Let’s talk about fear.

The Werewolf of Fever Swamp (TV special)

Image via Wikipedia. This is what our monsters have become.

Hidey-ho, Faithful Readers! I know I have been pretty silent lately, and I beg your forgiveness. As many of you know, last spring I woke up in hideous pain, and it turned out I have a degenerative spinal disease. Since then, I have been trying to deal with pain management and the emotional/mental fallout of being permanently disabled in my early thirties. Slowly but surely, I have been getting a handle on all of this and recovering from the depression and anxiety set off by all of this. I am writing again, and the promised novels, poetry, and short story collection will be coming along…just more slowly.

But while I wanted to reassure my readers and fans that I haven’t died, disappeared, or retired, that is not the point of this post. What I want to do right now is talk about fear…fear in all its forms, flavors, and textures. I want to talk about fear because I feel that the horror genre, as a whole, is suffering from major problems right now. I watch every new horror movie that comes out, mainstream and independent. I also read a lot of the new work coming out and watch the so-called horror TV shows. And I have to say, we have a problem, Faithful Readers, and that problem can be summed up in a single question:

When was the last time you were scared?

I don’t mean scared of not being able to pay the rent or put food on the table. We are living in a period of economic and political instability, and if you aren’t anxious about those issues you either aren’t paying attention or have specifically chosen not to engage with these fears. I also don’t mean the fear of getting robbed in a bad neighborhood or that your spouse/partner will leave you. I mean real fear. Terror. The kind of fear that makes reality itself slip sideways and makes you lay awake in the dark, terrified to move lest “they” realize you’re there. Horror. Terror. Awe. Real fear that used to be the kind of thing writers like myself were trying to tap into.

I can’t remember the last time I was truly afraid in this way. I get glimmers of it every now and then, but those glimmers never come from what the so-called professionals are putting out. Horror movies now are either pathetic remakes of movies from 30 years ago or attempts to make “safe” horror…horror that entertains, that makes us laugh, but does not induce us to sleep with the lights on or question our priorities in life. Horror used to not be safe, remember? Horror used to be able to change us.

The only places I find horror capable of causing these sort of frissons, of inspiring this sort of instability in our personal realities, are the least professional works that exist: the genre of internet media called “creepypasta”…bits of stories and lore patched together on usenet, forums, blogs, and through ARGs (Alternate Reality Games). These works, especially the ones that end up creating an entire mythos unto themselves (check out the Slender Man mythos or “Ben Drowned” for examples of what I am talking about), actually inspire real terror, real fear, as do the blogs and forums that are (ostensibly) telling people’s true stories of interaction with the paranormal (check out From the Shadows, one of the best paranormal blogs I know of, for examples). Indeed, these two genres, the “true” paranormal stories and the creepypasta, overlap…it’s difficult to know what is real and what is meant to be fiction sometimes. And this, of course, leads to a better scare.

It seems to me that the horror genre has gotten stuck in old fears. People in the movies and stories react almost like caricatures of people, rather than resonating with the depth and complexity of real human beings. The fears the stories take up, vampires, werewolves, zombies, and the like…we’re not really afraid of these things. We romanticize them, we reinterpret them, we do any number of things, but it’s pretty safe to say that the stand-by monsters of horror simply aren’t frightening anymore. Serial killers aren’t frightening anymore. Possession isn’t frightening anymore.

Why not? Well, I have a number of theories, and I’m always creating new ones, but the main reason I think these things aren’t frightening anymore is that they are predictable. We have seen them so much and so often that they just don’t scare us. Cthulhu was on South Park and has been made into plushy toys. The most popular vampire of the modern era sparkles in the sunlight, goes to high school at over a century old, and really just wants to be loved. The most popular werewolf is not feared…he is idolized or romantically desired. The zombie is being deconstructed, and we have begun to see movies and shows where zombies are likeable, lovable, funny, and most of all…not scary.

Now, as a writer of speculative fiction of all three types (horror, fantasy, and science fiction), I find myself in a difficult situation. The book that made me want to be a writer was Stephen King’s The Shining. I read it in the first grade (yes, yes, not the best parenting in the world, I know) and I knew, right then, that I wanted to be a writer, and specifically I wanted to be a horror writer. I wanted to be able to inspire the powerful, cathartic terror that changed me forever. Later, I fell in love with other genres and I have written in all of them, but my first love was horror. I wanted to scare people. Not make them laugh, nor make them feel reassured of the moral order they were raised with (horror with a happy ending?). I didn’t want to give pre-teen girls a metaphor for their burgeoning sexuality (or instruct them in how to be a passive, codependent willing victim of abuse…I’m talking to you, Meyer!). I wanted to scare the crap out of people. I wanted them to come out of reading my work forced to view the world differently. I wanted to turn their reality on its ear and leave them screaming.

