Taming Fear

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The leopard in Tarzan’s Treehouse at Disneyland hisses air out of its mouth, catching me by surprise…

The fascinating thing about fear is its power to override logic and reason. Walking through a local haunted maze attraction with friends or a sweetheart, we remind ourselves that the actors in creepy clown costumes with chainless chainsaws and flamethrowers can’t actually touch us with their weapons if they don’t want to get sued. If we’re less confident, we may straight-up tell the actors, “I’m not afraid of you,” hum our favorite hymns about Jesus, or scream at everything we meet to get over the sheer anticipation of being startled (I’ve seen all these responses on such group activities). Then, all of a sudden, another costumed actor appears, hobbling along beside us in the hay. We really freak out this time and kick them square in their creepy masked face. After we leave the attraction, we spend the rest of the night racking our brains to understand why we lost control of ourselves and hurt somebody when we knew all along no one was going to hurt us. If fear is so dangerous, is there any value at all in scaring ourselves?

Humans are emotional creatures. To broaden the scope of what this means, I just read a popular article on BuzzFeed shining an amusing spotlight on an array of Tweets in which real people appear to have asked aloud whether the new hit movie The Martian is based on a true story. It doesn’t matter that we haven’t actually sent people to Mars yet. The story resonates. It feels so real that it seems some people wonder, regardless of the facts.

I love the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland. I know enough about how everything is supposed to work to explain away all the mechanical trickery, and I also enjoy the jarring choreography of the car’s motion. Notwithstanding, I often dread the idea of the ride stalling while my car happens to be crossing the vine bridge, which appears to dangle over a nebulous pit of mist and lightworks. The physical illusion, and my dislike of falling, are sufficient for my brain just to wonder what would happen if this part of the track broke, collapsed. It, again, doesn’t matter how unlikely this event is to ever occur, especially in the way I imagine it. I feel concern, and a part of me believes I have good reason to be concerned, all the same.

Emotions are powerful. They’re intuitive signals about things happening around us in our environments, and within us. They’re more primal than language. This emotional intuition, or instinct, has helped life on Earth survive a lot longer than critical and analytical thinking have. In the words of Joy from the Pixar movie Inside Out: “Fear is really good at keeping [us] safe.” This explains a lot about why we might literally lose control and do weird things when we’re afraid. Feelings, rather than thoughts, have a tendency to drive us to take action, especially when we feel threatened. It’s also natural and fairly inevitable that we pay closer attention to how we feel about something than to what other people tell us, and what we tell ourselves.

Feelings as well as thoughts play an important role in our moral behavior. While many have developed an incredible skill of discerning when something is off from “gut feelings,” in truth, fear has also been the basis for many bad, cruel, and downright ugly decisions throughout history. Again, is there anything good about scaring ourselves? My answer is…it depends.

The horror genre is often described as “entertainment that scares us.”

Why do we like things that scare us?

Perhaps, like taking a ride on an intense roller coaster, we enjoy the adrenaline rush, the sensation that we narrowly missed death by a brushstroke. Or we get a trippy thrill out of having our emotional defense mechanisms triggered when we know we aren’t actually in danger. Perhaps, like the simple act of tickling a child, a sibling, a friend, or a spouse, it’s a bonding experience that lets the people we care about know their defense reflexes work just fine and that they can trust us to protect them, not to hurt or abandon them.

I like being tickled, but I don’t like things that make me grumpy. Intense roller coasters are among the things that tend to have a negative impact on my mood, so I tend to avoid them. While I’ve never kicked anyone in the face at a scare attraction, I’ve been cautioned ahead of entering them to prepare myself and be mindful about the possibility my fight-or-flight response could be triggered–because people have been hurt.

For those who enjoy and create horror as entertainment, there is a wide range of appeal and sensitivities to consider. Some find scare attractions so disturbing that they won’t go because it won’t be a good experience for them. Others choose not to celebrate Halloween at all because it seems wrong to take the evil that exists in our world so lightly or to seemingly welcome it into our lives in a way. I avoid R-rated horror films (and R-rated films in general). I know I’ll be haunted by what I see much longer than I would like, and I can’t stand them. Someone else, however, will feel differently and have different experiences. We all have different temperaments, and that’s part of what makes being human awesome. It’s important, as a creator, to know your audience, and to know yourself.

Shocking, thrilling, disgusting, sad, or spooky, with many more flavors still, the situations we create may be illusions, but the fear, revulsion, etc. we illicit in others can be very, very real and even deeply upsetting. The key to writing a great horror story? Be sensitive to the fears of others while exploring the terrors that resonate with you. This doesn’t mean hold back or sensor your work in contrived ways–but be prepared for a proverbial punch to the face from those who may not react to certain aspects of horror the way that you do. Don’t take it personally if someone felt the need to close your book or turn out of your attraction and walk away.

For others, perhaps, on another level, there is value in knowing, in feeling and in scrutinizing, the things that disturb and terrify us. Because, in tense moments when our emotions take over and we lose our ability to think rationally, we want to know ahead of time what we can do to be brave, fair, and compassionate–to react the way we want to react. We’d like to know how to take control and tame our own fear, so that our fear can teach us something about our natures and take us to back to the humanity, if not the safety, we seek.

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2 Responses to Taming Fear

  • naestubbs@gmail.com'
    naestubbs says:

    I like what you said about being prepared for the proverbial punch to the face. We have to recognize that our fight or flight reactions aren’t the only ones kicking in. Oh, ha! Kicking. Like the story at the beginning. :)

Sarah E. Seeley is a fantasy and horror author, and an affiliate member of the Horror Writers Association.
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