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Fear and Fiction

A Look Into What Constitutes the Fear of the Unknown

By Ellen HowellPublished 5 years ago 8 min read
Top Story - August 2019

When we discuss horror in literature, there are several things to keep in mind. What are the cultural currents of the time? What is its era? What characterizes the fear which might be felt by those special few who vie for terror? It is with the mind towards these questions that we should look at horror, viewing it with the strong views that Lovecraft did. He attached horror to several themes present within his own time—in particular eugenics, quantum mechanics, and theosophy. These different themes influenced the way he viewed horror and the way his society would receive his horror. The difficulty of modern times is analyzing how horror should go forwards. We have seen the H. P. Lovecrafts, and Edgar Allan Poes, and Stephen Kings.

How should we continue to contribute to the genre of horror?

Lovecraft said this in his Supernatural Horror in Literature: "The oldest and most powerful emotion is fear, and the oldest and most powerful fear is the fear of the unknown." I concur with this sentiment. I have discussed literary horror with several individuals who said that they don't fear the supernatural nor mental disintegration, nor the mundane. In other words, they fear nothing. They do not fear anything natural or unnatural, because the former they are "thoroughly familiar with" and the latter they "know does not exist." They clearly have no head for horror.

The problem of this type of reader is that this particular type of reader does not adequately invest themselves for psychological terror to have any effect; they create a separation between themselves and the characters which is insurmountable. Perhaps they are unwilling to invest themselves within the stories they read, refuse to take in the full implications of what they observe within the story, or simply are inattentive in their readings. Another reason they may be incapable of investing themselves could be that they have read nothing which warrants emotional or personal investment in either the story or its characters.

When this type of reader encounters the inexplicable, they unimaginatively dismiss anything which may occur outside of the realms of their small understandings. This difficulty is with the reader and not necessarily the author, although the adequate author will force the reader to invest their time in interpreting the story or else simply stop reading. The unimaginative reader stops when they arrive at something which their worldview cannot explain, and state then that there is nothing to fear—they are incapable of explaining this and thus it does not exist. This ignorance is perhaps the reason why they disagree that the fear of the unknown is significant; there is nothing to fear in what is not known because it cannot be known. Because it cannot be known, there is no reason for them to even consider the reality that it might exist, that there is something beyond their measly and insufficient explanatory structure.

This reader is also insufficient for horror because although they proclaim not to fear the unknown, they also proclaim not to fear the known. I have heard some of these types of readers (and authors) proclaim that the oldest fear is the fear of predation, of the things that lurk beyond the circle of the campfires of ancient humans, and which growl and threaten to eat them. They take, ironically, an eugenical view of fear, that it is heritable and passed down by evolutionary biological traits. They believe that because fear is hereditary, there is no reason for their own fear to be different from the fears of another generation; they treat fear and objects of fear as universal, as opposed to changing and differential. This reflects a worldview in which all things and objects of fear must be derivate from things that previous generations feared. This, of course, is nonsensical. Fear, as all things, is dependent upon the situation that one socially inhabits. When does the wealthy man fear not to pay bills? When do the destitute fear that they will be destitute? They exist in the state of destitution, and thus do not fear it. I don't fear destitution; I fear other people. Because of my status as a transgender woman, I am myself an object of fear for many because I represent something which their worldview cannot explain.

I have watched people confronted with something they never considered, never thought could exist, and I am living proof that the fear of the unknown exists. I represent, to conservative individuals and Christians, the unknown, the vast potential that their worldview cannot explain, and as such, I force the reconsideration of an entire perspective, an entire reality. It is because they have a limited perspective given their social position that I am an object inspiring terror and disgust within them. To those who believe other fears are greater than the fear of the unknown, I welcome you to don clothing of the alternate gender, and watch as people look at you without comprehension, without the capability to understand you and how or why you exist. It is an experience inspiring fear in both the observer and the observed.

