the power of scary stories

dont look now.jpg

Why am I drawn to scary stories? Because they're hard to write well, and challenge is always attractive to me. But also because fear is primal. Fear is part of who we are (or at least part of who I am), and I'm interested, more and more, in how people respond to what terrifies them. Psychological terror intrigues me most. I'm less interested in blood on the page than I am in perceived danger that might or might not be true. What's hard to tell someone else about – or know whether to act on – because you can't prove it's real. My favorite example of such a narrative is the 1973 movie "Don't Look Now."

"Symbiosis," my first successful scary story, started out as blood-on-the-page horror. A story in which a father and daughter start having the same dreams – dreams in which the daughter is endangered or injured – and the dreams start coming true. In its early drafts, the terrifying thing played out literally at the end. And while the ending had a visceral physicality that made me happy (as a literary guy, I had to overcome the fear of being visceral), overall it left me disappointed. A couple drafts later, I realized why.

For me, the deeper terror lay in not articulating the outcome, but in leaving it just this side of realized, where the possibilities planted in the reader's imagination – wondering if/when they would happen – were the real terror. And fear, not the resolution of fear, was what I wanted to leave readers with. Because ultimately it's a story about parental fear – the moment where we realize we need to let our children go, into a world that will sometimes hurt them. We cannot always protect them. For that character, in that situation, the real terror is living with the fear.

This lesson has proved instructive as I have tackled – am tackling – two new scary stories. Again, there is no blood on the page. There is palpable threat, as experienced by a character in isolation, and that sense of threat builds throughout the story. The pivotal moment in each draft is one where the character has to ask him/herself: is this danger real, or am I doing this to myself? What fascinates me about the question for characters in isolation (one physical, one emotional) is that at such a moment, with such a question, either answer is terrifying.