Fear - As We Know and Don’t Know It

And the stars they glisten, glisten, Seeming with bright eyes to listen - For what listen they? -'Tis the Witching Time of Night

John Keats, whose birthday is actually on Halloween, wrote the poem excerpted above based on a play from Shakespeare, but taken out of context, the line rings a little spooky—personifying the night sky as something that watches and hears the world below could be both reassuring and unsettling.

Though, given that today is Halloween, I’m sure this evening is going to be vibrant with all sorts of noisy chaos and sights to behold.

I’ve always taken this particular holiday extremely seriously. From using spirit gum and latex to accurately recreate a Joss Whedonesque, vampire costume (think Buffy and Angel) at the tender age of nine, to visiting my first haunted house last year in order to create a documentary about my fear of clowns…Halloween has always been about so much more than candy for me.

It’s the day that the threshold between reality and the surreal becomes rice-paper-thin, which in turn can create a frenzied blend of excitement, curiosity, and fear.

Fear might be most prevalent after all, the horror scene flourishes during October. Given that the original intention of Halloween was the departure of summer and the entrance of winter, it was first recognized as a day to honor the deceased and ward off negative spirits before a long, brutally cold season. Therefore, death and superstition have always been major themes of the day. Death remains a great mystery to the human race and, naturally, what people can’t understand tends to freak them out.

Then again, a lot of people enjoy being creeped out, at least a little bit. (Some even fall into the masochistic territory of the desire to be terrified. Enter the types of haunted houses that require a waiver and doctor-approved health check.) Why? Well, for one, it’s the opposite of boring. Hopefully, being afraid is not your normal state of mind. The typical daily routine for most people is filled with a myriad of emotions—calmness, disappointment, annoyance, contentment, and probably boredom. Throw fear in there and you’ve got a game-changer. Now the routine is broken and at the very least, something interesting is going on and it’s inciting a swell of thumping, tingling, edgy dizziness.

Here comes the adrenaline rush. Our fear responses kick in and we feel a surge of physical strength and heightened intuition. These instincts are meant to help us in the face of actual danger, but tapping into them just for the duration of a scary movie or book can allow for a safe way to experience this drug-like sensation.

Unfortunately, lots of horror movies rely only on the typical “jump-scare” to get screams. While startling, it becomes cheap if there isn’t an actual plot or some interesting details to engage the viewers. The most effective types of horror—in both film and literature— utilize atmosphere. If something isn’t quite right and the mood itself is making you cringe, that’s going to leave a much longer-lasting impression than a wild-eyed maniac suddenly appearing onscreen or on the page for a couple of seconds. (This is not to put down “in-your-face horror”, of course. There’s an entire market for this with diehard fans. No pun intended.)

A great way to work with atmosphere when you’re a writer or filmmaker is through sensory detail, namely, sound. Have you ever tried watching a horror movie on mute? It’s at least fifty-percent less scary, if not more. The sharp pangs of the strings that build up suspense to an ultimate explosion of sound are the ultimate backbone to whatever’s happening on-screen. The score might as well be narrating what’s about to happen: uh-oh, what’s going on, it’s creepy, it’s creepy, it’s creepy, something’s in here, something’s totally in here—OH GOD, THERE IT IS! LOOK AT IT!

Tons of thought and work go into the production of a horror movie soundtrack. I keep a bunch of them (The Ring, The Village, The Cabin in the Woods, etc.) saved in a Spotify playlist for when I’m writing or drawing something that’s meant to induce fear. It’s a great way to guide yourself subconsciously through the rollercoaster of creating suspense all the way to an ultimate climax.

As I mentioned before, fear of the unknown or unknowable is a popular idea because of how unsettling it is not to comprehend something. That would bother anyone—whether you’re in a crowded marketplace in a foreign country unable to understand a single word being spoken around you, or if one of your parents seems plagued by some demon you’ve never encountered. (Fear of the unknown runs on a spectrum.) Historically, fear of the unknown (which, as you rewind the timeline, was most things) birthed the Gothic novel, and eventually the horror genre as we know it.

Some of the truly creepiest stories have more to do with the terrors of reality than the supernatural. Their senses of dread come from a place of malice within society, such as evil in the human psyche or mob mentality. Shirley Jackson’s famous short, The Lottery, is a perfect depiction of this, as is William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. While neither of these are considered horror stories by the mainstream, they’re both riddled with dark tones and sickening events, calling human morality into question.

In present culture, Jordan Peele, comedian and half of Comedy Central’s renowned duo, Key and Peele, is also working with realistic horror to produce his upcoming film, Get Out. This directorial debut deals with race in a unique way through the horror lens, confronting the very real terrors of prejudice and hate crimes through the perspective of a man of color when he travels with his white girlfriend to her parents’ home to meet the family - already an uncomfortable experience for any new couple, but he soon finds himself in a strange and dangerous environment, brimming with a long history of secrets and hostility. (You can read more about it here.)

Readers, I hope you have a truly spectacular Hallow’s Eve, filled with safe scares and candy without any sharp edges. Take a moment to remember loved ones passed, and give autumn a big goodbye kiss! Winter, especially for Chicago, is upon us…

#halloween #horror

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