Make Fear Work for You

Fear always has a confidant handshake
Fear always has a confidant handshake

Everyone is superstitious about something. In the information age, there’s still plenty of unknowns to be afraid of. Not every bump in the night can be blamed on an appliance. For writers dabbling in horror, this is a good thing. Today we’re going to mine our superstitions for inspiration.

We’ll be ignoring the classics in favor of ones that are more cerebral. I live with a black cat, when I worked in building maintenance I walked under ladders daily, and I can’t have a conversation about Clive Barker without saying, “Candy Man” at least five times.

Minnesota sidewalks fracture every winter, the only places to step are on cracks, and there’s nothing wrong with my mother’s back. So shout, “Bloody Marry” into a broken mirror, open six umbrellas indoors, wear black on Friday the 13th, breathe heavy on your way through the cemetery, and don’t worry if no one blesses your sneeze.

I want to talk about your secret superstitions, your fascinating phobias. The ones you’re too ashamed to share, but still give you a good scare. The ones you formulated without the playground think tank, the campfire seminar, and the treehouse entrepreneurs.

Those childhood fears that survived your intellect, the ones that you can never seem to purge from your obsessive compulsive rituals, those are the ones I want to tap into. Think of it as a writing exercise to draw out original ideas, to keep your scares from feeling tired and dated.

If an aspect of the unknown becomes known, it isn’t scary anymore. Horror trends have desensitized audiences. Exorcism movies have demystified demon pathology. There have been so many Ouija boards on film that another one isn’t going to frighten anyone, unless it uses hashtags and emoticons.

If you want to communicate with modern ghosts, you'll need hashtags and emoticons
If you want to communicate with modern ghosts, you’ll need hashtags and emoticons

Psychological terror hides in the dark, just outside the radar of your senses. You can feel it, but you never get a good look at it. That’s where your sophisticated superstitions reign, where your half asleep lunacy becomes reality. That’s where we’re going to find our story.

Say "Hello" to my little friend
Say “Hello” to my little friend

The Fear Test

The best way to know if your superstitious belief has teeth is if you fear it more than something you should be afraid of. Irrational fears have a way of eclipsing legitimate ones.

I used to live in an apartment above a parking garage. The unit rattled every time the door opened. One day someone discovered a body in the dumpster. A mentally handicap neighbor didn’t know what to do when his mother died, so he dragged her down there. Out of some morbid curiosity, I went into the garage to find the dumpster aligned with my bedroom.

That night I woke up to a tapping on the window. A silhouette was peaking through the blinds. Slipping out of bed, I crawled into the hall. Armed with a Maglite, I charged outside to find a pair of homeless men passing a glass pipe on the window sill. I wasn’t frightened by the crank craters lining their cheeks. I was just happy these men weren’t the ghost of the woman from the dumpster. That irrational relief gave me the courage to trick them into thinking I was a cop.

True story. Here’s another one.

I used to go for walks at night when I had trouble sleeping. My insomnia got so bad I started seeing things. My subconscious planted shadow people behind every tree trunk.  I saw them peaking out, ducking behind trash cans, and kneeling in the tall grass. The second I caught one stepping into my path it disintegrated on impact.

We’re programmed to recognize faces from birth. It’s no wonder we see them in wallpaper, tree bark, and the surface of Mars. Deep down, I knew these hallucinations were glitches in my brain’s ability to spot patterns, but they just kept coming.

What made the shadow people all the more disturbing is they were never just chilling out doing their own thing. Walking around the lake, I never spotted them fishing, reading on the docks, or making out on the benches. The shadow people were always on the hunt. They rose from the water, dropped from branches, and lunged at me from the bushes.

I had this childlike notion that the shadow people were real, that my sleep deprivation dulled the feedback from my other senses, allowing me to see them. That’s why when I heard footsteps rushing up behind me, I was relieved to find a bulky man clutching something in his jacket.

When I calmly said, “Is there something I can help you with?” he was taken aback.

