Don’t Stop Believin’

There’s a video that’s been floating around the interwebs these past few weeks that touched me to a surprising degree. Actor Jim Carrey is mostly known for his over-the-top comedy, but it turns out he is also capable of heart-felt poignancy, as you can see in this clip from his commencement speech at a recent graduation:

I think many creative types–especially writers on the journey towards traditional publishing–will relate to the sentiment at the heart of Carrey’s speech. Sometimes, the path towards whatever you’re passionate about seems impossibly twisting and muddled, a constant uphill slog pocked with unseen pitfalls and unexpected backtracking. Taking this “road less traveled by” (as per Frost) is a perilous gamble with terrible odds. And sometimes the temptation to give up can become almost overwhelming.

I am by no means exempt from these dark thoughts of failure and I often wonder if I ought to have chosen a more “practical” path, like Carrey’s father in his speech. Because doing something different is frightening, and lonely, and often discouraging. But I thought I’d share some of my own methods of coping with these worries, and why they work for me.

1) Accepting the fear and examining it.

Nothing chases fear away like staring it square in the face and saying “I know who you are.” Fear is natural, but to a certain degree it is also a choice. And when my fear gets so overwhelming that I’m ready to give up, I take a step back and try to think about what exactly I’m afraid of. Am I afraid that my life choices will leave me homeless and starving? No. Am I afraid that they’re making me a bad person, or denying some truth within myself? No, and no.

Usually, when I really think about it, the things I’m afraid of are so incredibly unimportant. I’m afraid of people not respecting me. Or I’m afraid of people laughing at me. Or I’m afraid of my voice not being heard. These are not real fears; at least, not real enough to make me give up my dreams.

“Sisyphus,” by Titian

2) Commiserating with people in similar situations.

The world is full of people trudging down the same tough, frustrating road that you are. Some of them may be behind you on the path, and others may be far ahead of you. But it’s still the same path. And wherever they are on that path, they can relate to what you’re going through, and may even have some tips on how to keep moving forward. While being a creative can sometimes feel isolating and lonely, no one is alone, and sometimes all it takes to chase the fear away is to reach out to others in similar situations.

3) Looking to those who have succeeded on your chosen path.

For every author with a tale of an agent deal on their first query or critical acclaim on their very first book, there are 100 authors with stories of multiple rejections and years and years of struggle and woe. Stephen King, J K Rowling, Agatha Christie, George Orwell, William Faulkner, and even serial best-seller Dan Brown had multiple manuscripts rejected by multiple publishing houses before their writing ever earned a cent. Some of the rejections were quite harsh, too: one editor told Vladimir Nabokov that his now world-famous novel Lolita ought be “buried under a stone for a thousand years.” Yikes.

But regardless of the onslaught of rejection they faced, these writers never gave up. And eventually, they all proved themselves to be worthy after all.

“Because when it comes to dreams, one may falter, but the only way to fail is to abandon them.” –Words of wisdom from NBC’s adaptation of “Dracula”

Are you ever tempted to give up on your dreams? How do you keep going when things get rough? Share you thoughts in the comment section below!

Pleasure in Fear: the Horror Genre

It’s Hallowe’en month, otherwise known as October! Hope you enjoy my take on the horror genre.

Word to the wise: don't google "under bed scary."
Word to the wise: don’t google “under bed scary.”

When I was about eight, a babysitter (who had apparently not been briefed on my parents’ ban on all things violent and scary) told me a scary story at bedtime. It was a variation on a classic theme: a young girl is left home alone with no one but her faithful dog. She is woken in the middle of the night by the sound of a leaky tap in the bathroom, but is too frightened to get up and shut it off. She reaches down to her dog, who licks her hand in reassurance. She drifts off to sleep. When her parents arrive home the next day, they find their daughter murdered in her bed, and her faithful dog gutted and dripping in the shower. A cryptic message is scrawled across the wall in blood: Humans can lick too.

