Originally appeared in the Ottawa Citizen, October 28, 2013 as a Halloween themed op-ed series
Every day I sit around and think about how to scare you. I think about how to exact that pound of flesh. What would you find more terrifying, pain or suspense? All the monsters we know stand patiently in line and wait their turn. In my head I go over the words that would enhance a theatre of fear, then decide where in the audience you sit. I think about how to scare you, and I think about it a lot.
Writing horror makes for peculiar bedfellows. Like Grey’s Anatomy; the book, not the show. That was a good start when I was writing in high school. Now it has progressed to the Colour Atlas Of Forensic Pathology and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Scary stuff, but not from my textbook point of view. Call it desensitization but from where I sit that’s not a bad thing. Looking at violent or grotesque imagery does not scare me. Sure, there may be a level of discernible distaste, but pages flip over. Books close. Movies fall in that same milieu.
Shocking images can and do scare people. Some don’t like it. It is easy to think about what scares others but to have horror really bleed out across the page, I need to be scared. I need to creep me out. I need to freak out Lydia and that isn’t easy.
Having lived in the countryside near dense forest, I’ve faced a lot of things that do scare people. The Dark. Wild animals. Isolation. Things I have a healthy respect for but no fear per se. These are real fears that present themselves but so far, I’ve encountered nothing that makes me afraid to venture into these places. Dark trails, abandoned hotels and ghost towns? Yes please!
Not long ago, I was upstairs in my house having conversation with a friend near three in the morning. We heard a noise. Something clattered off the counter downstairs, near the back door. I rushed down three steps ahead of him. My friend was stronger, faster and way taller than I and clearly the obvious choice to send after a bump in the night. Home invasions and burglars are scary things. It was my house after all, and in the moment, I would not say I was scared but very concerned.
Spiders, wasps, snakes and assorted creepy crawlies can be terrifying. I only had to go through handfuls of the thousands of encounters to verify I was certainly not afraid of them. Luckily, when a friend has a bug on her shirt I have no problem rescuing the poor creature before panic takes hold. Sure, I’ve been startled by a spider dangling over my face or a sudden snake slithering across a path. Startled is not the same as scared.
Am I afraid of heights? No. I get vertigo, but I know that already. When hiking, we’ve opted to not cross a busted bridge spanning a craggy crevasse over rushing water on my insistence, but I don’t call that scared. I call that smart.
There is one thing though. One thing that goes beyond being startled. It’s not about being smart or careful. This is something that scares me and I have no control over it. When it happens, my imagination runs wild, my heart leaps into my chest and my blood will run cold.
In the dark of night, I may be up, drifting off, or dead asleep. I’m all alone and the telephone rings. Looking at the display, if the call is coming from my parent’s house the fear sets in. Even worse, the call is coming from my sister, or a close uncle. After midnight, they are all supposed to be asleep. Something terrible must have happened. Scenarios rush through my mind, and for a moment I can’t move. I don’t want to answer, I don’t want this to be happening. Then, the phone rings a second time.
Adults around me when I was little had the same reaction. After midnight, if the phone rang, everyone would bolt upright and look at one another with this faint look of dread. People asleep would trundle out of bed asking who was on the phone, yawning but anxious to hear the answer. Rarely was it anything alarming. Sometimes someone had passed away, but nothing terribly tragic. Never as horrible as the things my imagination inserts between that first and second ring.
Terrible news can come from any number when you least expect it. Late at night though, it’s different. There is suddenly too much physical distance between that handset and mine. There is nothing I can do no matter what has happened. So, it is either silly and simple, or my most terrifying unknown: a telephone ringing in the dark.