He took his hand out of his pocket and laughed. Through a bizarre turn of events, we chatted on the way back to my apartment. It took several blocks for me to realize he’d planned on robbing me, but changed his mind when he saw that there was no fear in my eyes. Over the course of several cigarettes, he all but admitted as much. Still, I was comforted when I turned around and saw a man and not a shadow assuming the shape of one.

Rational fears are topics worthy of your writing, but psychological terror shouldn’t be so easily defined. Show us your shadow people. Share the ghosts in your basement. Give us something we’re not used to seeing.

See my credentials
See my credentials

Rather than purging your fear with some loud distraction, I dare you to embrace the silence. I dare you to ask yourself the following question:

Wouldn’t It be Terrible If?…

I’ve written articles on one of the easiest ways for writers to find inspiration by asking “What if” questions.

What if a house cat got exposed to gamma radiation and hulked out at the sight of a laser pointer?

What if a house cat foiled a group of terrorists by knocking houseplants onto them?

What if a house cat thwarted a serial killer by triggering all his traps before they hurt anyone?

Horror stories start with a modified version of the same question: “Wouldn’t it be terrible if this happened?”

Wouldn’t it be terrible if the only reason the monster in my closet hasn’t struck yet is because I wasn’t ripe?

Wouldn’t it be terrible if there was an anti-Halloween where demons come to earth posing as people?

Wouldn’t it be terrible if everyone on earth stared at me when I wasn’t looking, but somehow I found out it was happening?

Chrome Face
Chrome Face

Next time you’re searching for inspiration, I dare you to stare into the dark until you find something. Next time you recognize an irrational fear, make a note of it. If it keeps rising on its own, you’ll know it has staying power. Indulge it, let it drive you crazy, then direct its evolution.

Why dismiss your fear, when you can put it to work? Developing it into a story might just be the best way to overcome it. These waking nightmares might just be your subconscious’s way of plotting. After all it’s not madness if you use it.

11 thoughts on “Make Fear Work for You”

  1. I loved this post! And how timely; as I outline a horror novel for National Novel Writing Month, I’m having a hell of a time weaving real horrors into it. But your advice is golden. I will begin mining the most horrifying, unexplainable instances of my childhood/life immediately! Rather than meditating, trying to clear my mind and make a fertile space for ideas to bloom, I will sit in the dark with a single candle lit, so that the shadows dance in every corner, and I will stare into the deepest darkness, waiting for my story’s terrors to spring forth.

    I have always agreed with the unknown element being the strongest in the horror genre. Jeepers Creepers? Great, pretty scary movie until they show the antagonist up close. Geh. Same with Darkness Falls, same with The Ring until they unveil the backstory of Samara, etc etc. Love your stories about the shadow people, crack-smoking homeless men, and the thief. And I LOVE the updated Ouija board.

    1. I think my next reinvention of the Ouija board will have proper hashtags and memes, maybe even predictive text.

      When I go looking for horror I start internally with all those thoughts I usually deny myself throughout the rest of the year. I imagine I look pretty creepy pacing around in the silence of my apartment, but really I’m just plotting.

      When it comes to childhood fears don’t be afraid to give them an upgrade. Ask yourself, “How can I make this scare me now that I know how things work? How can I trick my intellect?”

      I hope you write something chilling. Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

    1. Calculus is my great Cthulhu, the cosmic conundrum I truly dread.

      Thank you so much for reading. I shared your post earlier today. You’re really killing it this month.

  2. Isn’t it amazing how our minds play tricks on us. Sleep deprivation, sleep paralysis, hallucinations in the dark…all are weird. As for ghosts, shadow people, poltergeists, and all such paranormal happenings, they are everyday life for me, as long as I can remember. But…show me a fish, a fish on tv, a picture of a fish, and heaven forbid a live fish…uh-uh, no way…that is the scariest thing to me! Thanks for another great post, Drew!

