Breaking Through To What Really Scares You


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what actually frightens people. Honestly, I’ve never been in a conversation with someone about ghosts or evil covens where they’ve told me they both BELIEVE those things exist AND are frightened by them. It’s usually a much more casual…’yeah, those things are possible’ kind of comment. Maybe I’ve not gotten out enough – if you have a good story where you got spooked for real, I’d love to hear it. For my part, I wanted to reproduce in a book I’m writing now the feelings in my life when I was actually frightened or shaken to my core. Since I don’t actually buy off on a lot of the supernatural stuff, it has to be much more grounded and personal to get to me. So I thought about September 11th.

All too often, people I interact with are too young to remember what it felt like when the New York towers fell in 2001. I couldn’t relate to the Pentagon fire or the Pennsylvania field; but I absolutely remember being in those towers  when I was a kid – I had family up there. I watched them smoke and fall and remember feeling entirely helpless. File that one away, it’s important.

I’ve also said before in these posts that George Orwell’s 1984 is, in my opinion, the most frightening book ever written. No goblins or possessions. No vampires. Not even a car crash. Just people being terrible to each other in a way I could believe – an awful momentum those people allowed in their society that left them with a nightmare like ‘ROOM 101’ at the ‘Ministry Of Love’ where they torture you to the point of breaking your entire personality. They turn your own children against you. They get in your head with endless propaganda. It left that society helpless. File that away, also important.

Every year, Chapman University conducts a survey of what frightens Americans the most. Check this out:


Helplessness is staring you in the face here.

We can’t control huge, man-eating machines like government corruption where compassionless bureaucrats take everything you own or terrorist attacks where a smiling neighbor who always waved at you suddenly sprays bullets into a shopping mall. Look at number three – imagine yourself feeble and alone, your body failing and laying in diarrhea, without any money to pay for food or electricity. Shivers, man. That’s terrible! You’d be helpless.

Ignore some of the political stuff here, the things CNN or Fox told you to worry about; and there are some truly foundational horrors listed here, things that get to the heart of what scares us. We treasure stability and control and predictability. We expect the rules to be fair and unchanging, so we can continue to captain our own lives. Yet as suddenly as a phone call with a diagnosis, you can be the one staring desperately at someone you dearly love beside a hospital bed straining to understand why this doctor is contradicting the last one and why nothing is working. As they waste away. That’s us, man. That’s humans. We can’t control that; and yet we demand to. We’re helpless; and we don’t want to be.

I’m not saying I don’t have anything supernatural in the book I’m writing. Of course I do, I get bored with plain-vanilla things. But my aim is to ask you to concede only one fantastic element and let the implications fall out and shatter from there. So far, I’m having a blast. Along the way, I’m pondering what scares us for real. Things like the ones here on Chapman’s list.

I believe in the end, anybody stringing together words for profit or fun like a lot of us would be more proud of what you’d done with a horror story if you try to break new ground. Use something grounded or contextual with just a hint of the supernatural. Make me love the folks you’ve breathed life into, then tear them apart with something terrible.

That’s the gig, right?


5 thoughts on “Breaking Through To What Really Scares You

  1. I guess I’m strange because none of the items on that list would be among my fears. Like you, I find 1984 terrifying, and what’s more terrifying is how close, in some ways, we are coming to that. More refined, less overt, which actually is worse, because it messes with people’s minds without their even realizing it. The usual stuff that’s designed to make people jump at noises in the dark doesn’t touch me at all. I tend to think that the real horror is being human. It makes us both capable of incredible cruelty and sickeningly vulnerable to cruelty.


    • Exactly. Mindless mobs are actually scary. Capricious use of power is scary. You’ll think this is ridiculous; but once at a Torture Museum, Edinburgh maybe, there was this bit when you first went in where this wigged judge towered over you in a balcony. His judgement was random and intended to be funny, I guess; but my imagination goes off the rails sometimes. Honestly, it’s stuck with me for years now how creepy it would be to actually be cowering under a guy using his extreme authority over me with such disregard.


      • That’s probably pretty indicative of how people are *supposed* to feel when looking up at a judge — powerless. And knowing that you’re just one of many who are run through the mill as anonymous cases rather than as human beings. Oddly, I was going to mention, in my original comment, that I’ve written a psychological horror story in which an innocent man is judged exactly that way and suffers the worst punishment that his society can inflict. But this makes it more relevant.


      • I try not to tout my writing in order to get sales and seldom even mention it unless it’s quite relevant. You decide. It’s on Amazon–title is The Darkest Prison. Better yet, I can send you a PDF. Let me know. Just don’t judge the writing too harshly. I do better now and have thought about revising and expanding it someday.


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