The scariest moments of my life are when I can’t breathe because of coughing or ventilator/tracheotomy issues. Reading an article about that woman without fear (i.e. lesions of amygdala, the fear center) revealed that increased carbon dioxide level trigger such a deeply ingrained that even she wasn’t immune. Throughout my reading experience, not one writer did the choking strangling experience justice. They failed mentioning the mind-numbing cold, relentless sweating, and floating above the body (the literal out of body sensation). The farthest book experiences end with the protagonist choking another person and the throat soreness.
Now the subject of this post, how to scare someone through writing? The art of frightening someone ends up a deeply seated manipulation no matter how you approach it. The following methods below differ only slightly in that. First you need the reader vested in the character that you plan on scaring senseless. Try watching a horror movie halfway through on mute. The scary stuff should seem completely fake or even funny because you are detached, an outside viewer. Second you need a relatable situation, anything from a single family home to a poker game. This may not sound scary, but it allows the audience to feel a little comfortable before the terror begins. Last you need contrast, something between the adrenaline rushes. Non-stop action works for an action film, but what you want is contrast. A comfortable picnic before the zombie apocalypse, then a weapons depot before the next attack, this makes the fear that much greater.
People read and watch horror for a couple of reasons. For me it is that jolt of joy after the heart-stopping fear. Then some people go for something all consuming, pure emotional experience, because apart from laughter and sadness, fear is an almost inescapable feeling. Maybe also to prove something to themselves.
The easiest method of freaking someone out doesn’t work that well (most easy things don’t), set up a scary situation or event the reader sees a mile ahead and force them through it. Here’s an example. Show an ax murderer waiting in a broken into home, because this is ax murderer the movie we know what’s going to happen. The family returns to slaughter. Having the murder kill another before makes the next death more frightening somehow (no escape, no one coming to the rescue). This works well for widely held fears: thanatopobia (fear of death), capture/arrest, and algopobia (pain).
Less democratic fears like claustrophobia or arachnophobia need something different for translation across the page. With claustrophobia transition it to thanatopobia by describing the inability to breathe, because fear sometimes causes breath holding. Maybe add the perception of the walls closing in. For arachnophobia extrapolate the spider out to unnatural proportions, 3 feet tall, etcetera. Try making it more visceral by adding the feeling of spiders crawling all over the person after just seeing the thing. These things all happen under the condition of fear. I should know. I was a scared little kid. Lygopobia, aquapobia, acropobia, arachnophobia, and possibly agoraphobia all long past abandoned but not forgotten.
Now the esoteric fears like fear of elevators and flight pobia need a more explanatory identifier. Try the rational approach of explaining why the fear came fo be. Take elevators. Maybe the character got stuck in an elevator alone as a child for a couple of hours. Or experienced very bad air turbulence with a few seconds drop that triggered the oxygen masks. What defining moment solidified that fear? The anxiety thought mechanism should prove effective otherwise. Lists for the audience what could possibly go wrong. Dying from extended time trapped onboard. Choking to death if a fire starts downstairs. An extreme utilization of this ends with pretending one of these situations is happening, then “realizing” it actually isn’t. These methods should handle any fear situation you need to write.
There is going to be change in the direction of this blog. From now on, it’ll be mostly autobiographical and short stories with my writing slant. Feel free to contact me with any opinions.