But how, in the modern era, can I achieve that? The monsters have been used and abused so much that they have turned into inversions and subversions of themselves. The monsters have become metaphors for misunderstood emo kids and fundamentally immature (hence why Edward can fall in love with a teenager and go to high school without it seeming like what it is…creepy pedophilia far beyond Lolita). They stole the monsters that used to plague our nightmares and turned them into ways to sell breakfast cereal.

So what I want to know, Faithful Readers, is this: what scares you? Not a little bit. Not “creeps me out”. Not funny-scary or sexy-scary. Not a metaphor for the insecurity of adolescence or unfamiliar sexuality. Real, unremitting, terror. The sort that, if you were forced to face it, would leave you a drooling, collapsed mess, not inspire you to wear a “Team Edward” t-shirt while writing fan-fiction about the “ultimate bad boy/girl” who changes to a goody-goody because of your pure love. This is the sort of fear I want to hear about. I want to hear about the thoughts, images, and ideas that make death seem like a pleasant release. I want terror.

So tell me. I’m going to leave this post up for a while, so everyone sees it. I want to hear what makes you scream.

10 thoughts on “Let’s talk about fear.

  1. Steven Said

    Hags. Vile, vicious, venomous, verminous old vultures.
    Not “witches”, that title has been reclaimed by our own pagan community. No, I’m talking about the lone Crone, unhinged and unbalanced by the Maiden and the Mother. The female mad scientist with the vivisection laboratory in the abandoned subway.
    Hunchbacked, pop-eyed and broken nosed with filthy, long, thick, death grip fingernails and jagged broken teeth gnawing Komodo dragon rot-bite into your face.
    And knowledge. Dark, nasty sinister chemical knowledge that poses a real threat despite her physical frailty. Something that makes her powerful, or something that makes you powerless. Like curare.

    1. Neal Jansons Post author

      Thanks, Steven. That’s a great start. What is it about their femaleness that you find frightening? Wouldn’t all of these things apply equally to an old, dessicated man?

      And all of you other readers…I have stats on this site, I know you’re here, I know you are reading. Tell me what you fear. Tell me why. Contact me via neal @ nealjansons.com if it’s too personal to put out in public, but tell me. I want your terror.

      And I know I have fans out there, people who like my stories and want them to continue…don’t make me switch to science fiction completely. Help me write the things that you want to read. Give me your fear, and I will give you back tales of terror tailored to you, my real audience, not the abstracted audience we writers imagine to be reading our work.

  2. Brad

    For me, it’s demons. They pull at basic and ingrained religious beliefs, and from a literary perspective, they can take on any form. They prey on the weak and downtrodden as well as the powerful and healthy alike because they tap into the idea that no matter what a person looks like on the outside, they may be totally spiritually bankrupt on the inside. They’ve been a bit overdone recently, especially with the possession thing, but the idea of a spiritual war happening just beyond the veil of your eyes, where things lurk waiting to pounce on you, and the ultimate prize is your soul, is terrifying to me, and great fodder for stories if done right.

    1. Neal Jansons Post author

      That’s interesting, Brad. I find demons problematic…at least when played straight. The reason for that is that demons, even though they have existed in the lore of many cultures, are generally believed to be artifacts of Christianity and the Judeo-Christian religions. While evil gods and spirits figure in various other pantheons, the term daemon or daimon, from which the modern word demon developed, originally simply meant “wise spirit”, and Plato portrays Socrates as having a daemon that helped him in his insights into reality.

      So if I use demons as an antagonist, I am implying the truth of the Judeo-Christian mythos, which then creates a big problem…because there is no true jeopardy in that mythos. The antagonists can’t win, no matter what, because they are artifacts of a monotheistic religion that has their god as being omnipotent. So long as that god is involved (and he has to be, to make a spiritual battle for souls and so forth viable), the protagonists cannot really lose. Horror of this kind is what I meant by reaffirming people’s sense of order…I don’t like that. I don’t like horror with happy endings, where the natural order and rules of reality are comfortingly reasserted.

