What I think about when I think about being scared
For the past few weeks, I've been trying to write about fear, and I've found it fascinating.
It's made me realize that so much of my surface understanding of how fear is represented is connected to film: the cat hops down off a shelf when we were sure it was the killer making all that noise, we see the masked man in the bathroom mirror as the woman dries her hair, and so on until the inevitable loud noises and graphic violence as a short cut to that 'fight or flight' response we hear so much about. Much of finding an interesting way to think about writing about fear has been trying to write myself away from these familiar devices.
It's been a similar process to when I was writing my first book, which has a section set in the Vietnam War. I was careful not to watch any Vietnam War movies, because I was worried I would feel led by them, that the language and grammar of war films would seep into my writing - so no choppers, clicks, gooks and no 'Sarge, I'm scared'.
Of course there are scary films that genuinely add to an understanding of what is frightening - the ones that go beyond loud bangs, ominous music and the mutilation of pretty-boobed girls. Just as there are books that find new and wonderful ways of scaring us. There has been a great deal written on both.
But here is a very short, shallow and personal list of the books and films that in this early stage of writing my second novel, I've gone back to in order to try to get a handle on the feelings around fear.
House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski.
I read this when I was 20, staying for an extended period in Northern Thailand. My boyfriend at the time would head off into the jungle on research trips, and I'd stay behind in a wooden hut on stilts, deep in the countryside, alone. The book is about a house that is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. From what I can remember you don't see anything, you just know it's there in the dark with you. I spent four or five nights rigid on the bed, unable to stop reading. I remember feeling sick from it, and whenever I think about it I'm reminded of the powerful fear that can come from simply being alone.
Tell the Women We're Going by Raymond Carver.
This is day-lit, suburban, and all the more terrifying because it's so ordinary, fear. I find day-time horror startling because it is so unexpected. Two men, two women. It started and ended with a rock. I don't think anything else needs saying.
The Black Cat by Edgar Allan Poe
I read this when I was a kid, and the thing that got me, and still gets me now is the specific horror at the idea of cutting out the eye of an animal that for all of its life has thought of you as its friend.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre
While it's not the kind of scary film I generally enjoy, (nothing on earth could get me to watch Wolf Creek) the build up is spectacular. The beautiful long shots of landscape, the lack of music, the quiet. In one of the first creative writing class I went to, we watched that build up, and as far as the moment when the girlfriend is hung on a meat hook. We saw how little of the gore was actually shown and felt how much of it went on in our heads.
Don't Look Now
For some reason I watched this as a young kid with the rest of my family. Not quite sure how we made it through the sex scene, but the creepiness of being lost in Venice, and then waiting for that ending which we'd been told about already, and which felt no need to explain itself.
This is the most recent scary film that I keep finding myself coming back to. The way it uses that open doorway so that you're always looking into the dark, scanning the borders of the screen for things that may or not be moving.
The basis of all fear for my generation. Yes, it's a bit daft, especially when Michael Parkinson gets possessed, BUT listening to the noise of the cats under the stairs and of those young girls growling in another person's voice, and catching glimpses of a shadowy figure outside the focus of the screen, it takes the viewers lack of understanding and hits them over the heads with it.
The thing that links these books and films for me is the idea of the uncanny, of something we think we're familiar with suddenly revealing itself as something other, as something impossible. We all have those small heart attacks that happen in the everyday - a dressing gown left on the chair looks like a figure in the darkness - which as soon as our brain has made sense of them, disappear leaving just the beating of our heart. This morning I left my flat, which would have been empty without me in it, and having just closed the door I heard what sounded like a person knocking three times from inside. I don't know what that was, I didn't check, and I don't think there is a ghost in the flat or a man living under my bed, but what was wonderful to remember was that real fear, the fight or flight, the sickness in your gut, can be experienced in little ways at anytime. That all it takes really is a certain amount of incomprehension.
Over the next couple of weeks I'll be working on the subject of fear, and I'll share here what comes out of it. I'd be really grateful also for your suggestions of scary books and films, the ones that really put the willies up you and how they do it.