14 March, 2011

Fear and Loathing

I'm just going to throw this out there, because I'm stymied: what scares you?

Not in general, in books, I mean.  You see, I'm trying to ensure that my main antagonist, Sha'daal, isn't just some cheesy, generic Big Bad whose soul purpose is to provide a force for the heroes to overcome.  I know Sha'daal's not just that.  There are aspects to that character I can't bring out until later in the series.  In their stead, I have to ensure that when Sha'daal appears, when he's even just mentioned, people freak out.  Or at least break out in a cold sweat.

And this is difficult because we're not talking a human character.  I could create a terrifying human and make him believable.  Probably.  But when it comes to something inhuman, something far beyond human, I'm stymied.  I'm just not afraid of most of the templates.  Satan?  Yawn.  Most everything that's ever appeared in fiction or literature has done nasty things, but never struck terror into my heart.  And when I tried to analyze the things that terrify me, I came to a realization that I'm just not that scared.  Worried sometimes, yeah.  But not shitting myself with fear. 

Forces of nature don't terrify me.  I'm sure I'd be shit-scared in the midst of, oh, say, a volcanic eruption or a megathrust earthquake or watching a tsunami bear down, but it's not like I lie awake nights shivering in terror of them.  They happen, we'll deal or we won't.  I'd survive or I wouldn't.  If I die, I won't care, now, will I?  Dead people don't care.  If I survive, then I've got a job o' work to do putting the pieces back together.  And it's impersonal.  It doesn't mean me, specifically, any harm.  It's just the kind of thing that happens on a geologically active planet.  So I can't draw on the fear of forces of nature.  Haven't got enough.

People don't even scare me that much.  Not after what I've been through in life.  Dictators can be defied (should we ever get one in America, pencil me in for the revolution).  Violent people can be avoided or stopped, and if they can't, I'm either dead (in which case, see "don't care" above) or I've survived (see "job o' work" above).  People concern me a bit more than nature, but only a bit more.  I try to mine myself for terror there and can't find a motherlode.  And it's no good for Sha'daal, anyway.  He has a mind, and a form, but he's not human.  He's not even mortal.

Then I tried going back through books and television and movies, and came up empty.  Everything everyone's ever thrust at me saying, "This will scare you to death!" hasn't.  I watched The Ring and never twitched.  Got bored, actually.  Horror novels make me yawn.  I've not yet encountered one with the power to keep me up past my bedtime.  Certainly haven't given me nightmares.  Hell, I've watched "Blink" twice now, a Doctor Who episode that has one friend of a friend so terrified of stone angels that she screams every time she sees them, and that all of my friends hold up as the scary episode par excellence, and all I got was a brief but delicious case of the creeps.  Next time I see a stone weeping angel, I'll probably thump it and say, "I've got your number, you barstard."  But I won't flee it.

All of this is a long way of saying that soul-deep, gut-wrenching, nightmare-inducing terror is a hard thing for me to achieve.  So I need you lot.  If there's something in a book or show or movie that's terrified you, I'd like to know about it.  Who are your favorite Big Bads?  Who or what genuinely worried you, do you loathe, do you simultaneously love and hate the author for creating?

Temple Grandin once said she feels like an anthropologist on Mars trying to figure people out.  I'm feeling the same way trying to figure out what will truly make Sha'daal a force to be feared.  So thanks for guiding me through, my darlings.  I've never needed you more than now.


Suzanne said...

earthquakes. especially earthquakes when i'm inside a building. i've been through enough of them that when i feel a rumble i wonder if its a quake or just a large truck going by and my heart races and i have a major fight or flight reaction.... heavy on the flight side.

i was outside during the 89 loma prieta / san francisco world series quake standing in the pd parking lot and it was a very different experience than being inside a building listening to it creak and groan, things rattling before crashing to the floor and freaking out over what else was going to come down -- potentially on me. outside the quake was more like riding a wave and eerily quiet as i watched the lights swinging inside the pd until car alarms and such started to go off.

no warning with quakes. most other natural disasters have some heads up time to get to shelter or high ground.

Cujo359 said...

Earthquakes are certainly scary, especially if I'm trapped in some place with a bunch of panicky people, or it's dark and I can't remember the way out.

Maybe the scariest thing I remember reading about, though, was The Lions Of Tsavo, the story of some man-eating lions that devoured a large group of railroad workers in Africa. The people had about the best group of skills you could hope for - many of the British were ex-soldiers, some were hunters and many were engineers. Many of the African laborers knew the area well and were clever about using the local plants and materials for constructing barriers. Yet two lions killed more than a hundred of them.

I suppose if there's any link between those two things, it's being utterly helpless in the face of something that can kill you.

castlewon said...

anxiety attack...afraid to look in the mirror...my face changing into something my own dog would back away from, bark

Chris said...

This is a tough question, actually. First, I asked myself which fictional villain scared me the most, and Baron Harkonnen of "Dune" came to mind. Then I realized this character didn't as much scare as disgust me.

But that got me to thinking about what just about all villains do - which is kill people - and that the worst of them are those who, like Baron Harkonnen, kill people in the most unpleasant ways.

Which led me to the conclusion that most people aren't so much afraid of death as they are the discomfort of dying. If everyone had a little button they could push to painlessly end their lives, I'm afraid just about all of us have encountered situations where pushing that button would be almost irresistable.

And THAT thought led me to remember the absolute scariest fictional villian I've ever encountered. This was John Cave, of Gore Vidal's disturbing "Messiah", who founded a religion based on the idea that death was preferable to life. And, who was so hypnotic and compelling that he actually talked millions into doing away with themselves. The plot of that book may sound a little hard to believe, but in Gore Vidal's hands it had an eerie sense of plausibility.

And prescience, too. The novel predated Jonestown by almost 50 years...

Anonymous said...

To me one of the scariest things is to have the character be able to read your mind and then use what you are most afraid of against you. Everyone has different things that make them scarred. Because of WWII my dad couldn't stand to hear large 'pop's' like a balloon popping (or more especially a gun going off)-it would set him off into a panic attack, therefore we couldn't have balloons in the house. My grandmother couldn't stand thunderstorms, others are afraid of snakes or rats (like in the movie Willard). If this villain could read and then project these fears that cause anxiety attacks into others minds then he could control them. I think people would truly fear him and would try to do everything they could to stay on his good side.
I guess this idea kinda came to me when I was in high school(40 yrs ago) and I think I read about it in the Martian Chronicles.

Dan McShane said...

People standing near steep drop offs. And if kids are involved I can not contain a feeling of panic. I have dreams about it. I have had these dreams for as long I remember. Catcher In the Rye dreams - catching kids in a tall field of grass before they run off a cliff.
If I dream about this tonight, I am will blame you and your question.

Kev said...

Roger that on natural forces... but I've always enjoyed John Carpenter's "The Thing" as creepy goodness fit for watching in the dark on a windy night...heh.

bzyglowi said...

Goddammit. Blogger ate my post. D<

Okay. Things that scared me- HAL was the only book character I was really afraid of. GlaDOS gets an honorable mention.

People are afraid of what they don't understand, and dispassionate evil can be very scary. Ruthless efficiency- someone doing awful, horrific things with no emotional attachment.

If the villain is an alien, I think you could set up terror if he does awful things and people just don't understand what the reasons behind it are. If they don't know when or where he'll strike next, that's even more terrifying. It makes people powerless and paranoid and that's not a feeling anyone enjoys.

george.w said...

I guess I'm more afraid of bad humans than anything else. And included in "bad" I mean the criminally negligent, the denialist, the one who causes an end of us, and including his protectors.