    1. I too have a life long familiarity with sleep deprivation and sleep paralysis and all of their wonderful side effects.

      If you’re afraid of fish, then I dare you to read The Shadow over Innsmouth by H.P. Lovecraft.

  3. Cool…a dare! I will take that dare, and read the story. I looked at the description, and it does sound creepy. Coming up to Halloween, I need something to scare me! 😉 Thanks for the suggestion!

  4. Great advice! You ignited my imagination and now it won’t shutup 😉 And that is a good thing. I like how you put this: “The best way to know if your superstitious belief has teeth is if you fear it more than something you should be afraid of. Irrational fears have a way of eclipsing legitimate ones.” Great rule of thumb.

    I know the insomnia monster well, which you know. I remember in a past post you spoke of your first experience with sleep paralysis when you were sixteen. I can’t recall if you said exactly why you started having sleeping problems. I hope it’s better now, though, I know it is hard to fix. I still don’t have my sleeping issues figured out.

    What a horrifying story about your old apartment! A dead body??? Holy hell. As I read that, I immediately thought of Ed Gein and the movie Psycho and their mommy issues and I don’t think either of them was right in the head. (NOT saying that the poor guy in your story is like them.)

    Haha, making friends with your potential mugger! Scary, yes, but the overall situation and how it unfolded and how y’all just strolled along, talking like y’all were buddies as he admitted he was going to rob you is just…well, I admit, it made me chuckle.

    I’m constantly scaring myself, constantly imagining horrible things. I don’t know why. My thoughts often ask that question wouldn’t it be horrible if… I were alone in a public restroom and someone drops out of the vent in the ceiling to kill me? What if I am driving by a semi and the trailer drifts into my lane and runs me off the road, smashing me against a tree until there is nothing left of me? I imagine killers sneaking into my house during the day and hiding in my closet waiting for me to finally go to sleep. When I sleep with the pillow over my head, I cringe once in awhile when I imagine an ax coming toward my stomach. When there is a blemish on my face, I imagine what if it is the beginning of an aggressive tissue eating disease that takes my nose, lips, eyes, everything leaving me to wonder if I would take my life in such a state. When I wash my face, I sense things crawling around my legs, demons reaching for my ankles. These are things I imagine and I could go on, but I don’t want you to think I’m completely off my rocker. Oh and I’m not a hypochondriac or anything, I don’t worry about this stuff, I just picture these things happening, shudder, and carry on. My brain never stops imagining things. But I imagine good things too, lol 🙂 And those are all things I just think about. Off the top of my head, I know I fear waking up from a nightmare and discovering that I wasn’t dreaming. I do that sometimes, I wake up and for a moment, I panic thinking what I just dreamt actually happened.

    Anyway, great post! It definitely charged my imagination up wondering what I could do with all the crazy things in my head. And love the plague doctor mask and the updated Ouija board.

  5. You have to do something with that public restroom ceiling vent scenario. I’m also really keen on the idea of someone who senses demons when their face is wet. I’m imagining someone running around an abandon factory with a water bottle and a wash cloth, telling their allies which way is safe. The rising tension could be her fear of running out of water.

    I find training myself to put the things that scare me to use disarms them. I take away their power over me by putting them on the paper. I can’t help analyzing the source of my fears even when I’m trying to leave it vague in the page.

    “Wouldn’t it be terrible if?…” Is the first part of my thought process. The second is, “Now who I cast who’d be capable of dealing with this? Can I change a person to rise to the occasion or will this situation swallow them whole?” First I write myself into an impossible corner, then I have to write myself out.

    I’m happy you like this one. I think my plague mask put a few of twitter folks off. I still want to do more Halloween-centric pieces this month. We’ll see how they go.

    Thank you so much for reading.

  6. Superstitions are so cool actually, the fact that people believe that if you do something, it will affect something else. I won’t lie, if I spill salt, I do for some odd reason take a pinch and throw it over my shoulder – ridiculous, I know!

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