Pit of Despair (It’s Scarier When You’re Alone)
Horror… pure horror, is a genre whose singular identifying trait is the ability to terrify the reader. It may or may not be supernatural in nature: some horror frightens us by showing us the terrifying aspects of something completely natural. For many of us, that is the scarier type of horror. As a writer, I tend to favor supernatural horror, which makes a lot of sense: I am a fan of supernatural horror. But regardless of whether the writer evokes natural or supernatural sources of fear in the reader, he or she is often looking for a broad-based fear that will resonate with many.
Once, a depressed psychologist named Harry Harlow became obsessed with
the affects of isolation. He thought that isolation made people depressed, like he himself was after the death of his wife. He started a series of experiments on monkeys, where he put them in an isolation chamber he called the “Pit of Despair” in order to see how they reacted to being completely shut off from contact for up to ten weeks. Within a few days, the monkeys who’d previously bonded with a parent huddled motionlessly in a corner. Within a few days, they gave up trying to escape. The study concluded that even the happiest of social animals were damaged by extended periods of isolation.
That is the reason that in my book, “Solitude”, I found myself repeatedly
underscoring primal fears which affect a broad number of people. There are
times when many of us find we enjoy being alone: many a reader prefers reading uninterrupted by the social desires of a coworker, a partner, a stranger on the bus… we are trying to enter a private world, and these people simply are not invited into our periods of solitary entertainment. I like to paint alone, and write alone, and I understand the joys of being able to fully concentrate on pursuits solely of ones own choosing. Nonetheless… the idea of the annoying coworker, the pestering loved one, even the perfect stranger disappearing so that there is no longer an option for social interaction: it scares a lot of us.
“Solitude” capitalizes on primal fears of isolation and loneliness, so that there is a period of time where each of the characters is totally alone. The thing about being alone is that one’s heightened awareness of startling noises, strange shadows and other ordinary things – like crickets chirping – can give a sudden eerie ambiance to the most ordinary of locales. The local library – the local college – a bridge, a forest – they are all much creepier when there is no one around to compare notes with, “was that real?” “am I imagining things?” kind of notes. It’s easier to allow one’s imagination to take hold and shake the very core of one’s being.
“Solitude” takes advantage of this atmospheric tension, so that where there are a number of real threats which should be distinguishable to the reader, there are also internal fears which take on lives of their own. It is a story of escalating horrors, so that by the time everything has snowballed, being alone becomes the lesser of anyone’s worries. But we like being scared. That’s why so many of us read our horror stories alone in the relative darkness to the dim flicker of a candle or a tiny book light. We read late at night, when everyone else is asleep and there is no comforting voice to reassure us.