With the wisdom granted by adulthood, I can now see that there are some glaring inconsistencies in this story. For instance, why would the murderer slay the girl’s dog and then hide under her bed for an indeterminate amount of time? Was he hoping for the opportunity to lick her hand? Did the message hold some kind of significance for her parents, and if not, why bother writing it? Neither the cleverest nor the most original tale, I’m afraid. But despite all that, I can say with complete honesty that this story terrified me.

Scared. Me. Shitless.

For a good year or two after hearing that story I religiously checked my closet for the bevy of hand-licking psychos I was certain were after me. The thought of what would happen if I ever actually discovered one of these palm-laving crazies never really entered into the equation. Perhaps he would stomp a foot in frustration and slink out into the night to lurk under some other little girl’s bed while I slept soundly, triumphant in the knowledge that he would never lick my hand.

But, I digress. I also proceeded to tell the terrifying story to everyone I knew. On sleepovers and camping trips. At pool parties. On movie nights. Even though hearing the story had scared the pants off me, I wanted everyone else to experience the same rush of fear that I had. Because the fear had been just that: a rush. A mix of adrenaline and terror and something like pleasure. Even though it had scared me, I had enjoyed being scared, and that was the feeling I wanted to share with everyone else.

Babies are born with only two innate fears: the fear of loud noises, and the fear of falling. Every other fear, anxiety, and phobia known to man is learned during the intervening years between infancy and adulthood. Spiders. Monsters. Murderous hand fetishists hiding under your bed.

Make that three fears: falling, loud noises, and The Ring.
Make that three fears: falling, loud noises, and The Ring.

Throughout human history, fear has been valuable. Fear is what has kept our species alive for so long. Fear tells us when our safety is being threatened, when we should be running for our lives or raising weapons to defend ourselves. Fear keeps us hunting for food so that we don’t starve come winter. Fear reminds us to light the campfire so that the darkness (and what lives inside it) stays away. Our learned fears keep us safe and keep us alive.

But most modern humans don’t have many concrete things to fear anymore. We may worry about rogue nuclear powers, or not being able to pay our taxes, or trans fats in junk food, but there isn’t much that we really fear. No sharp-toothed nasties ready to rip our throats out if the bonfire isn’t big enough. No spear-wielding tribesmen come to burn our huts and rape our women. No gut-twisting, heart-pounding, hair-raising terror.

So we search for it in other places. Alfred Hitchcock once said:

“Give them pleasure – the same pleasure they have when they wake up from a nightmare.”

And that is what the horror genre gives us. Pleasure in fear. That’s why Stephen King books fly off the shelves and get turned into movies and remade into newer movies. That’s why there were seven Saw movies, complete with blood and screaming and psychological torture. That’s why Psycho is Alfred Hitchcock’s most popular and infamous film. That’s why every so often I rewatch The Ring even though I know I’ll have to sleep with the light on afterwards.

Being scared is titillating. Why? Maybe now that we aren’t constantly clawing our way through life, desperately fighting for survival, we crave that adrenaline and that danger. Or maybe it’s practice, so that if you ever do meet a finger-tasting lunatic, you’ll know to run.

Well. Stick your hands in your pockets first, and then run.

Do you enjoy books or movies in the horror genre? Do you enjoy being scared? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

Listening to Fear

I remember reading once that we are born with two innate fears: loud noises and falling.

Every other fear we have is learned behaviour.

Scary Mask 10-24-2009a
“Let’s go kiss some babies.” Scary Mask 10-24-2009a (Photo credit: Brendan O’s)

I’m not saying go test this out by dressing up as a grotesque monster dripping blood and cooing at some babies to see if they giggle or scream, but when I think about the things that scare me, they are things that I’ve learned.

I learned to fear spiders when I watched Arachnophobia at the age of four. I learned to fear clowns when I saw It at age eight, and I learned that dolls are creepy when I watched all the Child’s Play movies when I was six or seven. All of those things stuck with me because filmmakers and writers created something truly frightening.

creepy Chucky doll lashed to a bike
Yup. The little freak still creeps me out. Creepy Chucky doll lashed to a bike (Photo credit: massdistraction)

For years, I would read R.L. Stine’s Fear Street books before bed and sleep just fine. Rotting purple flesh, decomposing cheerleaders, bodies hanging like pendulums — none of that scarred me for life, but it taught me to respect fear.

