Scary books reveal truths about oneself
Writer says self-deception hard to maintain when you’re scared
When I was 12, my mother confiscated my copy of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot after she ran into the bathroom and found me curled up on the floor. I’d been screaming. I can’t recall exactly what had frightened me so much — I think it had to do with pulling back the shower curtain and imagining Barlow, the master vampire from the novel, toothily standing there — but my mom’s patience had come to an end. No more scary stories for me. “Why not?” “Look at you,” she said. “You’re seeing things that aren’t there!”
I took her point. But she was also missing the bigger point that seeing things that aren’t there is why we read in the first place.
It’s why literature offers us meaning and coherence in ways our daily lives don’t. It’s also what can make it exhilarating, transporting us to situations we wish we could experience as well as those we’d rather not. I think I intuited all of that even then. It would certainly explain why, even though I was scaring myself silly, I bought another copy of King’s book at the first opportunity and finished it, in secret.
(My troubled relationship with shower curtains only worsened after I saw Psycho, by the way.)
Sixteen years later, I wrote my first novel, a thriller. I’ve been writing them ever since. Some of these stories involve the supernatural, others have villains who are human (if no less monstrous). To one degree or another, they employ fear among their arsenal of effects. Over the time I’ve been publishing these books and meeting their readers, I’ve come to observe how differently we experience fear. Other than what turns us on, there may be no more nuanced and individualized part of our selves than what makes us afraid.
Sometimes it’s biographical, as someone who had a sibling who jumped out at them wearing a red nose and a wig grows up to be afraid of clowns. Sometimes it’s universal (who isn’t freaked out by the idea of being buried alive?) And sometimes it’s cultural, as evidenced in the sharp decline in the number of swimmers in public waters the summer of 1975 — which happened to be the year after “Jaws” was published and the year in which the movie was released.
But a lot of the time, we have no idea why we fear what we do before we encounter it in a story. And when we do, we have a chance of understanding a part of ourselves we would be unlikely to access if we kept to a strict diet of realism, or read only to be comforted.
I’m often asked why people would want to read a scary story when there’s so many scary things going on in the real world.
My reply is to point out the difference between reading a novel about divorce versus going through a divorce yourself. The former may be involving, cathartic, perhaps even hilarious. The latter is merely miserable.
As with all literature, there is an esthetic distance between the reader and the events she reads about. Even when we’re deeply engaged with a story — even when our emotional responses to it exceed what we’ve ever felt about our real lives — a part of our mind understands this is a game we’re playing, a complex representation. In the case of erotica, for instance, it’s why we can read about sex and experience arousal and satisfaction without the guilt of cheating. And when we read horror, we visit fear for its excitements and insights knowing we can return home at the end, our brains providing micro-reminders that imagining what it would be like to go to Hannibal Lecter’s for dinner is not the same as being dinner.
For me, just as the experience of reading scary stories says something about us, having charac- ters confront what frightens them is to reveal who they are in surprising ways. We’re all experts at emphasizing our strengths, hiding vulnerabilities, reshaping the parts we consider malformed. But self-deception is harder to maintain when there’s something bad, really bad, coming for you. Fear is a truth serum.
So how does a writer build a fear machine to find a way to that truth?
For people in my line of work, this is an ongoing challenge. I’ve found that every reader has their own Scare-o-Meter, with some rarely going past three or four on the dial no matter what you throw at them, and others hitting eleven the moment you have a door creak open on its own.
The good news is that what all of us share is the capacity to empathize with what a novel’s characters are going through.
If we feel we know them, recognize them, when they scream we scream with them. And for both, we learn why.
Horror writer Andrew Pyper, seen here in a 2008 file phone in the Queen West neighbourhood, finds shower scenes pretty scary.
The Only Child Andrew Pyper Simon & Schuster, 304 pages, $24.99