All those silent, watchful things that we grew up with from the time we were children — the stories shared around campfires, at sleepovers, secrets handed down from older siblings — we grew out of believing they were true, right?
There’s nothing behind the cracked door of your closet, open two inches too far to show anything beyond the slat of pitch. There’s nothing under the bed that might reach for your ankles if you slipped from the covers to place your heels on cold floor. And certainly, there’s nothing waiting in your peripheral vision in a darkened hallway. It’s just a shadow. A lock of hair slipped out of your ponytail. Just something that can be rationalized away with a little self-denial and good old fashioned common sense.
We were never afraid of the dark.
We were afraid of the potential for something to be in it.
And you know something, this is a bit of a guilty confession, but I still think there is something out there. Waiting. There’s something in the conscious mind that demands you pay attention when passing a dark alley; that has you digging for the flashlight app on your smartphone when the power blows. This preoccupation with darkness is so innate, so deeply primal, that it goes back millennia to the time when humans harnessed fire for the first time to stave off the encroaching night. All it takes is one inkling of a doubt for any of it to be true, and the dark has you. It’s thrall. It’s a willingness to be wrapped in the mystery of there being something more beyond the veil; the vampires, the ghosts, the poltergeist activity they tried to disprove, the spirit rappings, the resurrected bodies suffering enough oxygen-deprivation and pufferfish poison that they’ve become something other. All of it is impossible and rendered possible in the same breath, if you chose only to believe in its potential for just a heartbeat.
Then the darkness has you, and you’re basically screwed, and that’s all there is to it.
This preoccupation with the unknown lends to good suspense. It’s a deep, uncanny understanding that makes me question why I could possibly be reconsidering the rational limits of my knowledge of what is, and what isn’t, when I’m hunched over my laptop late and night and trying to coax those early fears from the places I’ve buried them and breathe life into them again to lend a little more heft to words on a page. A little truth amidst the lies and the self-denials of an adult who boasts, “I’m not afraid.”
If you aren’t afraid now, I’ll bet you remember very dimly what it felt like once upon a time when you were. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the kernel of truth found in dreams and nightmare, and that is what transmutes itself into the sort of story that thrives on drawing out those itty bitty fears and blowing them up to something undeniable so you put down the book, convinced that you need to turn on the lights of your bedroom before going to sleep just in case. (My rationale under these circumstances is that, “I want to see it coming before it gets here.”)
Fear of the unknown is a slippery nugget that manifests best when you withhold just long enough for the reader to impart their own knowledge into the thing you’re telling them:
Here is a wall of darkness that you can’t see beyond, so you wait. And you wait. And soon, you think you start hearing things. They may be imaginary, or there might be something out there, but the eyes are deceptive when they’re put at a disadvantage, and the best and most wonderful thing about them, is that they’re unreliable when the imagination starts acting up.
Then anything is possible, and those particular fears that are born from darkness become possible. Plausible. And real.
My advice to writers is to exercise the sort of patience befitting a monk. Offer hints, but don’t pull off the sheet too quickly, because the instant you reveal what’s on gurney number one, you make whatever is lying there a concrete and manageable thing. Voldemort was only a name not to be spoken until you saw him attached to Quirrel’s head, after all.
Let’s face it, no two boogeymen are the same. Make the boogeyman nebulous enough, and you can siphon him into the mind of any person who’s dallied with the thought long enough to lend it an ounce of possibility.
So take your time getting there. Let your hand hover over that doorknob a little too long when the silence seems to thicken, making your ears muzzy with static and the sound of your own erratic heartbeat. Remember what it felt like when you were just a kid:
Because others remember it too; the darkness is the same no matter where you are in the world and no matter where you’ve come from, and we all have reason to remember the things we feared within it.