Saturday, October 9, 2010

What's Fun About Being Spooked?

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?


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  2. This is an interesting post. I like being spooked, but I don't like being truly scared. I won't watch movies like "Saw" or even the "Halloween" movies. But I love a good thriller or mystery, and love ghost stories. I hate movies with gore and blood and guts shock value. I blogged about this once myself because I find it interesting. We're scaring ourselves for entertaiment? It even sounds weird, but most of us do. I think it's because this kind of fear is controllable. Fear is a horrible thing, but this fear we can laugh at later.

    I write paranormal. My hero and heroine are very human, although they have some extra special skills, but what makes my stories paranormal are the demons and vampires the characters battle. There are some creepy moments. These demons are powerful and evil, but I don't dwell on the fear. I actually prefer to show the pov of my villains, so we can see their almost human motivations.

    So...a good ghost story...yes! True thanks!

  3. Anita,
    Aristotle said good theater will move the audience to fear and pity.. .but I'm with you: real fear is not fun for me, but a little anxiety on behalf of the characters, some excitement, some hope they'll win through? Yes! But there's a gray area where the anxiety is supposed to impersonate real fear, and I don't navigate that well.

  4. I love roller coasters and creepy movies, but I don't like bloody/gory stuff. For example, I refuse to watch Saw or it's multiple sequels. The allure is the rush of adrenalin that being scared gives you. Adrenalin junkie. That's me! Some people are more addicted to it than others and do crazy things like jump out of airplanes. Actually, that sounds like fun. Sign me up!

  5. Love your voice, Grace!

    I've often pondered where the line falls between being entertained and being repelled. For instance, I love roller coasters--but not because of the fear factor. I'm not scared at all. I like heights and I truly enjoy the sensation of going fast and swooping up and down.

    For me there's a strong distinction between a thrill, even a momentarily hair-raising chill, and continuing dread that something truly terrible (like an axe murder) is about to happen.

    I enjoy Ghost Hunters but not Ghost Whisperer. In Ghost Hunters, the horrors are far in the past, and the thrill is that of discovery.

    In Ghost Whisperer, the horrors of the past threaten the protagonist in the present. Over and over. Yuk.

    So the occasional scary moment in an otherwise engaging story--okay. I don't enjoy the scary parts of the Wizard of Oz, but I feel the dramatic necessity. In braving the witch's lair, Dorothy's friends demonstrate that they already have the qualities they hope the Wizard will magically endow them with. That's character development and I love it.

    But a story intended to entertain by making me feel unremitting dread--that's a total contradiction in terms.

  6. I don't like being scared. I have enough stress already.

  7. Olivia--Maybe you are able to "make believe" you're scared better than I am. If it provokes an adrenaline rush, then for me it's too real.

    Mary Margaret--You make a good point about the rollercoaster not really being frightening to a lot of people. It doesn't scare me the way something going bump in the night does--I've paid money to ride rollercoasters with my offspring--but rollercoasters still aren't fun.

    Shana--I am with you. Scary just isn't fum for me. Violent isn't fun either.

  8. I commpletely understand! A good imagination can be a double-edged sword! I like action, I like humor, and I love romance, but horror - no thanks! Ordinary life can scare me enough as it is.

  9. Amanda--That's probably what I've been trying to say. Life is hard and scary and overwhelming enough without adding extra helpings of horror "just for fun," at least for me. Other people just have a wider tolerance for what entertains them, or they have an easier time keeping the boundary between make believe and real life.

  10. Hi Grace :) I like to be scared by things that I KNOW aren't real. Zombies, werewolves, vampires etc. The things that really, truly frighten me are the horrors that could actually touch my family. I can't read tragic books that are "based on a true story". For example, I know that "The Lovely Bones" is a very popular novel. But the chance that something like that could happen to a child in my life is far too real for me to even entertain the notion.

  11. I like scary suspense, that keeps me riveted to the book/movie. My niece likes scary creepy, and I watch it with her, only because I love her. Thoughtful post on fine lines, Grace.