The Fear In Fiction

There are certain types of fiction that I automatically avoid – not out of a sense of morality or even preference, but because I know myself enough to know what will affect me. What will affect me in such a way as to leave me lying awake at night hiding my face under the covers and startling at my laundry basket, that with my glasses off, looks like a hunched-over figure in the dark.

So, I will probably never read most of Stephen King’s novels and I will never willingly see any movie within the Saw franchise. I once watched Friday the Thirteenth, the remake, but only because Jared Padalecki was in it. I once accidentally watched a movie within the Alien saga because I was under the impression that it was an adventurous sci-fi (Prometheus).

I’ve read books that I enjoyed that I will never, ever, ever read again. Christopher Buehlman’s Those Across the River was a lyrically written exploration of the werewolf myth in some of the most disturbing ways possible. I wasn’t quite prepared for it to be so graphic.

By now you should see a pattern – when it comes to horror, most of my forays into the genre have been accidental. None, however, have frightened me like the podcast Tanis, a podcast I began after listening to a podcast from the same creators, Rabbits.

Rabbits had its creepy moments, but it was mostly about a real-world game with some alternate dimension, secret government organizations, time travel sort of vibe. It was wild, in some ways, and there were definitely some tense moments, but it was a fun, fascinating mystery that didn’t veer too far into the horror genre.

Tanis started off kind of like that, with less of an 80’s retro game/ sci-fi vibe and more of an ancient-mystery-city-person-thing with some real-world connections to odd disturbing mysteries, people, and events. Then came the existential horror, the creepy figures in dark, dense forests, with references to extremely disturbing real-world events, including massacres, kidnappings and imprisonments, missing children, abandoned towns, and strange deaths. All of these topics did not come up all at once but slowly built up over time. Imagine all of this with edited, surround sound effects.

Tanis, or the creators of Tanis, were not trying to be coy about the horror aspect. It just snuck up on me, and before I knew it I was lying in bed, straining my ears at this strange rustling sound, before realizing it was the sound of the ice melting in the water bottle on my nightstand. I kept seeing faces in the trees.

It’s been a while since I was that frightened. Fifteen? Sixteen? I went through a phase up into my late teens where I was afraid of the dark (although I would always say, it wasn’t the dark, but what was in the dark). I haven’t felt that level of visceral fear since then.

I haven’t finished Tanis. If you like that sort of thing, I highly recommend it, it’s incredibly well done. But I had to stop.

This got me thinking of other types of fiction I avoid. Family dramas pertaining to abuse, or even just drama in general. Stories where a sexual assault or something like it is the main focus or plays a large part. Sometimes it’s just stories that I know will annoy me, like rom-coms that rely on the miscommunication trope. Most WWI or WWII stories, actually most war stories in general, unless they are more war adjacent. Even stories that are heavy on sex. All of these, in one way or another, affect me in negative ways, so I tend to steer clear.

What is it about fiction that it can enter our heads so easily? What is it in a story that can weave into our memories and emotions in such a way it can keep us lying awake at night, or make us excited, or make us cry, laugh, sometimes even scream?

I, a grown adult, was frightened into hiding under my covers for a few nights because of a fictional docu-drama podcast. I am not the only one who has hidden under the covers after experiencing a scary story, whether it was in novel form, a movie, or a podcast. Fear is a powerful emotion, and of all the emotions that stories can stir up, fear is not the one I personally want to indulge in.

For me, if I ask myself why Tanis scared me so badly, I would say that sometimes my imagination is more ready to believe in something than I am. And my imagination is very creative and active. And sometimes, apparently, out of control. So in turn, I don’t feed it fear.

What about you? What genres or types of stories do you avoid because of their effect on you? Do you know why? If not, would explore the reason why?

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