Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Fight, Flight or Freeze!

T – Terror

Terror, according to my dictionary is the feeling/emotion of great fear. I imagine it to be fear almost at the point of paralysis… A frightening place indeed. ..

No one word sums up the aim of thriller/horror writing as this one word does. All horror stories aim to engender this feeling of fear in the reader and the most successful stories do just that.  

Fear is one of the strongest emotions and it creates a powerful response; it is a fail safe for humans to alert them to danger and ready their bodies for ‘fight, flight or freeze’. You can see where this comes from in prehistoric man, when faced with a threat they either had to run for their lives, stood and fought, or froze to make themselves invisible to predators (rather like rabbits in the headlights).

The hormone responsible for this mechanism is adrenalin and we produce it whenever we feel scared or afraid. It readies our muscles for action (wobbly legs and shaking), it revs up our heart pump (pounding pulse) and increases our breathing rate ready to supply extra oxygen to the large muscles of the legs. Our eyes open wide ready spot the danger and our brains and senses become extra sharp. Skin tightens and pales as blood is diverted away to the major muscles and our stomachs contract down so as to not interfere with the process. All major organs of survival go on high alert. Adrenalin can even make the bowel and bladder muscles relax involuntarily. Fear is so powerful that it can be totally disabling in the wrong circumstance i.e when the body is not under threat but nevertheless the emotion is running amok and irrational fears/terrors are born. (Terrified people are generally those who are so disabled by fear that they literally freeze.)

It is also true that people can become addicted to adrenalin. They love the ‘high’ it produces and search for ways to initiate this response, for example, putting one’s life at risk by participating in dangerous sports.

But for most people, the way they get their thrills is by watching a high action/scary/ movie or reading a book that’s full of jeopardy and danger. They can imagine themselves in the risky situation and that is enough to produce the adrenalin response. This is why people watch and read thrillers – that is the thrill – but in a safe way. In other words people want to be scared!! Then, when they come out of the reading experience, they can feel relief that what they read was not real and return to their everyday world feeling safe and secure.

The way I see it, the fiction writer’s (or thriller writer’s) job is to increase suspense and ratchet up the tension to produce that feeling of fear, usually empathising with the main character. So the reader is in a steady state of fight or flight waiting for…. Whatever!

As Alfred Hitchcock said, “There is no terror in a bang, only in the anticipation of it.”

So, what do you think? Are you scared reading thrillers? Do you feel ‘terror’ or is your emotional response a little less scary?
"Any horror element is as much psychological as special effects."    Christopher Eccleston


  1. I love a good thriller, and I like to feel the terror. I just finished Down the Darkest Road by Tami Hoag, what a thrill ride, a very good one if you love the genre.

    And I am your 100th follower! Woo hoo!

  2. I agree with Hitchcock--and he was the master--that the anticipation is often greater than the actual action.

  3. OMG, I can't read Stephen King! A friend visited once who loved King. She'd stay up until the wee hours reading him. So, one morning I awoke, knocked on her door hub and I would have breakfast shortly if she wanted to join us. No response. Come to find out, she was like frozen in place. King had scared her into thinking a geko on the ceiling was going to drop down and eat her. Huh?

  4. I'd say it was MORE psychological than special effects actually. I remember watching Silence of the Lambs with a friend, a very jumpy friend who considered every scene would be set up to scare. The film was a lot more scary with her shouting 'There's something in that chest!', when actually there wasn't!

  5. It is a very talented writer who can create that sense of anticipation - I love to be scared, but sometimes if it's a particularly scary book, I find I'm jumping at shadows for a while after I've closed it!

  6. I feel the terror a little too much. I can't read or watch scary films anywhere within 2-4 hours of bedtime!

  7. Peter Straub is the master of building suspense. I recommend "Koko" and "Ghost Story."

  8. If it scars me too much I have nightmares no matter when i read ..or watch
    A little thrill or suspense is plenty for me :)