, coming to consciousness in the middle of an erotic dream, unable to move while images of a demonic woman play through his head and what sort of terror this may induce.

In the modern day, however, there are rarely any reports of Sucubbi attacks and they seem to be limited to the bookshelves yet sleep paralysis is still a condition that many suffer from. What has changed is what images the human mind plays in that situation and these days it is more likely that someone who wakes in the middle of the night unable to move will report an alien abduction rather than a demonic attack. The cause of the physiological response – the paralysis – remains the same but the hallucinations have changed to fit with what society as a whole sees as a threat.

So what can the above teach a writer about fear? Well, the fact that fear changes is an important lesson to learn. What was scary to those in the medieval period may no longer be scary today. Indeed, some of the things that past generations found terrifying are now sometimes seen as ludicrous. Bram Stoker’s Dracula caused chills and thrills to his contemporary audience but now teenage girls all want to marry Vampires that sparkle. A writer needs to be aware of the zeitgeist of horror to be able to judge what can trigger those primal responses. While some things never change – our fear of the dark, for example – other things do change a lot with exposure and interpretation. Thinking carefully about what fear is and what causes it is very worthwhile.

Author Bio:

D.A Lascelles is a former clinical scientist turned teacher and part time writer. He is the author of Gods of the Sea, a short story in the Pirates and Swashbucklers Anthology from Pulp Empire ( ), and Transistions, a paranormal romance novella due out in 2012 from Mundania Press ( as part of the Shades of Love Anthology.

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