I don't like Halloween. I don't like Halloween because Halloween is not scary.
I spend an inordinate amount of my time frightening, disturbing and creeping out your children. Figuring out ways to give your kids nightmares is sort of my thing. Did it with my wife in the ANIMORPHS series back in the 90's, been doing it since then with the GONE, BZRK and MESSENGER OF FEAR series - with just a few years off to create political ads in the States. (I know, that lowers me in my own estimation, too.) Anyway, by the immutable law of Hey, He Writes Books So He Must Be An Expert - a frequently-overlooked codicil to the Magna Carta - I can speak with Great Authority on the subject of fear.
What happens when someone yells boo! and you jump? That, "Ya ah ah ah!" thing? Is that fear? No, it's not, it's a startle response, a mere reflex. I know because I looked it up on Wikipedia right here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Startle_response. That's not fear. That Boo!Jump! thing lasts three, four seconds, tops, fifteen if you're one of those drama queen types and you decide to milk it.
Real fear is a parasite. Real fear doesn't jump out at you, it eats you from the inside, it subverts and undermines, it twists and deforms your perceptions and plays tricks with your memory. A startle doesn't do that. Startle is to fear what a cooling mist is to a department store blast of Bulgari. Startle is to fear what vitamin water is to Scotch. Startle is to fear what a date is to a marriage. (Note to self: different final example before publishing -- your wife may read, and misinterpret.) When I set out to scare your kids, I'm not looking to make them jump, I'm looking at a bare minimum for the cold chill up the spine and the irresistible urge to look behind you.
Did you just look behind you? Would you admit if you did? You want to look though, don't you?
That feeling that you'd really kind of like to look behind you, that's not fear either, but at least it's fear-adjacent. Boo!Jump! is just an overly-emphasized flinch, it's twitch-adjacent not fear-adjacent, totally different thing.
The spinal tingle is the minimum I'll accept from my readers and I look for more. Fear is a Pez dispenser, I think anyone who's read Kant (and no, I have not) knows that: flick off one fear and there's one right beneath it to slide up into the top spot. That's what I'm after: fear upon fear, accumulating fears that weaken and then finally break through your defenses. Doesn't matter which gummy, bridge-work-adhering, quasi-fruit flavor you're enjoying, it doesn't even matter which head is on the Pez dispenser, though I think we all know the whole Marvel Superheroes line is by far the best, have you seen their Thor?
That previous sentence? That's the kind of thing I might just edit if I were getting paid.
The point is, fear is a Thor Pez dispenser with an endless supply, fear upon fear, never running out because fear, real fear, isn't external, it's internal. You supply the fear. You brew it up yourself, like bile. You are the fear factory.
It starts with fear of death which is both the most pervasive and the dumbest of fears. Dumb first because you have to die, and second because you don't experience death, you experience illness and pain and feebleness and the long, slow descent toward death, but once you die it's all over. Look at the alternative. What if all that long, slow descent and the accompanying pain and embarrassment and feebleness and the rest didn't end in death? What if it just went on and on and on, getting worse and worse, like Downton Abbey, with Ladies Edith and Mary older and even less married with each passing season? Oh, you'd have a whole different attitude toward death then. You'd beg for death.
No, it's not about Boo!Jump! it's weakness and vulnerability that are scary, not death. Helplessness is scary. Loss of self-control is scary. Stephen King's The Shining isn't scary because of ghosts in a hotel, it's scary because Jack might murder his own son. That's something we can all identify, that urge to kill our . . . Oh, you don't ever feel that way? Right. Wait till your kids are in their teens and then get back to me with your smug moral superiority.
You know what scares me? Locked-in Syndrome. LIS is complete and total paralysis of every single voluntary muscle, sometimes excepting the eyes. No talking, no writing, no swallowing, no scratching, just a whole bunch of staring.
Locked In! (The straight-up horror version.) You're locked in and forced to watch helplessly as your wife is ravaged by Vikings. (Is fear of Viking raids still a thing in the UK, or is everyone over that?)
Locked In! (The gothic horror version.) New Orleans, 2005, you sit immobile while the water rises. Slowly, inch by inch, and now it's just beginning to spill over your paralyzed bottom lip. You can't even spit it out, but you can feel it filling your lungs, ounce by ounce, or milliliter by milliliter, I can't keep track of where you Brits are Imperial and where you're metric.
Locked In! (The comic horror version.) Locked in, facing a television showing a Honey Boo Boo marathon.
Locked In! (The torture porn version.) You're totally immobilized while a madman harvests your limbs and organs to build a replica of Lady Gaga's meat suit.
Locked In! (The Japanese game show horror version.) Wait, is that an iguana?
Helplessness, the inability to do anything to ameliorate your situation, that's the stuff. We homo sapiens are meant to be clever little mammals, forever figuring out how to avoid being eaten by tigers. OMG, there's a rare, endangered tiger! That's just a startle. OMG, there's a rare, endangered tiger and I read once they can be very fast! That's fear-adjacent. OMG, that rare, endangered tiger is attacking and he really is much faster than I am! That's fear, sure, but it's not the real hardcore fear yet because maybe there's a tree or a car you can get to. There still might be something you can do. But, OMG, the rare, endangered tiger has severed my spinal cord and he's eating me from the calves upward, that's fear. Mmm, yes, that lingers on the palette.
That's what I write for your children.
But don't worry, they don't scare as easily as you do. Don't believe me? Picture a person riding a skateboard down a set of stone steps with no protective gear with rushing traffic just ahead. Now: how old is that person? Exactly, they're fifteen. Your kids are hard to scare, they're immortal, they aren't even concerned that you secretly imagine killing them in a fit of unhinged rage. You on the other hand are going to spend the rest of the day worried about being Locked In! with a rare, endangered tiger and a Thor Pez dispenser.
Fright masks and loud noises? Pfff. Fear is the thing you think about at night as the paralysis of sleep slowly overtakes you. You're so very helpless when you sleep.
Did I mention that there's a species of mites called demodex, tiny spiders actually, that live in your eyelashes? But don't worry, the rare, endangered tiger will probably eat them, once he works his way up to your face.
Hey, you know what else isn't scary? Rollercoasters. Just a whole load of up, down, upside down and the occasional plunge into darkness. They're not scary, but I love rollercoasters. And Thorpe Park asked me to create a load of characters for their Fright Night attraction this year.
So I did what any self-respecting author would do: I asked a load of people to try and read my book on a rollercoaster. You can watch a video of it, here. There's a lot of Boo!Jump! going on.