Why do some people seem to get a kick out of scary stories? Whether on the page or screen, they stimulate that tingly feeling down your spine. The fact is a lot of us enjoy when our heart speeds up, and we can’t catch our breath… that rush of adrenaline, and all those lovely endorphins. Sounds kind of like falling in love doesn’t it.
The writer Neil Gaiman said, “Fear is a wonderful thing, in small doses. You ride the ghost train into the darkness, knowing that eventually the doors will open, and you will step out into the daylight once again.” That’s how I like to take my horror – in small doses. I prefer a controlled environment, and a horror movie’s a great example of that.
Scary films are generally about one and a half hours long. Buying a ticket, and armed with snacks, I settle into my seat. All those childhood fears of things that go bump in the night rush forward. If I’m out with someone, I find I can control my fear response better than when I’m on my own, especially if it’s a good film – otherwise, I have to do a lot more self-talk to keep myself in the seat. Hopefully, the filmmaker has tucked in a bit of comic relief that will diffuse the tension just enough for me to take a breath before the terror rushes back.
And, I’m not talking about being grossed out or repulsed either. Watching humans being tortured and hacked up isn’t my idea of a good time. Even if they were stupid enough to go inside that house when I told them not to…
While I’m compulsively reaching for the popcorn, my brain’s busy checking out the perceived threat portrayed on the big screen. Intellectually, I know I’m in no real danger, but my amygdala needs some convincing. My heart’s pumping and my feet tap restlessly against the floor, as the tension runs through me. My stomach feels fluttery, it’s almost the same feeling I get when riding a roller coaster. As my brain recognizes the threat isn’t real – It drops a rush of hormones and chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, adrenaline, and oxytocin. This puts me into an elevated state – I feel happy and, surprisingly, less anxious – able to enjoy the thrill of the moment. The movie comes to an end. The credits roll – the lights come up – and the ride is over. I walk out of the theater, stimulated, excited, and, best of all, unscathed.
It’s very different when I’m reading, that’s where the scary gets to me. I don’t seem to have the same regulated emotional response that I have when watching a movie. Turning the pages of a novel, I stir the written words into my own overactive imagination. The story intensifies, and the pages turn faster as I race to the end of the book. I’m suddenly aware that the house is quiet – too quiet… the tension builds. My eyes dart uneasily at the shadows, my nerves have me starting at sudden noises. When the story becomes too intense, too scary, I put the book down. It’s getting dark, I turn on all the lights and switch on Hallmark or the Cooking Channel and hunt for the chocolate – only to settle my nerves. My body’s gone through the same flight or fight response as when I’ve watched a horror movie. It’s received that same flush of adrenaline, but, instead of feeling elated and less anxious – I’m still a little on edge and need to distract my brain. Only then will the frightening images fade. For some reason, when reading, my brain has greater difficulty dealing with the stress of being scared.
Monsters are generally symbolic. Some psychologists say they reflect our fears or worries, whether we realize it or not. Freud asserted that monsters were created by our unconscious – for me, they have to live in my conscious mind, at least while I’m working on a novel. My writing group finds it amusing that sometimes I have to put a story away because I’ve creeped myself out. I realize that’s a bit perverse. However, as I read through my own work, I hope that readers will enjoy the thrills and chills that evolve in my stories, and want to come back for more.