Wed
Jan 19 2011 3:56pm

The Unreal, and Why We Love It, Part 3: Fear

+++Don’t turn around.+++

You thought that this was just a website. You thought that nothing could go wrong, coming here. Oh, how wrong you were.

Run, run now. The URL, it’s changing... I’ve tried pressing CTRL+ALT+DEL and nothing’s happening. You hear me, NOTHING IS HAPPENING!

+++Time’s up.+++

...

Ahem, I’m sorry. My keyboard typed all of that whilst I was away. It seems to have a taste for parody.

Making us afraid should be the hardest task for fantasy to accomplish. Fear is not an emotion of our higher functions—it’s a survival reflex, an old and animalistic feeling. It comes from a time when we were being hunted—when we didn’t need fantasy, because we didn’t know enough about the world around us to be able to distinguish it from reality. It didn’t matter if what was going bump in the night was a vampire or a bear. All that mattered was if they were hungry.

How then do you explain the ghost story? Or the endless appetite for horror, be it on a human level, or the soul-crushing abominations from H. P. Lovecraft’s wildest nightmares? Why are we afraid of things we know don’t exist?

What is it, really, that is so appealing about evil?

I don’t mean evil in the sense of the high fantasy overlord, summoning the forces of the underworld to do his bidding. That can be dramatic, thrilling, even appalling, but rarely is it actually scary. After all, in such works, the heroes usually have a few superheroic tricks up their sleeves–if they are wearing sleeved garments, that is. The reader feels safe, even if good doesn’t triumph, it usually puts up a good fight.

No, I mean real, uncanny, scary evil. The word “evil” is very old indeed. Linguists aren’t agreed on where it comes from, but they think that it ultimately derives from an ancient Indo-European word for “other.” As we huddled around our ancient campfires, all we could be sure of was that our tribe, our people would protect us. Nothing else could be trusted. The unknown was the scariest thing of all.

From H. P. Lovecraft to Alien, the incomprehensible retains that fear. These works aren’t just scary for the characters, they wrong-foot the reader by breaking conventions. Ridley Scott’s aliens aren’t out on a full-frontal assault, but lurk in the shadows. Lovecraft’s monstrosities are terrible because they aren’t at war with humanity, they barely even notice us, and so they displace us from the centre of the story. We’re used to reading stories where humans fail, where they’re crushed by cruel fate. It’s downright disturbing to read one where we simply don’t matter.

And yet...isn’t that the allure? The urge to transgress, to go outside the circle of light and brave the world ourselves. There is a thrill in danger, and of course, in the unreal, the danger can be all the more powerful for being unexpected.

Take vampires. And no, not the sparkly ones. The original modern vampire, Lord Ruthven from The Vampyre by John Polidori, was effective precisely because, 200 years ago, vampire legends were not familiar. The introduction warned that there would be blood, and there was, but Ruthven’s magnetism, his glamour, was much harder to explain.

“Those who felt this sensation of awe, could not explain whence it arose: some attributed it to the dead grey eye which, fixing upon the object’s face, did not seem to penetrate...but fell upon the cheek with a leaden ray that weighed upon the skin it could not pass. His peculiarities caused him to be invited to every house; all wished to see him”

Which just goes to show that his aristocratic hosts really were asking for it. This man is clearly, deeply wrong, but just like the reader, they find that fascinating.

After many years evolving into “friendly neighbourhood vampires,” these corpses have lost a lot of what made Lord Ruthven so chilling. Perhaps that is why the focus has shifted from the human to the vampire as protagonist. Now, something like the comedy/horror show Being Human can use our casual knowledge of the vampire legends to its advantage. A sophisticated modern audience can accept the strange premise of a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost living in a flat-share in Bristol, U.K., with barely a second thought, leaving the show free to plunge into one of its darker themes: the horror of being the monster.

Mitchell, the vampire, tries to reform, but like any addict, he is often forced by his demonic hunger to commit horrible, brutal acts, tapping in to our fears of our own minds turning against us. Oh, and when I say brutal, I really mean it—the body horror aspect of rampaging vampires really does seem to have become more explicit in recent times, possibly in reaction against their sparkly brethren. When Christopher Lee’s film portrayal of Dracula first came out in the U.K., it was rated as an X certificate, strictly suitable for adults only. On its reissue? A PG. Same film, different market.

In fiction that retains a link to the real world, evil has to be defeated. The demon doesn’t conquer the country, balance is restored. But fantastic horror’s greatest advantage subverts that—we don’t need the world to stay the way it is. Nothing is safe, nothing can be relied on. When horrible tentacled things burst from the sea, that’s it. The world is doomed.

Unless, of course, you are reading something like Neil Gaiman’s brilliant A Study in Emerald, set after what would have been the end—in a Victorian Britain ruled by eldritch horrors. Or indeed, unless you are watching Being Human, where the vampire goes back to living with his friends, putting the trail of carnage behind him and cracking jokes about the ghost’s obsession with making tea. Which I think may be why I love Being Human, that it manages to be full of shocks... and laughs.

Because fear relies on mystery, and in the end, anything can become familiar. Once the scares have died away, there is something ridiculous about those ghouls and ghosts. And then we can bring out our best weapon against the forces of the night. We can laugh at them.

But that’s a story for next time.

Read the rest of the Unreal series here.


David Whitley is British, which naturally makes him a sinister villain, ready to spread tea-and-crumpet themed darkness across an unsuspecting world. In the meantime, he is the author of The Midnight Charter and its sequel, The Children of the Lost, which is out in the U.S. on January 18th.

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