      In itself, that’s an entire sub-genre of horror…comforting horror. The old 50s alien and atomic monster movies are typical of this trope…monster attacks, things seem bad, then the US army shows up and makes it all okay again, reaffirming not only that we are safe…but that we, a bunch of talking apes with enough delusions of grandeur (in my opinion), are the ultimate universal bad-asses. This comforting fiction runs through the horror genre…and I despise it. What I want is horror that actually frightens people…and that means I can’t have the reader ending the story believing that saying a prayer or holding up a cross will save them from the ultimate evil.

      So a universe where there are entities people could call demons, but there are no corresponding angels or god appeals to me more (and seems more realistic). A monster that falls to simple human faith, love, friendship, the Christmas spirit, home and hearth, etc. doesn’t seem like much of a monster to me. It seems like a fake threat, a story meant to get children to eat their vegetables and go to bed on time rather than one meant to inspire the deepest terror in the most powerful and secure of humans.

      Demons, as they normally stand in the Judeo-Christian mythos and within popular culture, simply seem like fall-guys to me…fake threats because all it takes is adherence to a given religious tradition to defeat them. Now, demons that are simply entities humans have interacted with over the ages and have been integrated into human stories and religions–demons that aren’t really demons, if you will, but extra-dimensional entities, or earth/nature spirits, etc.–seems more appealing to me because it doesn’t present them as automatically losing so long as the protagonist picks the right religion.

      I also don’t like horror that operates as a morality tale, which is what so many demon stories are like. The “Dark Forces” series of horror juvenile fiction from the 80s comes to mind. Each of them followed the same pattern: teenager or group of teenagers dabble in the occult, drug use, rock music, pre-marital sex, academic cheating, or some other thing mainstream, Christian, conservative parents generally don’t approve of. Then the teenager/s end up getting more and more corrupt, but not in ways that take them past the moral event horizon…they don’t actually kill, rape, etc…instead they act like juvenile delinquents. This ends up with the teenager/s possessed, and then some Catholic priest, always introduced as the wise, morally upright, and virtuous character earlier in the book, shows up in the nick of time to carry out a classical exorcism, and afterwards there is a chapter of denouement that shows that everything worked out for everyone and no permanent damage was done.

      Now, consider that plot…doesn’t it just seem like fear-propaganda meant to condition juveniles into obeying the moral stances of their parents? Where is the fear in that? Where is the “Ohmigod, what if it’s TRUE?” laying awake in the dark at night, painfully aware of every sound in your house? It’s not there…instead you get a reassuring message that if you’re just a good little boy/girl and adhere to the values of the generation before you, the boogeyman won’t get you. That’s propaganda and social engineering, not art, and it’s certainly not frightening.

      There is also the problem that not everyone is religious at all, much less a believer in a Judeo-Christian religion. The fact that a demon story has to take for granted the truth of a particular religion excludes atheists, agnostics, and the members of other religions. A Hindu reader isn’t going to be scared of demons portrayed with a Christian bias, and their ideas about spiritual warfare involve the personal effort to transcend this reality and leave the cycle of reincarnation, not going to some heaven or hell. A Taoist or Buddhist reader will be similarly excluded, because such concepts as good and evil aren’t going to mean the same thing to them. The average neo-pagan will just throw the book aside in disgust once they see such an assumption of religious exclusivity. That’s a lot of people to exclude, a whole lot of people who won’t be scared by this sort of antagonist.

      Thanks for your contribution…I hope I don’t come off as poo-pooing your ideas and fears. I’m just sharing the thoughts I have had about this sort of fiction and I want to have a dialogue about fear, thus explaining why I just don’t see demons as scary. I would love to hear any rebuttals or other points you have to make.

      1. Brad

        I’m with you on the lack of real potency regarding the typical demon story. Any horror that offers a per-ordained (forgive the pun) way to defeat the ultimate evil offers no true fear at all. Where I think demons are at their most potent lies in the fact that everybody has their own “demon” i.e. their own darkness to battle. A story where Joe Blo, who has some serious faults and is almost overcome by demons in whatever form, only to brandish a cross and say a few Hail Marys to win,…that is a bad story.

        But say you had a normal guy, a guy who works every day of his life to provide for his family, who pays taxes and prays to God, or doesn’t pray to God at all, and is by all rights a totally normal friend and coworker and neighbor, but he has one small darkness, one small demon. something taken to excess, and it ultimately defeats him.

