Fear is something we all feel, and as history has shown us time and again, it’s a powerful force. Entire countries have risen and fallen at the behest of fear–of the other or of the unknown, or of those meant to protect us. It’s a deep-seated, primal aspect of the human condition, and sometimes it filters into our art.
It’s only natural that, thinkers that we are, we want to understand the nature of that which is at our core. When we explore it through art–to quote Dr. Samuel Beckett– “Oh boy.” Fear has given us some of the most evocative works in art, both over the centuries and across the spectrum of media. The hair standing up on the back of your neck when you look at Fuseli’s The Nightmare? That’s Fuseli’s fear of the dark from over 230 years ago; the dread that wends its way through the frenzied bow-strokes and haunting baritone of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain and settles like a lump in your stomach is a peasant’s folkloric fear of witchery; the pulse-pounding flutter in your chest is the same harried fear of panic that makers of horror-game icons Resident Evil, Silent Hill, and Fatal Frame sought to explore; and that “fear of fear itself” Wes Craven harnesses so well in A Nightmare on Elm Street—it terrified a generation.
Stories born of fear are unforgettable because we identify with them, because fear is a shared human experience, and because they put a magnifying glass on that which makes us uncomfortable. They bring us to an uncomfortable place, while indulging our sense of security, because hey, it’s just a story. The artist that channels and harnesses this fear has a powerful tool for the artists’ box.
This is a piece a wrote a couple months ago; it came to me while I sat in my idling car outside my friend’s workplace in the middle of a raging thunderstorm. See, I’m terrified of lightning, and sitting in that car, watching it light up the night like some sort of wrathful, divine fire, I tapped into what I was truly afraid of. The lack of control. I got home, and out spilled this piece. Is it great? Probably not. Does it need work? Absolutely. But it was borne of fear, and perhaps one of you out there can appreciate the terror I felt at the time:
The Ford skipped down A1A, bouncing jet ski-like over the rainwater that sloshed up onto the freeway. The steering wheel rumbled beneath Mark’s bone-white fingers; or perhaps it felt that way in his shaking hands. His foot hopped from break pedal to accelerator as the car skid-shifted over the flooded asphalt. Large, fat raindrops swarmed his windshield, smacking the glass like a cloud of stinging bees. His headlights strained to pierce the wall of water in front in front of him. Hunched over the steering wheel, Mark strained to see the dark, barren highway before him, his darting eyes glancing up at the sky every few seconds.
A yellow traffic light loomed out of the gloom in front of him. He punched the gas, skipping through the intersection just before the light turned. He didn’t bother to check for cops, and really, it didn’t matter. “Just keep moving,” he whispered low.
Keep moving, and it can’t catch you.
The storm answered him with cold, bluewhite light and then rent the sky with a jagged, angry line of heat. Run, little boy, it seemed to say, and the engine lurched as it clicked into the next gear. Pulse drumming in his ears, his breath came in quick, staccato gasps while icy sweat dribbled down his forehead.
During the big summer storms, when the air grew fat and tangy with ozone, and the clouds–a line of floating black tanks–rolled in from the coast, Mark would always play the same mental slide show: the image of his grandfather, the old man’s blackened fingernails shiny with the storm’s malevolence standing out against the stark, white hospital sheets; his tenth birthday when the thunder shook the windows of his family’s stucco house—he’d just blown at the candles on the cake when the lightning split the old pine tree just five yards from their back porch; the hot-dog stand at the top of the amphitheater glowing blue before the air cracked and a gnarled finger of light set fire to the stand’s umbrella. Mark had decided long ago there were too many close calls for this to be coincidence. The lightning was after him, and the only way to stay safe was to outrun it.
The back of his neck tingling, Mark’s eyes flitted to the rear view mirror. He jumped as the sky flashed and lit up the man-shaped silhouette in his back seat.
“I’ve never chased you,” said the man in the back. Mark had only seen him for a split second, but had the impression that the man was black, tall and regal, and dressed in bright red garb. “These things aren’t a matter of preference.”
“Jesus!” Mark cried, feeling the panic lurch in his chest and throat.
“Would you feel better if I were?” asked the man. His voice was low and deep and thickly accented. At any other time, Mark would’ve slammed on the breaks, probably bailed out of the car without another thought, and ran. But that would mean stopping. That would meaning being out there, in the livid night, still and alone.
