October 31, 2017

Fear Itself

by Gary Fearon, Creative Director, Southern Writers Magazine

My neighbor goes all out for Halloween. His is the go-to house for trick-or-treaters, not just those from our neighborhood, but from the surrounding ones as well. This photo, taken mid-October, is nothing compared to what his yard becomes on Halloween night.

As in years past, he'll add an impressive walk-through funhouse populated by zombies and other assorted children of the night. A steady flow of kids and parents will line up outside his tarp-covered tunnel hoping for a good scare.

Each Halloween, as the resulting happy shrieks echo through the neighborhood, I once again ponder the appeal of the safe scare. 

Why do we get such pleasure out of being frightened? After all, we have a built-in survival instinct that wants to protect us from any harm.
The simple answer is that there are both physical and psychological feel-good benefits.

As long as we know we are not in any danger, the faux fear factor triggers a rush of chemicals that excite us, making us feel more alive. Margee Kerr, Ph.D. and author of Scream: Chilling Adventure in the Science of Fear, explains that our "fight or flight" mode kicks in during these times, but we are hijacking the flight response and enjoying it.

Or, if you want to get existential, it could be said that "surviving" a haunted house, a Stephen King movie, or a roller coaster ride gives our psyche the sensation of cheating death. At the very least, we can say that we embarked on an adventure, conquered it, and had a happy ending.

If the latter sounds familiar, is that not the essence of story? Our hero begins a quest, fights his way to victory, and survives. We identify with the protagonist and want to see him through to a satisfying resolution so that we can win right alongside him.

Within the safety of a book or screenplay, we relax and enjoy facing our fears. What type of things actually do frighten you? Health scares? Failure? An unexplained sound in the middle of the night? Everyday, true-to-life fears are something everyone feels, and if your hero faces them either as their main struggle or alongside it, readers are able to identify and empathize with your vulnerable champion.

When writing your story, raise the stakes by challenging your hero with whatever he is most fearful of. Igniting the survival instinct with thrills and chills is an effective way to scare up some readers.

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