One of Shirley Jackson’s most famous quotes is, “I delight in what I fear.” Most people view fear as an undesirable feeling. After all, fear produces a rush of adrenaline and a rise in another hormone, epinephrine, which prepares the body for battle, (escape mode, or freezing in place) and increases muscle strength, blood pressure, heart rate, and sugar metabolism (is that why I often consume copious amounts of chocolate and cookies?) And as Franklin D. Roosevelt declared, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”.
In other words, fear is the enemy.
However, I disagree.
I fall into Team Jackson’s camp regarding the infatuation with fear. Shirley Jackson was the mistress of the eerie, creepy, and brooding works of fiction. She’s famous for the unsettling short story, “The Lottery”. And if hope is the thing with feathers, as Emily Dickinson expressed, then fear is the thing that keeps us mere flesh-and-blood mortals grounded. Writers of horror and speculative fiction often embrace their fears in order to produce terrifying “what-if” stories such as Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”, which inspired the dystopian genre of popular books such as the “Hunger Games” and “Maze Runner” of present day. Moreover, for writers, (especially those of horror and paranormal fantasies) fear can become the very best of friends.
Fear is a primary motivator for a lot of the ills in this world. My second oldest brother often wore a t-shirt which read, “Racism is a disease. Are you ill?” Racism is motivated by fear and the threat of losing superiority over another group. One other fear-induced “illness” is sexism, which manifest itself in misogyny and misandry (the hatred of men). We often fear what we don’t know. We often fear what we don’t want to accept or understand.
But in order to tame fear, it must be met face-to-face. Not nurtured. Not coddled. Not protected. But exposed for what it is: our ignorance and the center of our very flawed humanity.
As a writer, I find pleasure in my fears, embrace them, squirm for a time in their utter discomfort, and then commit them to paper.
Have I always been able to do this? I wish!
But with patience and practice, I tapped into those fears and as a result I’ve written some of my best stories and my most fascinating scenes.
That aside, embracing fear too closely and for too long can warp the mind and change you. After all and most unfortunately, Shirley Jackson suffered a heart attack and died at the age of 48. Alcohol and prescription drug addiction most likely played some part in her tragic death. Granted, it’s a mystery exactly as to what fears she suffered from, but her stories of paranoia, fear of people, and love affairs gone bad may provide some tell-tale clues.
Imagine having no control of your life. Imagine your children being snatched from you. Imagine you’re not even the master of your own mind or body. And even your soul itself is questionable. Perhaps, you don’t even possess a soul. You’re less than the beasts of the field, a subhuman, and the lowest in your society’s hierarchy. Religion is used as a further instrument of bondage. And in order to “gain a soul” – the one precious thing that supposedly separates you from the beasts – you must buy into the convenient beliefs of those who own you.
This isn’t from the history of the latest dystopian fantasy — but it could be.
The African slaves of the United States of America didn’t have to imagine such a bleak existence. They endured it.
In Toni Morrison’s “Beloved”, the main character Sethe, suffers from severe post-traumatic stress disorder. I first read the book in high school. I immediately fell in love with the complex characters, the gritty and intense plot that revealed a fraction of the horrible ordeals slaves experienced during the United States’ infancy as an oppressive nation. Some of my fellow students easily painted the main character as a monster. A murderer. They easily hated her. I did not. As a writer and as a Black woman I understood Sethe’s terrifying actions in the novel. Understood, but didn’t condone them.
Morrison masterfully selected that pivotal, climatic scene when slavers hunt down, then finally locate Sethe and her children hiding in a shack. As a result, Sethe’s fear and paranoia drives her to commit unspeakable and alarming actions, which emphasizes the brutal damage racism had inflicted on her and other victims. For those who haven’t read the novel, I won’t spoil it for you and I encourage you to read the novel someday soon.
Those who have read the book are left asking questions like: Why would she do that? How could a mother do that? Questions that possess no adequate answers or explanations. No closure.
Especially when you don’t consider Sethe’s damaged mindset.
On April 12, 2011, LaShanda Armstrong murdered herself and her children by deliberately driving her car into the cold Hudson River. Three of her children ages: 5, 2, and 11-months-old, perished. Her oldest son, aged 10 survived and lived to tell. His mother’s last words were: “If I’m going to die, you’re going to die with me.” Minutes before her only surviving child (escaped through one of the car windows) swam to shore and safety, he mentioned that when she snatched at his pants leg, she confessed, “I made a mistake”.
I can only imagine the terror she felt as she realized that she had not only took her own life, but the lives of all but one of children, abandoning him to the world she had learned to fear and detest . . . to death.
Real-life horror stories like this occur every day and all around the world. Reflecting on these tragic moments of humanity tears at the soul and can either leave you jaded or perpetually unhinged.
And for that reason, I often detest watching or listening to the news. Like a malicious and sadistic machine, the media churns out misery after misery like it’s going out of style and they have to sell, sell, sell!
But when I do view the news, my mind reels with alternative possibilities . . . or the fear that can be shaped into the creative pleasure that comes with writing.
For example, what if LaShanda’s car hadn’t sunk so quickly and didn’t become a watery tomb for her and her precious babies? What if there had been time to save her, her children, and get the family the help they so desperately needed? I sometimes do this with fiction stories. What if, in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”, the tradition and ritual-obsessed villagers dropped their stones and realized that human life is more important than yielding to murderous conformity? And in doing that, the villagers would most likely have to hold themselves accountable for the preceding murders they allowed for years and years. What an interesting sequel that would make!
We live in a fallen world where the possibility of evil is real. Two opinions exists regarding the degradation of our society. One group believes that the world isn’t becoming a more frightening and dangerous place. It’s an instance of “that’s just the way it is” and that people have always been “this way” and the only reason why the ugly appearance of evil seems to have multiplied, raising its monstrous head again and again is pure coincidence. It is true that we have made great and wondrous gains in technology that have the ability to capture, report, and share hundreds of violent acts each day and night with the simple click of a phone or camera.
Furthermore, this same group believes that the generations before wrongly lamented that their time period was more depraved than the present one and drawing the conclusion that “things are getting worse” is nothing new or special. In short, the situation has always been bad – no more or less. For example, adults in the 60s commented that their generation experienced the worst social upheaval and violence, such as the struggle for Civil Rights, the Vietnam War, and the assassinations of three prominent figures: Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, and Malcolm X. On the other hand, others claim that times are indeed cha-cha changing and consequently the innate wickedness of mankind is slowly gaining upon the innate goodness of humankind. We humans, as an entire race, seem to be devolving.
But into what?
Frightening to think of. Uh oh, I feel a story tingling and blooming to life.
Ultimately, fear is an extremely powerful feeling that constantly reminds us of our mortality and the little time we have on planet Earth. So writers, channel into what scares you, take up your pen, and write like you’ve never written before. Just don’t flirt with fear for too long.
Fear is truly a friend, but a potentially back-stabbing one indeed. Tread carefully.
*originally published March 26, 2017* updated with better photos April 15, 2020