“Who the hell are you?” Mark asked.
“You know, Mark. Deep down you know, which is why you’re acting more reasonable than you’ve any right to.”
Mark had stopped watching the storm. Now, his eyes bounced between the road and the rear view.
“We’ve been playing together for quite some time,” said the stranger. Another flash of lightning and Mark saw that he had changed. He was white now, blond-haired, burly and hirsute and dressed in what might’ve been chain mail. “I think you were four when you first realized who I was.”
“Yeah,” said Mark. “You said this wasn’t personal. You tell that to my grandfather?”
“It wasn’t personal. Wrong place, wrong time. Why are you still upset about that, anyway? He survived, you know. A lot of people survive.”
“And some don’t.” Mark pushed the pedal all the way to the floor, remembering the newspaper story about the golfer in West Palm who had decided to play through the storm and never made it off the green alive. “Rather not take my chances.”
When he spoke next, the stranger’s voice lilted, his accent had shifted again to something a bit more exotic, as if the European languages were completely alien on his tongue. “Doesn’t seem like you have that choice. Chance doesn’t ask to be taken. It just is. For our part, we “go with the flow” as your mortals are so fond of saying.”
In the next flash, Mark saw that his passenger was now a lean, short Indian man. He wore a three-piece suit. However, it was the man’s crimson face that had Mark gnawing at his lower lip. he pulled in a deep breath through his nostrils and exhaled through his mouth, just the way Dr. Mornello had instructed. And then it rose like molten lava, that thing that started at the base of Mark’s spine and creeped up into his stomach, and then his chest. For the first time, the prey could talk to the predator. The warmth flushed his face as his anger broke.
“All these years,” he shouted. “Why? You get off on it? You like tormenting me?” He paused, sucked in another breath. “Don’t tell me it was chance. You were always right there!”
“Watching, yes, but not stalking,” Mark. “ You were interesting. You’re fear was curious. Why fear? We’d never harmed you, never took anything from you. We merely wanted to know. So we watched and observed.”
“So you haven’t been after me?” Mark felt his mouth twist into an awkward smile he didn’t feel. He took his foot of the gas and let the car decelerate. His laughter started deep in his stomach as he pulled the car over and put it into park. He threw his head back, his eyes tearing, and the laugh came out like the bellow of some wounded animal.
“ I promise you. We have never been after you, nor are we after you now,” said the old man in the back seat. His steel grey curls and beard complimented his storm cloud eyes. “All this time you’ve spent running has been completely unnecessary.”
“Well fuck me,” Mark said. “I guess I’ll go for a walk.”
In the next flash of lightning, Mark could see the old man’s mouth had turned upward at one corner into a half grin. Could’ve been my grandfather, Mark thought as he kicked open the driver’s side door, and swung his legs out into the deluge.
“You ever read Aesop,?” the man called after him.
Mark turned his face upward. The rain pelted his face, rinsed away the fear sweat as he peered through squinted eyes at the pregnant, black sky above. Lightning arced in tendrils over the cloud cover. “Sure,” said Mark. Free of his fear, he couldn’t stop that soul-vitalizing laughter that had started in the car.
“Love me some Aesop,” said the old man who had come to stand beside him. “Those Greeks tell the best stories. Scorpion and the Frog?”
“Look, I got it, we’re friends now, ok?” said Mark without looking at him. His vision went white hot and heat surged through his body as a deafening roar burst his ears. There was the freedom of space, and flight, and then he landed hard on the rain soaked asphalt. His skin sizzled, as if he’d been covered in fire. Each raindrop sent sparks of agony across his charred face. The old man stood over him, filling his vision, Small arcs of electricity danced in the man’s eyes.
“You said…” Mark croaked.
The old man shook his head. “And we weren’t. But let’s be honest, Mark. Shit happens.” He kneeled down next to Mark, swept his hand over Mark’s forehead. His touch was like static in a blanket, like sparks at the base of his spine. “Shit is chance, Mark. And chance is our nature. Nothing personal.”
“Nothing personal,” Mark mumbled and shut his eyes against the downpour. Perhaps storms could be outrun, but not chance. Never chance.
How about you? Do you have a work you’d like to share? A confession of what scares you? Place a link in the comments to share with others.