This is the question that was posed at the first ghost story writing workshop I ever attended. I hadn’t written a story with the intention of being scary before—thrilling, alarming, rife with tension, all that, yes—but scary? The normal things like giant spiders, serial killers, slimy aliens, and killer rabbits are all well and good, but if you tend to write like I do, from the inside out, these ‘theoretical’ horrors don’t quite cut it.
By the inside out, I mean working from personal experience, like an actor, reaching deep to feel the feelings in order to convey them convincingly. Thankfully, I’ve never found myself trapped in a basement with the Mother of All Spiders or abducted by oozing aliens, so when asked the question, “What scares you?”, I sent my mind on an interesting trip down dark hallways to recall those moments when I had personally been truly afraid.
A lot of them had to do with chemically altered compatriots putting themselves in what seemed like extreme danger, but that didn’t quite work for a ghost story. What I was looking for was a more paranormal dread. I remembered times as a child when I felt like I was being chased, when I panicked and fled from nothing but a sensation. Or was it?
The most intense memory of fear came from a time when I was hunting with my father and we were out in the woods after dark. This was way out in eastern Oregon somewhere, one of those black spots on the earth revealed at night by satellite. I ended up briefly alone, surrounded by towering trees and suddenly I became acutely aware of how far from civilization we were, how utterly alone, how surrounded by The Unknown. The darkness struck me as endless. Maybe this was an existential moment in the life of an eleven year old, but whatever it was, it scared the marshmallows out of me.
Okay, in the world of horror, of Hannibal Lechters and Wicked Queens who rip people’s hearts out and devour them either raw or sautéed with onions and garlic, this is pretty darn mild. But this isolation, this aloneness, this feeling of a separation and otherness in an inexplicable, unknowable world, for me this became the building block of horror. Yes, monsters and ghosts and people in general are terrifying, but as a writer, I’m much more drawn to psychological horror, or what fear does to one’s humanity. It’s the question, is this real, or am I going insane? It’s the ground falling away beneath you and Heaven opening up above you, when everything you thought you knew becomes meaningless in an instant. It’s the loss of the self.
The story I ended up writing at that workshop, Windigo, was based on an old folktale one of my uncle’s scared us with around the campfire. In my take on the legend, two hunters are stuck spending the night in the wilderness, with only the dripping corpse of a gutted elk for company (great atmosphere, right?). The story, though inspired by a spectral being that haunts lonely places, is really about one man’s quick descent from rational to irrational as the unknown closes in around him. In writing the story I discovered that this is what truly frightens me, not so much the fear inspiring object itself, but how fear can twist the mind and heart. I also discovered the value of writing a ghost story. Horror provides such a rich vein for self-exploration, but beware, for the answers you find may not be at all what you expect.
What scares me? I do.