Be Afraid

We all live in fear. Some of us more than others, but we all have secret dreads lurking in the corners of our mind. Fear of growing old, or letting our children come to harm, or not making the grade, or perhaps a ghostly presence we sense late at night.

Look for the fears in your stories, and bring them to life in ways so we, too, feel that fear.

Fear can play a role in any kind of story, but it’s especially prominent in those stories with a touch of horror. A really scary story—one that scares Stephen King and Neil Gaiman—is Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House (now adapted into a TV series).
A doctor interested in the paranormal invites three people to spend some time with him in the reputedly haunted Hill House. Strange things happen, especially to a young woman named Eleanor. Late at night in her bedroom, this occurs:

It sounded, Eleanor thought, like a hollow noise, a hollow bang, as though something were hitting the doors with an iron kettle, or an iron bar, or an iron glove. It pounded regularly for a minute, and then suddenly more softly, and then again in a quick flurry, seeming to be going methodically from door to door at the end of the hall. Distantly she thought she could hear the voices of Luke and the doctor, calling from somewhere below, and she thought, Then they are not up here with us at all, and heard the iron crashing against what must have been a door very close. 

Moments later…

“You can’t get in,” Eleanor said wildly, and again there was a silence, as though the house listened with attention to her words, understanding, cynically agreeing, content to wait. A thin little giggle came, in a breath of air through the room, a little mad rising laugh, the smallest whisper of a laugh, and Eleanor heard it all up and down her back, a little gloating laugh moving past them around the house, and then she heard the doctor and Luke calling from the stairs and, mercifully, it was over. 

Are the strange things coming from the house or are they manifestations of Eleanor’s mind? We are never sure, but either way Eleanor is forced to face her deepest fear: loneliness. (Though married with four children, Shirley Jackson was haunted by a loneliness that likely inspired this novel.)

What do your characters most fear? What do you most fear? Do you dare to go there?

While we’re talking about creepy things, you can get a free Gotham class if you scare us best in our Frightening First Line Contest.

Alex Steele
President, Gotham Writers Workshop

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