24 September 2006

Fear Stretched Thin: Some initial thoughts about the horror genre in fiction

"It's the other side" I had corrected my friend a few days earlier, not the "wrong" side of the road. But, as I rounded the bend and saw that the car coming towards me on the narrow Welsh road was not passing another vehicle, I realized it was the wrong side -- at that particular time. I was in the wrong place. The "other" was the wrong.

The adrenaline rush sent my heart racing and every muscle in my body was shaking uncontrollably. I was clammy from the sweat, a result of the near collision, not the sweltering 95-degree heat. And, then, after skidding to a stop, the parched fields returning from a green-and-fawn colored spinning blur to a crisp clear focus that showed not just the fields but each planted row, while the putrid smell of burning rubber still lingered in the air, I noticed a slightly jarring, almost eerie, sound: crickets. Song birds. A gentle rustling of leaves from a slight breeze.

It took a few seconds to catch my breath, to realize that, despite the heightened sensory awareness, all was okay. But the fear stayed with me for awhile. I trembled as I thought that I might have died alone, in a strange country, my loved ones helpless to comfort me. And that I might have been responsible for ending the lives of the man and his young daughter on that lonely country road where one would rarely expect to pass a car, and never expect a head-on collision. "They didn't see it coming around the curve" people would have said at the funerals. And others would shake their heads in agreement.

There was no damage to the car, but I had already been having mechanical problems. When I reached my destination, rather the exchange cars as intended, I left it at the rental shop and headed for the train station. Four and a half hours on a hot train seemed a better choice than three or more hours of additional stress in traffic on the M4. The train pulled into Paddington at rush hour. I made my way through the crowd and headed to the hotel. Fatigue had so settled into every bone of my body that I didn't have the energy to complain about the ground floor room, or about the closet-door style lock that would not have stopped any would-be intruders. The air conditioner worked -- and worked well -- so cold that it seemed to mist the air, microscopic water particles hitting my body as I collapsed on the bed. I didn't notice until I woke several hours later that at regular intervals, there was a muffled rumbling as the trains, just a few feet below my room, slowed on approach to the Underground station nearby. I felt like I had a hangover, a preferable state to being dead.

That was the last time that I felt real fear. Fear isn't always met on the highway, but it is something that lurks around the corner ahead. We don't know when we will encounter it, but we expect to at some time. We know the adrenaline rush, the ancestral fight or flight response. And we want to think that we will come out on the other side. The Other side -- the right side -- as if fear resides in a parallel universe, crossing over at unlucky times to inhabit our space.

I once heard anxiety described as "fear stretched thin". Anxiety is fear's half-sibling, twilight to fear's night. It bears similar characteristics, a familial resemblance, a safer variety like a quickly moving stream that you think you can surely navigate although you know there is a slight possibility that you might slip and fall into the unswimable rapids. It is the feeling, rather than the knowledge, that fear is around the next bend of the road, on the other side, waiting for us to cross the center line.

I am not a reader of the horror genre. Yet, when Carl V suggested the RIP challenge, I couldn't resist. What is this genre? I thought. What do I expect? Is it all the creepy zombie/vampire/blood-n-guts stuff of late-night B movies, the kind that we watched as kids on Nightmare Theatre with Sammy Terry, designed to scare us out of our wits? Does horror fiction only function on that juvenile level or is it something more?

It's fitting that the RIP challenge is timed to coincide with the Halloween season. All Hallow's Eve, the Christian version of the Celtic holy festival Samhain, is the acknowledgement of the other side of life, a time when souls can return to this world. I see it too as a recognition -- perhaps a recognition of the associated fear -- that not all souls are settled in the after-life, that sometimes death is not a finality bringing balance, peace and oneness in a spiritual hereafter. In its origins, All Hallow's Eve involved customs meant as means to frighten away the unsettled and evil spirits, to conquer those fears and overcome the horror of an eternal unsettled life, before honoring the eternity and the presence of All Saints and All Souls in the following days. "Trick or Treat" is a way to laugh at our luck in escaping that unsettledness of our anxieties and fears. To feel some semblance of control over that which we cannot control -- the unexpected and the unknown.

I don't think that horror fiction's intent is only to scare us. It provides us with a vicarious experience of anxiety, echoing fear by showing us the other side that we know is there. The side that isn't quite what we want to experience, but that which we cannot look away from. We understand the adrenaline rush. We imagine the pounding heartbeats, the clammy skin, the shortness of breathe when we have escaped and overcome the fearful. We know the heightened sense of awareness and enjoyment in our known world afterwards, having sensed what it might be like to lose it all.

Horror fiction may be the embodiment of fear stretched thin, wound around like a rubberband ball, ready to be catapulted across the page to the other side and into our souls, and then released in laughter and affirmation of life as we approach the final pages of the book. At least, that is what I expect to find as I begin reading some creepy, terrifying horror books for the RIP challenge.


Dorothy W. said...

Very interesting meditation on fear! I look forward to your thoughts on the RIP books as you read them.

bloglily said...

Cam, YIKES! That sounds awfully scary. I like it that you clear your head by launching into such a fine discussion of terror. I'm about half way through Turn of the Screw and I've been enjoying thinking about what scares people. I see you're reading it too and I so look forward to hearing what you think.

Carl V. said...

Glad you're a part of the challenge. The timing of it was of course intentional as this is, for me, the prime time of year to read these kind of novels.

I don't know that any of the horror novels I've read are particularly scary in and of themselves. What I like about them is that, occasionally they are and give one a real fright, but more often they remind me of the exquisite fear of childhood...when reading these kind of stories or watching scary movies really gave me a thrill. It is the moodiness and atmosphere of the stories that thrills me now and has me coming back for more each year.

Look forward to seeing what you read and what your thoughts are on the books.

BikeProf said...

Wonderful post. Your thoughts on the "other side" seem to express perfectly the way horror as a genre works.

LK said...

I read somewhere that gothic/horror fiction was written for people who felt secure in their worlds -- so, as the standard of living rose for many people, I guess they wanted their adrenaline rush from books rather than, say, shooting a wild boar for dinner. Or driving in rush hour.