Fear. It’s an instinct that appears to have changed little since we first emerged from our caves, or indeed since we first climbed down from the trees. It’s necessary for our survival, of course – it alerts us to danger and prepares us to either fight or run like hell – and yet it also paralyzes us and prevents us living as well and happily as we otherwise might. Self-help gurus urge us to channel our fears, to make them work for us, which may be good advice – but it’s also irritatingly hard to follow.
As both a horror fan and a writer who naturally gravitates toward the horror genre – albeit of the psychological, rather than the splatter, variety – fear is a source of endless fascination to me. There are plenty of things that we fear with very good reason, such as heights, contamination, disease and, of course, the granddaddy of them all, the Grim Reaper himself. Yet other, more benign, things frighten us too: spiders, insects, clowns, birds. I once knew someone, bless her heart, who had a morbid dread of bubble wrap. Heck, something doesn’t even have to be real to scare the living daylights out of us. Ghosts, monsters, demons … most people would say that they don’t exist, but they plague us nonetheless. Why?
In my Victorian ghost story The Quickening, my protagonist Lawrence Fairweather grapples with this very question. Fairweather is a rationalist, a botanist, and a Darwinian, and yet this framework of beliefs proves inadequate when weird stuff starts happening in his house. His friend, a doctor, gives his own take on the matter:
“Think about it in evolutionary terms, if you will … Our ancestors were surrounded by all kinds of dangers: wild animals, hostile tribes, natural forces they couldn’t even understand, still less circumvent. They had to be alert for every sign of peril; those who were not probably died sooner, and in time perhaps died out altogether. In their circumstances it was far better to be hyper-perceptive than not perceptive enough. If they sensed something and were mistaken, it cost them nothing. If they sensed nothing and were mistaken, it could cost them their lives. Now allow millennia to pass, let generation after generation develop in such a way, and eventually you arrive at us. Our world is somewhat safer, of course, but we still see peril in everything. We see things that aren’t there; we hear things that have no physical source; we perceive things that are not real. Our senses are zealous in seeking out any and all possible threats.”
It’s a pretty sound theory, I think (I speak as someone whose biological and evolutionary knowledge was largely gained in school lessons years ago, so set me straight if you will). I’ve heard another theory that interests me too, specifically with regard to the haunted house, which goes something like this: imagine one of our ancestors trudging through a cold and barren land one night. He suddenly comes across a cave. This could be a godsend, a place of refuge and warmth. It could also be a deathtrap: there might be wolves in there, or a hibernating bear, or another human who might not be too keen on company. Does he go and try to explore the cave, or not? If he does, he’ll almost certainly go carefully and quietly, trying to make out shapes in the darkness, listening for every sound, his senses alert for every movement. Perhaps we carry this experience with us as a kind of race memory, and it awakens inside us when we step into that lonely, eerily quiet old house, not knowing what lurks within…
The fear might be especially intense if you’re alone, without the comforting presence of your fellow beings (there is, after all, safety in numbers). “Alone,” Stephen King mused in ‘Salem’s Lot. “Yes, that’s the key word, the most awful word in the English language.” Or is it? After all, the whole point of the novel was that the good – and not-so-good – people of ‘Salem’s Lot were really not alone at all. A terrifying evil had come to their town, and was stalking them in the shadows, watching and waiting … I wonder if this is actually what frightens us most about being alone – the possibility that there might actually be someone or something there, seeing us but unseen by us.
During the Christmas holidays I went to Wales. One of the places I visited was a lake – a reservoir, actually, a sort of drowned valley (and what might lie, hidden and lost, beneath those waters?). In summer it is apparently a haven for walkers and windsurfers. In winter, it’s lonely, slightly eerie. The day of my visit was cold, damp and misty. Since I quite like lonely places and gloomy weather, none of this disturbed me unduly.
But, a voice in my head whispered, what if you were here as darkness fell? What if you were alone? And – more to the point – what if you weren’t really alone after all? What if unseen eyes were watching you?
It’s the premise of many a cheesy horror flick, of course, but it remains genuinely horrific. Many of us tend to be afraid of ghosts and monsters even if we don’t believe in them. We’re afraid, with rather more reason, of the human monsters, the murderers and psychopaths. Most of us, at least in modern Britain, tend to be rather unsuited to survival or self-defence. We are sedentary, lazy, overfed, and – worst of all, perhaps – complacent. We cannot, legally speaking at least, carry a firearm. In the event of a genuine threat, and barring the sudden discovery of previously-untapped seams of courage, resourcefulness or strength, we’d be mincemeat (possibly literally, in the case of that old horror favourite, the axe- or chainsaw-wielding maniac).
It’s a frightening thought, but sometimes the frightening thoughts are the very ones you can’t get out of your head. My mind keeps on returning to that grey lake, the drifting mist, the silence, the shadows deepening as the day nears its end…
Could this be the beginning of a story?