I have never understood the concept of fear as entertainment, not my own fear, not somebody else’s. Fear is a fundamental, biologically hardwired survival necessity, it isn’t a toy—for me. For most everybody else, it seems getting good and scared is great fun. Rollercoasters are fun, scary movies are fun, choppy plane rides are fun, nervous horses are fun… unless you are Grace, in which case, fun is more accurately defined as sitting home at the dining room table typing away at my Work In Progress for hours on end. Now that is truly big fun.
The two definitions of fun are related, though it took me decades to understand this. I have four brothers, and I love them all dearly, but they were boys once upon a time (often upon a time, including recently), and one in particular among them liked to tell his younger siblings scary stories. On at least one occasion, he also hid under my bed, reached out and grabbed my ankle, and darn near caused me to wet my pajamas as a result.
Fun for him maybe, not so fun for dear little me. I leapt into my bed from across the room for a long time after that.
And I slept with a light on well into adulthood. If the picture this creates is of a quivering mass of gelatinous protoplasm where a properly adjusted sense of a fun spook should be, then the image is accurate.
The difficulty is my imagination. My imagination is fit and limber. The thing can bench press entire realities into oblivion, clock a mile in under three minutes, and hold its breath for eternities. When my imagination gets focused on the Wicked Witch of the West, she begins to look like a certain algebra teacher I had. Really, truly, not just for fun. When I hear the marching music for the winged monkeys, my insides start to quease, and I want to leave the room. I have to glance at the sky and hope I see nothing out of the ordinary. I KNOW better, but I don’t know as better as somebody whose imagination is a little more biddable than mine would know.
Is it any wonder, with an imagination like this—barely broke to ride—I choose to focus on the Regency period in my books? Two hundred years away, noted for its elegance and refinement, across the sea and without open warfare on British soil, it provides the perfect setting for a writer allergic to horror (and likely a perfect setting for horror, as well. We’re not going there, my friends.) There were real horrors, of course: People were hung at the age of nine for stealing spare change. They could also be put to death for falling in love with a person of the wrong gender. Syphilis was the AIDS of the day, veterans were treated like crap and the Consumer Protection Agency would not have known where to start.
But as a writer, I can regulate how far beneath the surface I take my readers in the name of entertainment. It’s like riding that barely broke horse in an arena with deep footing, padded walls and no roaring crowd. Yes, if I push the poor beast inordinately, I can probably provoke a rodeo. If I’m mindful, though, I can get a spirited, entertaining ride without injury to self, others, or horse.
What about you? Where do you draw the line between fun and too scary, or do you draw it at all?