        I guess what I’m trying to say is that demons don’t have to be your typical judeo christian, yellow eyed, pea soup puking things. They can be much more insidious than that. They are ultimately whatever chink you have in your armor. The terrifying part is that you think you’re the only one that knows of that dent, but what if some other thing did too? What if they knew just how to tweak it so that they could make a man who tried his hardest in life and only wanted to do right by people trip up and fall horribly, end up disgraced and flayed. That, to me, is true horror.

        1. Neal Jansons Post author

          That’s a good point, Brad, and I do often include such entities/forces in my stories. I find corruption fascinating. I guess I just react poorly to the word “demon” because of the connotations…I prefer the Clive Barker cenobite type, entities seen as “demons to some, angels to others”, or Lovecraftian beings…essentially, I want to disturb and reject the status quo in my stories in such a way that the average religious person will be pushed out of their comfort zone by theologies, gods, and monsters that either imply or directly say that all of our human ideas about metaphysics are just plain wrong, that we as humans are not only not the spiritual center of the universe, we are downright trivial in the large scheme of things, and that (especially) there is no “good” god to save or help my victim–er, protagonists.

          To be fair, I want to do the same with science, government, and the rest of the human experience. One thing I have noticed more than anything is humans are afraid of not being in control and not being important. Wars have started because someone felt insulted, like their importance was negated. I want to start out a story or novel showing our world, just like we think it is, and then strip away every single thing the average reader or protagonist would take for granted…especially their own importance. So the problem I have with classical demons trying to steal souls is that it implies that humans are important in the large scheme of things…I don’t want to ever, ever imply that. Humans have many lifelines in the madness that is our lives, and their self-importance is key among those. I want to tear those lifelines away, one by one, till the protagonist and reader both are made to believe (if only for a moment before their ego protects them with “it’s only a story”) that they matter just about as much as a bit of mold under the sink of reality.

          Thanks for the post, I like those ideas. It’s never enough for my protagonists to simply be physically beaten down or tortured…I want to capture a spiritual, psychological decay, a metaphysical torture that goes far beyond physical wounds.

          Thanks for reading!

  3. diane

    I think this could be a very real fear for a lot of people. I have never had this type of fear, but I knew how to have sex with protection and what to do to avoid any semen from coming into contact with my vulva or vagina. I think a lot of people have fear of semen due to pregnancy risk but also due to std risk.

    1. Neal Jansons Post author

      Thanks for the contribution, Diane. Huh…I would say that the fact that pornography is one of the world’s most profitable businesses, and that almost all porn involves “money-shots” showing the male ejaculation, shows that this fear isn’t all that prevalent. The rates of reproduction also say few people are actually afraid of semen…though watching some of these new reality shows that highlight pregnant teens, I kind of wish people DID have this fear.

      It seems like a practical fear more than true terror…I don’t touch the hot stove or poor sulfuric acid in my eyes because I know what the results will be, but I don’t lay awake at night afraid of hot stoves.

  4. Justin Zimmer

    Earlier in life, my biggest fear was dismemberment. I would never watch horror films because of this kind of gore. Eventually it mainly became due to the human reactions to such dismemberment. I still feel uneasy around amputees, and avoid those types of movies. However, since having children, my fears have shifted significantly. I can’t picture or imagine any form of creature that would elicit more fear than cautious curiosity. There is that sense of “safe distance” but nothing that would leave me unable to act. In scenarios of conflict I generally feel more fight than flight.

    What I fear, what elicits the most horror, is a threat to my children. My worst fear is having them come to harm, and being unable to do anything about it. If you wanted to reduce me to a gibbering mass of defeated emotion, you would tie me up and torture my boys and girls to death. You would just want to kill me before removing my bonds. Upon becoming a father, I can think of no threat to my person more horrifying than even the slightest harm to my children. These are the thoughts that keep me up at night. You want a universal evil to mire the hearts of your readers, generate some random creature and have it eat a baby while the parents are helpless to stop it. Even Stephen King swore off children after “Salem’s Lot” and “It” (The part in “Salem’s Lot” when the woman came to realize her baby was dead was pretty striking, but not nearly as much as her own treatment of that same child).

    Of course, Newt Gingrich as the next POTUS does give me night sweats.

  5. Astro Gremlin

    What is horror for the modern reader? Obviously, losing cell phone and internet connectivity! Just kidding. Real horror would be being kept alive by “heroic” medicine without the ability to communicate, move or achieve one’s most cherished goal: to die. The better medicine gets, the more likely this terrifying scenario becomes.
    Wishing you the best by the way. We get dealt crappy cards and still have to play out the hand. Easy to say, tougher to do. You have my admiration for continuing to create under less than ideal circumstances.


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