On Going Dark: Why We Read Scary Things

This essay was written by Chris Ciolli.

Before I even begin, I have a little confession to make. Since the age of five or six or so, I’ve been as afraid of the dark, as I am enchanted by it. When the sun goes down, it seems anything can happen, but most often what happens is bad news.

After reading Roald Dahl’s Witches and seeing the movie for reading class in elementary school, I had nightmares for months. The settling noises my parents’ log cabin made come evening had me skittish; jumping any time the floor creaked (which was often).

In my 20s, I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula for the first time, and promptly traveled to Transylvania for spring break where I amused my-then-boyfriend, now husband, to no end, carrying garlic in my purse and sporting cross-shaped earrings day and night.

It’s safe to say that I didn’t grow out of my overactive imagination.

As a fully-grown, mature adult living in a drafty, early-20th century apartment building in Barcelona, with my half-Siamese, Lulu, and a full-blooded Spaniard, I still have to be very careful to read scary books during daylight hours, or suffer the restless nights, waking up in a cold sweat.

Note that scary doesn’t necessarily translate to horror. Science-fiction, dystopian classics, and even true crime can be just as disturbing. Of course when I get far enough into a story, it’s nearly impossible to resist racing through a book to reach a resolution…even if I don’t get there until 3 a.m., and at that point I’m afraid to close my eyes, because I know my mind will continue playing out unsavory scenes in my dreams. So why do I keep picking up these books up?

Because despite it all, there’s something in my mind that’s drawn to the darkness, even as it’s deathly afraid. Some part of me wants to know how the action unfolds in these stories, even as the rest rejects them in favor of lighter reading. It could be that I know I owe it to myself to embrace the existence of all sides of human nature.

Like it or not, we don’t live in a Disney vacuum where singing princesses, forest creatures and townspeople are either inherently good or evil. To overcome the cowardice and evil that are part and parcel of the human condition, we must first recognize and accept that they exist. In the end, reading about them is much easier (and more socially acceptable) than cozying up to serial killers during visiting hours at the big house, or scarier still, exploring our own dark sides first-hand and risking becoming a living nightmare like Alyssa Bustamante, the teenager who reportedly killed her young neighbor to see what it “felt” like or Armin Meiwes, who killed and ate a volunteer he found on the internet.

Scary comes in rainbow-colored hues, vivid shades of terror, evil, and doubt. It’s all around. Ignoring it won’t make it disappear. Facing it full on in written form is terrifying, but in the end, very good practice for standing up to our inner cowards in the sometimes terrifying situations real life presents.  As a writer and a reader, I know that staring down these scary books has made me stronger in a multitude of ways.

But instead of taking my word for it, why not test-drive the concept with the list of five books below? You’ll likely find that a healthy dose of fear and the serious reflection that comes after terror makes for a more well-rounded reader, writer and human being, even if it loses you some sleep.

  • Coraline by Neil Gaiman – Short but terrifying, Coraline is a cautionary tale about parallel realities and how what seems to good to be true almost always is.
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – A totalitarian Christian theocracy has taken over the United States. Women are forbidden to read. ‘Nough said.
  • The Lord of the Flies, by William Golding – It doesn’t get much scarier than a bunch of children left to their own devices with no adult supervision.
  • The House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski – Footnotes, fonts and unreliable narrators can overwhelm in this strange book, but more overwhelming is the sense of panic at the possibility of being consumed by the bleak maze that grows in the house on Ash Tree Lane.
  • In Cold Blood by Truman Capote – The true story of the chilling murder of a Kansas farmer and his family by complete strangers.

For additional Halloween reading, check out Amarie Fox’s recent post.

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Chris Ciolli is a Barcelona-based writer and a translator. She’s an unashamed book and coffee addict that travels every chance she gets. She also spends a lot of time playing with kitchen tools and art supplies. Read about her travels at MidwesternerAbroad.com, and check out her art at TriflesandQuirks.com.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Sean Winters.

3 Replies to “On Going Dark: Why We Read Scary Things”

  1. In the last few years I’ve really been interested in the horror and thriller genres although I read anything that is written well. As much as scary movies, haunted houses, and the dark outdoors bothered me when I was young, it’s humorous how much I enjoy it now. I think “scary” is fascinating. And you’re completely correct that it is much safer to read about the things that go bump in the night than to actually be next to a horrifying reality of sorts.
    I really enjoyed your post. Thanks for the book recommendations too. The last two on your list are new to me. I’ll be sure to check them out.

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