Thursday, 31 October 2013

Writing scary stories

Because it's Halloween, I thought now was an opportune time to blog about a topic I love: scary stories. It'll come as no surprise to anyone who's read any of my books to learn that I like to sprinkle my stories with a fair amount of creepy (The Puppet Spell received a light sprinkling, the equivalent of a shiver down the spine; whereas the Darkworld series was submerged under an upturned salt cellar of terror, one step below a full-blown horror movie - RIGHT, that's enough of the dubiously-structured metaphors, Emma...). But I don't think I've ever discussed the topic at length. 

So...onto scary stories. People have different ideas about what makes something scary. For me, it rests on two things: the familiar and the UNfamiliar. Now, these are complete opposites, which at first glance doesn't seem to make much sense. But it's based on Freud's essay on 'The Uncanny', which I studied on my undergrad English Lit course. Freud talks about the 'heimlich' and 'unheimlich', which literally translates as 'homely' and 'un-homely', or uncanny - and they're not opposites. The uncanny is something that is recognisable, but scary BECAUSE of that familiar element. He uses the examples of the doppelganger, the doll, and the automaton. All have human characteristics but aren't human. It's the familiar element that makes them frightening.

Other than the familiar, I also try to draw on things that I personally find frightening and make them equally unnerving for the reader. Things that I find scary include the loss of control. Maybe this is why I find the idea of demonic possession so fascinating. It was when I was researching the Darkworld series that I discovered the origin of 'nightmares', which in the original legend are creatures that visit you when you're asleep and attempt to strangle or suffocate you. This was probably based on sleep paralysis, of which I have personal experience! The first time I had sleep paralysis was the night before a major A-Level exam. I couldn't sleep, and when I did, it must have been around four in the morning. I almost immediately fell into this bizarre dream in which I was in the middle of a crowded room and suddenly couldn't move. No one noticed I was paralysed, and I couldn't open my mouth to tell them.  I was terrified out of my mind! And it got worse. The door opened, and I couldn't move my head to see who came in, but I got this horrible feeling of dread. Something sinister had just come into the room, and was approaching me, and I couldn't move...

I woke up. And couldn't move a muscle. It was like I was still stuck in the dream, but I knew I was awake, in my bed. My eyes were open, but my entire body was numb all over. I couldn't even open my mouth, though I would have screamed the house down if I could. Genuinely the most terrifying moment of my life. But eventually I started to get a tingling feeling in my fingers and toes, and slowly, sensation came back. I think it took about twenty minutes for me to be able to move again, and obviously, there was no chance I was going back to sleep after that!

It was a year before I found out sleep paralysis was actually a thing. The scene in Darkness Watching where Ash finds that out is almost a mirror of how it actually happened. Reality does occasionally overlap with fiction, as much as I usually try to avoid it. It's the emotions that matter. I wanted people to feel Ash's panic as she realises she's awake, but powerless to move, paralysed by an unseen force. Demons? You'll have to read the book to find out...

There are lots of scary things in Darkness Watching, and the Darkworld series as a whole. Many draw on the idea of the uncanny. The harpies are repulsive because they look part-human, as do the ghouls. And the antagonist in Book Two is a doppelganger - a ghoul who bears a striking resemblance to Ash...

I also write about darkness, literal and figurative. If I were to subject the Darkworld itself to literary analysis (never a good idea), I could come up with all these metaphors for darkness buried within, darkness as a reflection of self, personal demons, yada yada. But I'm not going to go there. The STORY comes first. Always.

On that note, let me tell you a little story of my own. One of the scariest things that's happened to me was in July this year, when fraudsters hacked into my bank account and transferred all my savings into their own account. The frightening thing wasn't that it was so easy for them to somehow access my details and transfer my money over the telephone by pretending to be me (yes, I have a real-life doppelganger, apparently) - it was the attitude of the bank when I called them to report the fraud. They accused ME of transferring the money myself and lying to them.

Suddenly, I was forced to deny something I couldn't possibly have done, and was embroiled in a full-on interrogation. It was like living my own stories! I write about demons that can read every detail of a person's life, and doppelgangers which take on someone's identity and get the real person blamed for it -but I never thought there was a real-world equivalent. The idea that someone can take your identity and leave you powerless to defend actions that weren't yours. The idea that when someone gets hold of certain details, they can for all intents and purposes BE someone they're not. Our identities are tied to strings of numbers. We live in a world of modern technology, and it's easier and easier for people to take advantage of that. I admit I was naive: I always assumed I was safe. Maybe we all do. My bank account comes with online banking as a feature and I never for a second believed that it was possible for someone to hack through three layers of security. But someone did.

This story did have a point, I swear. It's not just that I felt like ranting because I feel completely violated, not to mention scared that it could happen again (it's not like I haven't taken every safety measure, either). I think what scares me the most is that criminals can get away with stealing everything from someone - in fact, was made to feel like I'd done something wrong. And that's scary.


  1. That is a scary story, Emma. Hope you managed to get it all sorted out in the end. Happy Halloween!

  2. Sleep paralysis is such an interesting thing despite how awful it must be. My partner gets sleep paralysis and he brought my attention to some art that would better my understanding of what it is. Now interestingly enough, most of the art shows a demon figure of some form sitting on top of the sleeping person, watching them, preventing them from moving.

    1. It does interest me, even though it freaks me out! I hadn't heard of it before I experienced it, and later on I found out more when researching this book. :)

  3. Ooo, that is a scary story about the bank account! Identity theft is terrifying in its own way.

    Great post about scary stories too! Happy Halloween!

  4. I get night terrors and bouts of sleep paralysis. I agree that stuff that happens in real life is a lot scarier than those nightmares, through.