This does seem to indicate that the fear of the unknown, that fear that your entire world could be somehow incorrect is among the strongest human fears. This fear demonstrates a particularly postmodern concept, the thought that any reality we humans conceived is fundamentally flawed. It is because of this vast and overwhelming fear that what is real is not real and that what we perceive to be real is only something we constructed, which was made to make sense of something nonsensical, that there is terror in the unknown. There are several implications to this fear; the first is that humans are fundamentally unsuited to perceiving reality. The second is that humans, although naturally occurring and a result of natural processes, are not meant to exist; no creator made us in order to exist here because of the first implication, that we cannot possibly observe true reality. The latter is implicit if we are to take for granted that humans have a reason to exist.

This means that not only is nothing responsible for our existence (unless this creator themselves were similarly unsuited to exist), but that our existence must have been an accident. There is no purpose to humanity, then, if we are thrown up by a force acting as it is supposed to, and we cannot understand the force which conceived of us. Our minds are incapable of knowledge. We are incapable of knowledge.

If we take the postmodern assumption that all knowledge and reality is socially constructed, we should constantly be in a state of fear. Then the goal of horror fiction, must be to point out the fact that nothing we understand can be individual, and that the individual is an imperfect conduit through which reality must flow. To live in society, we must accept the reality which that society enforces constantly, and therefore, all we interpret is meaningless, is not real—society tells us that we cannot be experiencing reality. Terror exists in what is between reality and the things which are "not reality." It exists, then, between what the "normal" person terms "abnormal," whether that be mental illness, dreams, and that blurred line of reality or not. The goal of horror is to achieve the reaction that this is not normal, that nothing is normal, that normality cannot and should not be achieved, because normality is itself abnormal.

With these assumptions, people gain knowledge, and experience reality differently. Our goal should be to display reality in such a way that makes us constantly doubt the reality which the narrator experiences. Because of this, I believe there is much more horror in the told experiences of the first person narrator; it allows a much more in depth view at the psychology of the individual who tells the story. Some authors consider first person to be unsuitable to tell stories simply because of its implausibility. However, the goal of horror is plausible implausibility, and thus we must use first person to ensure that nothing is believable, because the reader is already supposed to doubt the narrator.

The most terrifying stories, then, involve the disintegration of the consciousness and fragmentation of the reality of the narrator, as these mark the known as unknown, the unknown as known. There is no capability of knowing what is and is not happening. Under no circumstances should the reader be aware as to whether the events occurring are events that actually happened. In my opinion, it is best to leave the reader in a state of disorientation concerning what is and is not real, what is dream and what is waking, and what is hallucination and what is not. Because of this ambiguity, the reader is left to do some of the work of interpreting the writing, and with some able detective work should be able at some point to decipher what happened. If the reader does no work, there is no way to invest them within the story except for the style in which it is written. The best horror stories are puzzles, which in each installment or chapter or piece give evidence as to what is actually happening, or what could be happening, and allows the reader to draw their own conclusions about what actually did occur.

With this, I believe that most horror movies, especially those from the slasher era and some earlier B-rated movies do not qualify as "horror," as I understand it. I understand horror as a conflict between reality and fiction, reality and reality, and fiction and fiction. The Haunting of Hill House, in particular, left me blown away in this respect; what is real and what is not real merges, where neither the supernatural nor the psychological theories explain the whole scenario. Movies like Friday the Thirteenth and some of the Freddie Krueger movies didn't exactly move me to fear except to that cheap type of fear which arises from surprise and fades quickly. I have found much more longevity in the fear found in both the series and the book The Haunting of Hill House. The best horror is probably the horror that we put together within ourselves in response to the events that happen in books, not the content, but the implications of the content. It is deep and considered, not shallow and momentary.


About the Creator

Ellen Howell

A woman living in St. Louis and going to school for part of the year in Kirksville, MO. I write about horror and horror stories.

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