Scary But Not Too Scary
Human beings love being scared. Ok, not all human beings. I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who would happily go through their lives without even the slightest frisson of nerves to add interest to their day. And most people don’t really want to really be scared: we don’t enjoy literally fearing for our lives. But when the danger isn’t real, and we know we’re safe, we love to be scared. We flock to fairgrounds to pile into rollercoasters and scream our way happily around the tracks. We creep through haunted houses, laughing at the various attempts to scare us until something, unexpectedly, really does, then we laugh all the more at how frightened we briefly were. We revel in films full of fear, flinching at the jump-scares; clinging to chair arms or cushions as the tension rises; hiding our eyes when it all becomes too much, only to squeeze them open again at, inevitably, the worst possible moment. Or we do the same thing with books: slamming them shut when the terror becomes unbearable, but knowing all the time that we’re going to have to open them again and pick up exactly where we left off. Maybe it’s the adrenaline rush we love, or maybe it’s something else. We seem to enjoy the idea of things being scary even when we aren’t really scared. A thrilling horror film can be fun, but so can a badly made one with every twist signalled from a mile away and the monster gurning horribly at the camera. We love to shout at the people on the screen as they do everything wrong and end up, of course, running straight into the arms of whatever badly hidden menace they were trying to avoid.
Or if that palls we can always root for the villain: I’ve spent who knows how many hours offering sarcastic advice to one vampire or another as “Yes, that’s right, we’re luring him into the room with the ten foot windows, that won’t go horribly wrong at all. It’s not as though sunrise is right around the corner or anything, is it?” And then, naturally, the sun does come up and the hero gets to have his bravely determined face bathed in golden light as he watches Count Watsit look so surprised to be suddenly disintegrating into a cinematographically pleasing swirl of dust.
Maybe we just want to test ourselves. Maybe the thrilling rollercoasters and the jump scares and the predictable plots are all, like children playing What’s The Time Mr Wolf or Grandmother’s Footsteps, some sort of evolutionary holdover from a time when we had to be able look fear in the face, to know when to run and when to hide, to predict the actions of a predator or, in our turn, to out-think and outpace our prey. Perhaps it’s all just a human equivalent of young badgers wrestling, or a kitten chasing a string. Or perhaps not. I doubt anyone learns anything very useful from re-reading a classic horror comic or watching a Twilight Zone episode for the fourteenth time, after all, no matter how clever the twist was on first viewing. And no one ever expects, or even wants to be frightened by the likes of The Nightmare Before Christmas, yet we love it for the trappings of fear, without the emotion. Maybe we just love the idea of fear, of scaring and being scared, of braving untold horrors and emerging at the end, safe and sound, unscathed by all we saw and heard. Or maybe it can’t be analysed: maybe there’s no logic behind it all, no single simple reason that humans love to be scared. Maybe we just do.
Maybe scary - but not too scary - is just fun. P.S. If you want a scary-but-not-too-scary (or not really scary at all but very funny) book to read this Halloween, then The Vicar Man will be on sale on Kindle for only ninety nine pence, from the twenty seventh of October until the first of November. It’s pretty good, if you like that sort of thing.