BOO! Scared you, right? Okay, maybe not. But it’s Halloween and there are a lot of scary things in this world. And we’re not even talking about politics. Ever wonder what scares the Maine Crime Writers? Let’s find out.
MAUREEN MILLIKEN: One of my favorite song lyrics is from Elvis Costello’s “Accidents Will Happen”: It’s the damage that we do and never know/it’s the words that we don’t say that scare me so. Aside from what that says about my approach to the world around me, it’s also a good summation of what scares me in books and movies. Gore? Guts? Car chases? Blood? Meh. The scariest movie I’ve ever seen is “The Exorcist.” Aside from all the implications forged by my very scary Catholic school education, the fact that you don’t see the evil, only its manifestation, is what makes it so terrifying.
Another movie that scared the hell out of me had that effect because of one scene: “Silence of the Lambs,” the scene in which Clarice is in Buffalo Bill’s house, he turns out the lights, and we see it from his point of view through night-vision goggles. It’s so much scarier than any trite 1970s-80s slasher movie (No, don’t open the closet door! No! She did! SCREAM! Oh, it’s only her buddy… No, don’t open the next closet door! SCREAM! etc.).
As a writer, I find it difficult to write a scary or suspenseful scene. It’s because I (theoretically) know what’s going to happen. Or at least I control the outcome. But I have faith in the writing process. Another Elvis Costello line? “Imagination is a powerful deceiver.” It’s also a powerful informer when it comes to fiction. One of my writing philosophies I think comes from my response to scary movies — less is more. The unseen is what sparks a reader’s imagination.
The cover art of the first two books in my Bernie O’Dea mystery series have photos that the publisher and I hope evoke the feeling that something bad is going to happen. For the second book, No News is Bad News, we agreed that a photo of a shadow of a man with a gun — a hunter? Or something else? — would trip people’s imaginations more than showing an actual gun or person. My books don’t have classically “scary” scenes, but do have ones I hope are suspenseful enough to give readers a case of the willies. At least the first two. We’ll see what happens in the third, which I’m writing now. In all my scenes, not just the suspenseful ones, I try to let readers’ imaginations take over by not over-describing, but providing enough information and using the right words in the right way to allow readers to form their own pictures. I often say that a reader’s imagination is much more powerful than my words. My words, if done right, are what sparks that imagination and allows it to fill out the scene.
So I guess the scariest thing of all? What’s in our own heads just waiting to come out.
Lea Wait: Definitely what’s in our heads! I have (and have always had) strange, and often scary, nightmares. Have even included a couple in my protagonists’ heads. But, on a practical basis, what am I scared of? Centipedes. Millipedes. Yuck! A few times in my life I’ve had to deal with enormous creatures of these varieties, and it wasn’t fun, even though I was victorious. I’m also scared of mobs. Of large angry dogs. Of heights. Of “amusement center” rides that involve buckling yourself in and then being dropped from heights, careened through the air, or in any other way leaving yourself at the mercy of others.
Which may be my biggest fear. Losing control of myself … or dealing with people who have no self control, or who take their anger out on others.. Fear and anger are close to synonyms in my world. Interesting to think about.
Kate Flora: I blame the cops. Yup. I used to live in such a safe and blissful bubble. But now, having spent the past twelve years writing books about real crimes with cops, I see the world differently. Then there were those classes–the citizen’s police academy and my RAD self-defense class. There’s nothing like tuning up your awareness to infuse the world with danger. Where I might once have crossed a dark parking lot thinking about where I’d just come from, now I see the shadows and check around my car. I walk with my keys woven between my fingers. I jump in quickly and lock the door. I listen for the sounds of someone breathing. When I walk down mostly empty streets, I listen to the footsteps around me. If I can, I use store windows as mirrors to see who is around me. If I am home alone, the creaking of the old house is ominous. There is always someone outside and I am too well aware of the possibilities of someone slipping into the garage as I am turning off the car and gathering my things to go inside. What scares me? The possibilities of a perfectly normal day suddenly turning dangerous. My own imagination.
Jen Blood. Bats, man. No, not Batman. Bats. I used to be a lot more terrified of them than I am now – when I was younger, the first sight of those fuzzy winged beasts would send me cowering to the floor. One night when I was home alone with my mom, one got in and I recall being on all fours on the floor, a pot on my head (they nest in your hair, you know! And suck your blood. And turn you into face-melting monsters), waving a broom around in a vain effort to shoo it out the open front door. All the while convinced it would call all its face-melting buddies, and the house would be swarmed.
On another occasion, I went to see The Blair Witch Project with a friend in Portland, then returned that night to the empty log cabin I was housesitting in South Thomaston. Not a stellar plan. I woke up in the middle of the night and the power was out. Of course, I was convinced it was the Blair Witch (and yes, I was an adult). I grabbed my contact lenses and my dog Moonshadow, and locked us in the pickup truck while I put my contacts in. Then headed back to my mom’s place in the next town. The only problem was that the power outage spanned a couple of towns, and I just remember driving along 131 and then Route 1 seeing no lights…anywhere. And half laughing at myself, half dreading that it might be true, thinking that the Blair Witch had come and taken out the whole damned Midcoast.
I have lots of stories like that. The night I went to see Pet Semetary with my teen BFF Nicole, I came home and refused to let our big black cat Kammi sleep inside — which I still feel bad about. While housesitting for another woman whose apartment I found sort of terrifying, I took every single painting off the walls and stowed them in the back bedroom until she came home, because it seemed entirely probable that one of those creepy-ass paintings would come to life and murder me in my sleep.
Nowadays, I don’t watch scary movies. I genuinely like bats, thanks to that children’s book Stellaluna. It seems that as I’ve gotten older, those fantasy frights have lost their teeth, and it’s the real stuff that gives me nightmares: death, taxes, the bad things that happen to good people on a daily basis. I still secretly harbor the belief that those old paintings could come to life in the night, though. I’m not ready to give that one up yet.
Bruce Robert Coffin: What scares me? Trying to top the list of fears preceding mine! No, in all seriousness I love a good horror story. Doesn’t matter what type really. Haunted houses, demonic possessions, crazed killers, they all work for me. And in all honesty the format in which it’s told doesn’t matter as long as it’s done well. Novels, movies, even audio can be effective mediums for scaring the hell out of me. I can still remember sitting around the phonograph, huddled together with my friends, at Dunstan School Library listening to the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery LPs.
I can happily say I’ve never outgrown this love of scaring myself. I still love watching a horror movie at night, alone. Nothing better. Those things don’t scare you? Really? Try watching the Exorcist right before bed tonight without thinking about what might be lying in wait under under yours… Sweet dreams.