I still remember the first time a book scared me. There haven’t been many such instances since – at least not of the same intensity – and I can recall all of them, but that first one was special.

The book was IT, and I was about fifteen years old. I’d read a couple by Stephen King before, and various other horrors, and so far my experience had been that horror in literature was more of a thematic thing: any book that had some gore/zombie/vampires etc. and a dark, sinister setting, was horror. Then I read the scene that made me rethink that approach, as well as adult diapers. If you’ve read it, it was the part when Ben Hanscom sees IT for the first time. It’s a windy day. The clown is standing across the canal and as he approaches, the balloons he holds are blowing against the wind. That’s it. Ben runs away and escapes. No gore, no monsters, nothing but an eerie sighting.

Man, when I read that scene, my heart beat faster, my mouth went dry, and I didn’t sleep that night more than a couple hours. I’d never had such a powerful reaction from a book before, and never had the emotion involved been fear. I was freaked. For weeks after finishing I kept my eye out for errant balloons and winking faces in photographs. To this day I have to look into street drains and gutters as I pass them, and every time I don’t see Pennywise grinning back at me I feel a little relieved.

I’ve felt that way because of movies before, of course, but I’ve always thought that films have an unfair advantage in that particular area. Humans evolved to detect danger via their eyes and ears primarily, and as long as there’s a good director and a good soundtrack, scares are more likely to have an emotional impact. That said, I would argue that, while it’s much harder to do right, books ultimately have a greater potential to scare adults. Once you get jaded to the tricks and shock scares of the movies (which modern releases have been overusing a ridiculous amount), you find yourself rarely feeling anything more than pleasantly entertained. You might think hey, that was a good horror, but you won’t be actually scared. Fiction, on the other hand, has the potential to be a more immersive experience. The best movie I ever watched could not make me care about the characters and story as much the best book I ever read, and I’m convinced this immersion is the key to good horror.

I’m going to use King as another example, although there are other authors (Dan Simmons and Peter Straub come to mind) who do this effectively as well. They lull you into a false sense of security. Hello, welcome to my world, they say, and before you know it you’re involved in the lives of a bunch of people and you forget you’re reading at all. But still, nothing too farfetched happens. You learn about their problems and their dreams and maybe a hint of something sinister here and there…

And then you see a clown grinning at you with balloons blowing the wrong way.

Surprise, the unknown, and death are the three main sources of fear in human beings that I know of. The hard part is balancing it all out in just the right amounts. I’ve found that what separates the good authors from the rest of us is what they leave out as much as what they put in. Mystery is very important in horror, because of the unknown element, and it’s totally okay to leave some things unexplained. Death should be an ever present thought in the readers mind, as well – if you get into the habit of Hollywood endings, it’ll leech fear from the rest of the book.

But all this is speculation about how it’s done, a topic that endlessly fascinates me. I’m still working all that out, and I guess I’ll get back to it in another post. The thing that got me thinking about all this in the first place has more to do with the why of it.

Over the course of my life, the following exchange has been pretty standard.

‘So what do you do?’

‘Well, I work at a bottle store right now but mostly I’m trying to be a writer.’

‘Oh, what kind? Like a journalist?’

‘Not like that, more fiction, you know, an author.’

‘Really? That’s so cool! So what kind of stuff do you write?’

‘Horror, mostly.’

‘Oh.’ At this point they usually recoil slightly, and do a subtle glance around to make sure there’s someone close by. They offer an encouraging smile. ‘I could never, you know, do horror, personally.’

‘Really, why not?’

‘I just get so scared!’

Well, yeah, that’s the point. I don’t really know what to say after that, though, because it actually seems really reasonable for someone to not want to feel fear. I mean, the whole point of fear is a chemical scream that tells you to STOP DOING WHAT YOU’RE DOING RIGHT NOW AND RUN! So if an author really did their job right, the reader would slam the book closed and then sprint down the street, screaming.

Man, what I would give to be able to do that to a reader. Ha.

Anyway, I don’t know exactly what attracts me so much to horror. I have noticed that when I meet people who are into horror, they’re really into it. Kinda like spicy food, or coffee. People don’t tend to do either of those moderately, either. They’re addictive. (And yes, since you ask, I do happen to be insanely addicted to both of those substances. Sometimes I actually pour a bunch of chilli flakes into my morning coffee to give it that extra kick).

That’s it, of course. That feeling of fear is addictive: the adrenaline rush serves to lure you rather than deter you as it was meant, like those masochists among us who learned to anticipate the endorphins that follow pain so much they now enjoy pain, and the marathon runners who chase the ‘runner’s high’ mile after mile. And always, always remembering the last really good kick they got, the last rush.

Yeah, horror’s a drug alright. All the zombies, gore and sex is just a bonus.

  1. I was wondering which of the three categories out of “surprise / the unknown / death” applies to your example of the balloons floating the wrong way in IT. I guess obviously “surprise”, but maybe more of a sub-category that I would call “the uncanny” or, in layman’s terms “freakyness”. I have in mind a similar effect to that produced by animated films where the human characters look just realistic enough so that they are clearly not cartoons, but also not realistic enough to fool children into seeing them as actual people. This seems to create a kind of perceptual dissonance that deeply disturbs people. (There’s a similar phenomenon in music: it’s a three-tone interval called the “tritone”. For some deep reason that nobody understands, tritones just sound scary. For examples, just listen to Black Sabbath!)

    • Ha, yeah I always thought movies had an advantage over books because they got to use music, which is incredibly powerful when it comes to scaring people. Now you mention it, the balloon thing is probably more uncanny than surprise because it’s a recognizable sight, and only the direction of the wind perverts it. Everything is normal, except one subtle thing. This is the balance of horror: Do not show everything, do not show nothing. You have to show just the right amount, of the right things, to scare people.

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