Scaring the Desensitized by Alan Ryker

You remember when you were a kid, and scary movies and books actually scared you?

I do. I remember watching Night of the Living Dead in grade school and being terrified of the zombies, deeply disturbed by the violence, and really depressed by the ending in which the protagonist survives the long night only to be killed by the authorities, which ironically was also the bullet in the head of a horse which—upon death—would be flogged for decades after as zombie movie after zombie move revealed that whatever the external threat, in the end, we are our own worst enemies (the preceding sentence has been a spoiler. If you haven’t watched Night of the Living Dead, you shouldn’t have read it).

I remember reading Stephen King’s It when I was ten and needing to sleep with the lights on as I worked through that enormous book, and then for awhile after. Ten year olds probably shouldn’t go without sleep for six months. I wonder if that caused any lasting repercussions…

As a horror fan, I can only think longingly of that past sensitivity, now considering a horror flick a rare success if it inspires a single golden moment of the memory of that childhood fear, and reading dark fiction for other reasons altogether. But as a horror creator, I can’t dwell on a lost halcyon era, especially one that occurred at a different time for everyone. I have to develop strategies for inspiring something approaching a feeling sort of like a resemblance of fear in an audience. And you horror fiends, you all have eaten the same caustic, wrenching stuff that has given me an iron gut. So what is a writer to do?


One method for scaring the desensitized is to constantly increase the gore. One of the things people enjoy least is having their insides spilled out, so describing that in increasing detail and frequency is a method for disturbing people. I think “disturbing” is often a better word for the effect than “scaring,” though. And there’s only so far gore can really be taken before it’s filled all the space and then what? I mean, my understanding is that Human Centipede 3 will have enough people to count as an actual centipede. Is that scarier? At what point does the number of people whose outs are sewn to someone else’s ins stop being scarier or more disturbing?

If gore’s your thing, that’s cool. But if gore’s your thing, it’s probably not scaring or even disturbing you, but amusing you. A lot of the goriest books and movies take on a more comedic tone, reflecting this.

Of course, gore isn’t mutually exclusive from the other methods of inducing fear. I really enjoy sprinkling in some very detailed scenes of violence, allowing my imagination to fully develop the ideas that flit through my head when someone cuts me off in traffic to then turn directly in front of me. I mean, why not just switch lanes behind me? There’s space and then you won’t be slowing me down, too. But noooo, not only are you going to cut me off, but then you’re going to—what was I saying again?

What Scares Me

One way to more effectively transmit fear is for the author to write about what scares them. You’ll find a lot of my writing involves an inability to trust your perceptions, where the world becomes absurd and yet your best source of information, your own eyes and ears, seem to be unreliable. This stems from my own problem of night terrors.

I have written about this at length regarding my novella, Nightmare Man, which was the first time I wrote explicitly about the phenomenon I’d been suffering from for two decades. You can follow the link to read in full, but the short of it is that for the first hour I’m asleep, I often have nightmares with my eyes open. One type of nightmare is a panic attack during sleep that makes you wake up feeling as if you are maybe being attacked by something but not knowing what. The type I have is not being correctly paralyzed during a nightmare, basically hallucinating the monster over top of my perceptions of the real world.

Jacob's Ladder

Jacob's Ladder

So this has been a fascination of mine for a long time. I was blown away by the movie Jacob’s Ladder, and a lot of other people must have been too, because it spawned countless copycats. I loved the book House of Leaves, where every attempt to understand the impossible house proves—impossible. In college I took an Intro to Philosophy course and got hooked on epistemology with the thought experiment of Descartes’ demon.

Exploring and trying to transmit the total confusion of my night terror experience might be what started me writing horror. The protagonist’s lack of definite knowledge was the source of the uncanny in most of my early stories, though they weren’t about night terrors. I think that when successfully beamed from my mind to the reader’s in books like Nightmare Man and Dream of the Serpent, that fear that I feel so truly on a nightly basis makes the reader feel an unease hopefully approaching fear.

So in my opinion, what frightens a writer, be it only hypothetical or something they’ve gone through personally, can more easily frighten a reader than whatever the latest hot monster or trend is.

Creating Empathy

And I think that the reason is that when writers live the fear, at least in their heads, they can more easily make the reader empathize with the fear.

The biggest advantage a book has over a movie is that you can fully occupy the characters’ minds. Personally, if the book isn’t character driven, I’d rather wait for the movie or—even better—the video game. Blasphemy, I know! But get me inside the head of an interesting character—not necessarily a likeable character, and please, PLEASE not a character with flaws that are actually positive traits (…he was an alcoholic but he white-knuckled through it on his own, but he’s still haunted, but jeez, he sure is strong and so manly)—and I will follow you almost anywhere. Get me invested in these people and, when they are in the most dire straits, I will care, and I might actually feel a little fear for their sakes.

Reasons for Horror to Exist Other than Scares

But honestly, that fear, maybe it would better be called anxiety. Caring about the characters doesn’t necessarily make me more likely to keep checking over my shoulder for the boogey man. And yet, I still love horror. I love stories set in a realistic world with one aspect off. There’s this one, perfectly crafted source of tension that, because it needn’t stick fully to reality, is surgically precise for exploring whatever concept the creator is interested in, for picking at our most tender parts like a mad dentist in a torture porn.

In my Vampires of the Plains series, there’s a vampire plague that is an analogy for a disappearing way of rural life. In The Hoard, there’s a creature that takes over your mind, making you behave in ways you don’t want to even as you convince yourself that you do. It’s an analogy for obsessive behavior, in this case hoarding. In Nightmare Man, an artist’s dream creature emerges to destroy what the man feels killed his own creative dreams: his familial responsibilities.

Of course, while I’m exploring my concepts with these precision-molded antagonists, I’m also trying to make you mess yourself. The highest compliment I receive is when someone tells me that something I wrote inspired a nightmare, which I suspect isn’t true of most callings.


Alan Ryker is a horror writer who’s had several novels and novellas published by DarkFuse.