Fear is an emotion that’s made out of many series of psychosomatic impulses. It’s mind and body, working together to give you a wiggins. It’s why the image of a foreign finger tracing an ice cold line down the back of your neck is probably creepier than a knife by itself. Fear is something that is built up in the mind and expressed in responses of the body.

The great writers of horror, like H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, understand that creepy is a state of mind. Before you can make an audience jump or shiver or perspire, you have to lure them into your world. Here are a few of the ways to do that.

Creepy House on Mill Dam Rd
Creepy House on Mill Dam Rd (Photo credit: vork22)

Isolation

Are the scariest scenes set in crowds of bodies? Not usually. Most real horror involves isolation. Most often this is physical, but sometimes it is mental isolation. One of the first films I remember truly terrifying me was The Blair Witch Project. In that film, the three protagonists are isolated in the Maryland forests. Once it becomes clear that something scary is going on, they can’t seem to find their way out. They are in almost total isolation, stuck with a malevolent force.

This theme is also true in one of my new favourite shows, American Horror Story. In the first season, you have a family isolated in a home filled with dead people. They can’t sell it, and they can’t afford to move. In the second season, the show bridges both the inherent physical isolation of an asylum, but also integrates the mental isolation of the asylum’s masters and those imprisoned within its walls. A great example of mental isolation is the film The Craft, where the protagonist isn’t necessarily physically isolated, but the tension between her and her coven gradually increases her mental isolation from her family, her classmates, and her love interest.

Baby socks
Baby socks (Photo credit: Being a Dilettante)

The Unexpected

Sure, the image above isn’t that creepy by itself. But what if I told you it was taken at a crime scene? That would bring to mind questions. Who arranged those socks like that, and why? Were babies harmed? The unexpected isn’t about startling people into jumping high enough to bonk their heads on the ceiling. The unexpected is about putting something safe and familiar in a hostile context.

Some of the most iconic moments in horror stem from something unexpected. A child twitching a finger and saying, “Red rum” over and over again — who doesn’t remember the first time they realised he was saying MURDER backward?

Museum Collections Centre - 25 Dollman Street ...
Museum Collections Centre – 25 Dollman Street – cages – grandfather clock (Photo credit: ell brown)

Toy With Time

Fear is closely tied to suspense. Both are an anticipation of something to come, though fear has a more negative connotation. As writers, we have the unique ability to slow time and stretch out moments. Where fear and suspense in film are often heightened by details and focus on one thing (a long dark hallway, or silence), in writing you have to tie together multiple elements to create a truly scary scene.

Time can be slowed by zooming in on one detail. A fluttering curtain when all the windows are meant to be closed. Or it can be slowed by concentrating on a protagonist’s emotion, like the slickness of sweat on the back of his neck. The real magic happens when you strike the balance of giving the reader just enough to pull them from sentence to sentence while drawing out the moment of reward as long as possible.

Military Cemetary

Repetition

When done with care, weaving in a repetitive detail to a narrative can increase suspense. It can provide a reader with clues about when it’s time to be scared. In cases where repetition is used with extreme subtlety, it can foster a sense of foreboding without the reader even being able to pinpoint the reason for it.

An example of using repetition is what was done in the film The Ring. By the time you first saw the video in the film all the way through, you already associated the phone ringing with death and violence. When I first watched that film with friends, the phone happened to ring at that exact moment. We all screeched — wouldn’t you? This is one of the more obvious examples of repetition, but it can be a very effective technique no matter where you aim on the spectrum of subtlety.

Creating fear in a reader is a daunting task. It takes drawing on your own experiences as well as an understanding that just about anything can be frightening if you give it the proper attention. As writers, our words and stories can take people beyond the simplicity of loud noises and falling to deep psychological disturbance and pulse-pounding terror. It’s all up to how you use them.

What are your first memories of fear? What experiences do you draw on when you write scary scenes? How do you twist the mundane to push the reader in uncomfortable territory and then over the line into fear?