The sun goes down, the sounds of the city grow quiet, and the rest of the family nestles, safe and sound in a world of incandescent light. Meanwhile, one person huddles alone in a darkened room, face turned toward a screen, eerie blue light carving shadows on her face while her fingers slowly tap out a message, letter by letter.
A writer is writing.
October winds blow outside her window, leaves gather in shadowed corners of the yard and nearby trees sway, branches creaking.
The writer is writing a scary story.
Why do some writers always return to the dark side of literature, spinning out tales that make readers sit on the edge of their seat? Perhaps an even better question, and one that I’d like to discuss here, is why do some people love to read scary stories?
While, I can’t answer this question definitively, I can offer some suggestions.
1. ADRENALINE RUSH: This is my favorite answer, although many of the others are just as good. We read scary stories so we can experience artificial situations of “fight or flight.” These scenarios, whether real or imagined, get your body ready for action by giving you an extra dose of adrenaline. Your heart beat speeds up, your breathing increases and your blood pressure increases—in other words, it’s like an instant dose of caffeine combined with heavy exercise. You’re ready to leap over tall buildings in a single bound, although you may be screaming “Mommy!” all the way.
2. FAMILIARITY: You’ve been here before and you liked it. You’ve been reading scary stories for years, you have a list of favorite authors and you’re waiting in line, with sweaty palms, when his/her next book releases. You stay up late (reading these stories is always better at midnight, right?), turning pages while everyone else is asleep. But the truth of the matter is you can’t sleep, can you? Not until you know what happens next…
3. A VISCERAL REACTION: The desire to feel something strongly—no matter what the emotion is—can drive readers to these books. Detailed descriptions of eviscerated body parts in zombie stories may not get you excited, but there are plenty of readers out there who live for this stuff.
4. TO FEEL ALIVE: Similar to the answer above, books that put you on the edge remind you that you are alive. You’re not watching some soap opera at lunch time; you’re hunched over a novel wondering if the heroine is really strong and smart enough to survive that demon horde that’s been chasing her for the last twenty pages.
5. TO CONQUER THE DEMONS: We all have our demons, things we’re afraid of but don’t want to admit. Things like clowns (It), menacing dolls (Chucky), the end of the world (The Stand), rampant pestilence (Contagion), rabid dogs (Cujo), vampires (Interview with a Vampire) and serial killers (Darkly Dreaming Dexter). By vicariously facing your fears in a novel, you’re able to tame them, or at least, imagine that you’ve tamed them. Until they show up the next night, waiting for you in the closet.
6. TO EXPLORE THE UNKNOWN: There are boundless supernatural realms, where wonder and horror walk side by side—realms where people rise from the dead or where someone learns the future in their dreams or where someone is giving an extraordinary power. There’s just enough enchantment and mystery to make you want to know more, and just enough danger to make you glad this is fiction.
7. TO FEEL STRONG EMOTIONS: Anger—hatred—fear—love—surprise—terror—repulsion—empathy…Scary stories have all these emotions and more trapped between the pages, just waiting for an innocent reader to come along and release them. Before you know it, you’re experiencing the same emotions. Again, this is similar to Number Three, but I felt that it needed to stated again. (It is my list, no?)
8. TO PROVE WE CAN SURVIVE: Isn’t that what it’s all about? You’re secretly taking notes, so if X, Y or Z ever really happens, you’re ready. Doesn’t everyone know what to do in a zombie/alien apocalypse by now? And if so, why? Because you’ve all been making a list and checking it twice while watching The Walking Dead or Falling Skies.
9. SATISFACTION WHEN TERROR IS OVERCOME:There’s an unbelievably sweet moment when the heroine finally plunges a stake through the heart of the last vampire—almost instantly, your muscles relax, you slump backward in your chair and then breathe a well-deserved long sigh because, without realizing it, you’ve been holding your breath and sitting on the edge of your seat, ready to run.
10. TO PROVE THAT DRAGONS NOT ONLY EXIST, BUT THAT THEY CAN BE DEFEATED: What? Scary stories can give you hope? To quote someone more knowledgeable on this subject than me: “Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”―G.K. Chesterton. Watching a character deal with the monster in the closet can give you the courage to face up to your own monsters. Yes, tales of terror can actually be uplifting, when written with that purpose in mind.
Which of these categories do you think you fall into? And what book did read recently that made you feel this way?
Merrie Destefano is represented by Natalie Lakosil of the Bradford Literary Agency. Merrie’s published work includes Afterlife and Feast (both with HarperVoyager), Fathom, The Plague Carrier and Waiting For Midnight (with Ruby Slippers Press), and How To Draw Zombies (Walter Foster). She’s also the editor of Victorian Homes magazine and founding editor of Cottages and Bungalows magazine. She is the founder and owner of Ruby Slippers Media and Ruby Slippers Press, and her website is here.