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April 3, 2015

Fear and Loathing in Literature

English: Robert Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions
English: Robert Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by Chris

So my eleven-year-old came to me the other day and said, “I heard about this movie at school called Alien. Can we watch it?”  I said, “Sure—if you don’t mind having nightmares for the next three years.” This is the kid who wanted to walk out of Toy Story 3 near the end.

The best of our cultural media—be it music, film or literature—is that which makes an emotional connection with us. There are the songs that make us feel like dancing, and the movies that make us cry. These are the things that stay with us for days afterwards, making us question and making us think, and sometimes, making us look perpetually over our shoulder.

Fear, oddly, gets a bad rap when it comes to the range of emotions media can invoke in us, second only perhaps to happiness. Oscars go to the tearjerkers, rather than horror or comedy, even though the gut reaction of the audience is no less powerful, or valid. Personally, I’d argue that fear has a longevity that can outlast the most manipulative of tragedies, perhaps because it connects to an older and deeper part of our human nature.
My own relationship with fear-as-entertainment began on my eighth birthday, with my negligent father allowing my friends and I to watch a little horror movie called Friday the 13th (1980). I slept with my back to the wall and the covers over my head for a year afterward. I didn’t touch horror again until I picked up a copy of The Relic (1997), mistakenly thinking it would be an Indiana Jones-style adventure. Then, a strange thing happened: I found the blend of suspense and terror to be not only gut-churningly unpleasant, but somehow thrilling and enjoyable.

I started devouring horror movies, and this soon led to horror novels, the inarguable champion of which is of course Stephen King. King is a mastermind of suspense, and after testing the waters with the relatively mild Hearts in Atlantis I was soon rapidly turning the pages of Carrie, Salem’s Lot, Misery, and more. King has a knack for torturing his characters, mutilating them beyond recognition (both figuratively and literately); Paul Sheldon looses his leg in Misery; Jack Torrance dies in The Shining. I first read Pet Semetary as a new father, and the tale of infant death and ghostly resurrection quite literally made me sick.

But if Stephen King is the Friday the 13th of literature, others represent the more subtle terror of Jaws, or Alien—terror derived from what isn’t shown, rather than what is. In these films the monster’s reveal isn’t half as frightening as the build-up to it. In this regard, the books I remember the most for frightening the living daylights out of me aren’t horror at all. To this day I remember being unable to put down my copy of To Kill a Mockingbird at one in the morning as Jem and Scout walked home in the dark, an unknown terror stalking them through the night. I also remember vividly the black darkness of the staircase of Pip’s London apartment in Great Expectations, where the convict Magwitch is waiting to reveal himself. These were the moments in my young literary life that I realized the true power of words.

Books, of course, have it harder than film. There are no jump scares in writing, and even the best of descriptions can’t compare to the visceral horror of shadows moving in shadow. Yet there are things books can do that film can’t: the internal dialogue of the frightened character is difficult to replicate in film, and of course a writer has the luxury of simply omitting detail for the sake of scaring the reader. Moreover, the writer relies ultimately on the reader’s imagination, which if played right, can be far for terrifying than anything that can be shown on screen.

What books have frightened you the most?


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