The Power of Scary Stories
Why am I drawn to scary stories? Because they're hard to write well, and challenge is always attractive to me. But also because fear is primal. Fear is part of who we are (or at least part of who I am), and I'm interested, more and more, in how people respond to what terrifies them. Psychological terror intrigues me most. I'm less interested in blood on the page than I am in perceived danger that might or might not be true. What's hard to tell someone else about – or know whether to act on – because you can't prove it's real. My favorite example of such a narrative is the 1973 movie "Don't Look Now."
"Symbiosis," my first successful scary story, started out as blood-on-the-page horror. A story in which a father and daughter start having the same dreams – dreams in which the daughter is endangered or injured – and the dreams start coming true. In its early drafts, the terrifying thing played out literally at the end. And while the ending had a visceral physicality that made me happy (as a literary guy, I had to overcome the fear of being visceral), overall it left me disappointed. A couple drafts later, I realized why.
For me, the deeper terror lay in not articulating the outcome, but in leaving it just this side of realized, where the possibilities planted in the reader's imagination – wondering if/when they would happen – were the real terror. And fear, not the resolution of fear, was what I wanted to leave readers with. Because ultimately it's a story about parental fear – the moment where we realize we need to let our children go, into a world that will sometimes hurt them. We cannot always protect them. For that character, in that situation, the real terror is living with the fear.
A more recent scary story, “The Night Dentist,” had a different focus that required a different outcome. For this story – a flash fiction about a deeply disturbed character – what I wanted was to unnerve readers by giving them an experience of the way this man sees the world. Some of that is darkness directly expressed, but most of it is via juxtaposition of this man’s routine professional tasks with glimpses into his own twisted inner reality: “He dreams of fish scales. Electric fence games. To caress a cheek. A tender gum line.” The desired effect on the reader: I do not want this man’s hands in my mouth. Working on that story became therefore an effort to ramp up the reader’s aversion to this man, and then end the story by bringing him right into the reader’s face: “’Open wide,’ the night dentist says. ‘This won’t hurt a bit.’”
In both cases, it’s about leaving the reader at the place of deepest fear. In both cases, there is little or no blood on the page. There is palpable threat, and that sense of threat builds throughout the story. In both cases, the story stops with – figuratively speaking – the knife held in the air, about to come down. Because I want the reader to experience this fear. To have to sit with it and make some kind of peace.
What movies/books have scared you – real, deep fear you can't shake? Triumphs of psychological creepiness?
Ron MacLean is author of the story collections We Might as Well Light Something On Fire and Why the Long Face? and the novels Headlong and Blue Winnetka Skies. MacLean’s fiction has appeared widely in magazines including GQ, Narrative, Fiction International, and elsewhere. He is a recipient of the Frederick Exley Award for Short Fiction and a multiple Pushcart Prize nominee. He holds a Doctor of Arts from the University at Albany, SUNY, and has been a proud member of team Grub since 2004.See other articles by Ron MacLean