Tuesday, 1 November 2011

The Science of Fear

Happy Halloween! Well, this post is a day late, but given the date I think it's a timely delay. Going to try to get this in before midnight. Talk more about scary stuff in a minute, but first a quick book update.

I'm a thousand words up from last week, which is pretty negligible, but better than nothing. This was achieved on Wednesday, playgroup day. Every evening I've fallen asleep before I got a chance to get started. I know that sounds pretty pathetic, but sleep has been pretty broken as teeny has had a bad cough at night. Also October is our busiest month of the year, Birthday Central, with four including mine. We've just had Emma's 11th birthday party on Saturday, and it's all topped off with Halloween. Our street is full of kids and everyone knows each other, so I take the kids round and into everyone's houses. Nice, but as I sit here in the kitchen with rubber spiders hanging from the walls, I feel tired.

Before we get down to business, just a quick notice that we're away to the beautiful Isle of Skye with my parents and Eve, the three-year-old, from Friday to Tuesday, so no post this Sunday. Should be inspiring, I'm hoping for an aesthetically pleasing sprinkle of snow, but no more than that or we might not be able to get back! I'm going to make a big push to get more done on the book in the next few days and hopefully squeeze in another post before I go too.

So, Halloween. This date has a firm grip over the imagination of children, with its witches, wizards, ghosts, ghouls, goblins and the occasional mad surgeon (that was me). This got me thinking, where does the impulse to scare ourselves come from in the first place? If you like horror stories or films, a lot of the pleasure comes from the anticipation of that moment when the machete-wielding maniac jumps round the corner (and trying to second-guess when this payoff moment will come). Suspense is such a tricky thing to pull off in the horror genre and I admire anyone who can do it well.

We like to feel something visceral when we read, to feel like we are living the story ourselves. By playing on our nerves and by using peril to evoke our deepest sympathy with the characters facing it, horror is the genre in which this can be most effectively achieved. When it's done well, as in not an endurance-testing slashfest.

It's been suggested that when we watch or read horror and get that adrenaline rush, we are getting in touch with a basic part of our animal make-up. We used to have to fight to get food every day, run from predators or do battle with them, fight other tribes for territory. In the fight for survival, all our senses are heightened. Without this hormonal reaction, we wouldn't have lasted very long. However, we don't often have a need for it in our everyday lives now, so it finds an outlet in our relationship with horror movies or books. Or bungee jumping, etc. We know we're not in real danger (well, maybe a little bit with a bungee jump), so we can satisfy that animal instinct in a controlled manner.

Do you enjoy reading horror stories and novels? What is it you get from them and what makes you read them? What makes them not work? Looking forward to your thoughts. Sweet dreams!


Stu Ayris said...

Excellent post Nick! About the scariest thing I ever read was a short story by Charles Bukowski. It's about a man and his wife who live in a dingy hotel room. Each time she nags him or puts him down, he diminishes slightly in height. By the end of the story, he is literally in the palm of her hand. Scary stuff - very reminiscent of my first marriage!!! Have a peaceful break in Skye mate!

Nick Wilford said...

That does sound scary - reminds me of something else but can't put my finger on what. Not sure what the scariest thing I've ever read is - maybe I blanked it out. Stephen King is good but I only read him as an adult. I think we're more scared as kids. So if I look to my childhood memories, The Pit and the Pendulum really scared me (again with the suspense, although you know he gets away). Also the film of Watership Down, when all the bunnies are getting slaughtered. Seriously! I guess that's one example where the gore approach works!

Unknown said...

I love the theory that watching or reading horror sparks a response from deep in our natural wiring. That makes sense. I, for one, love to read a good Stephen King novel, or watching an old Alfred Hitchcock classic. I'm even guilty of liking the slasher films, though I haven't watched them in years.

Thanks so much for the follow on my blog. Great to meet you and I look forward to reading much more from you.

Stu Ayris said...

I have a tendancy to scream like a girl at horror films so, for the sake of my dignity, I tend to avoid them! I read The Black House once written by Stephen King and some other bloke - found that extraordinarily creepy - all got a bit silly at the end though which took the gloss off it!

Nick Wilford said...

Nicole - they don't make them like Hitchcock any more! You can't beat a bit of the Birds.

Stu - I don't scream but do tend to get freaked out if I go downstairs after watching a horror film late and the house is quiet. That's probably pretty silly too!