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Do You Fear The Dark? This Short Story May Be Too Much For You. Inside; In The Corner.

There was something there.

Alex’s hairs stood on end, the feeling of cold spreading across his body in a wave. His heart began to beat faster, and he found his throat catch. He couldn’t see it clearly, but there was another shadow in the darkness. It was malformed, almost shimmering, like it couldn’t decide whether it was part of his world or not. He listened intently, and heard heavy breathing. His own. But there was something else, a high pitched rattle just below it.

There was something there.

He stopped moving, and reached up to his headlamp. The cold metal dug into his fingers as he felt for the switch. It was an unreliable thing, and now was not the time for it to fail.  His girlfriend, Jane, had nagged at him to replace it. She was right. He heard her voice in his head, uttering her proverbial warning. Over and over. ‘It’s dangerous, get a new one.’ He grimaced as his fingers found the switch, but couldn’t move.

There was something there.

His heart raced and his mouth dried up. All the old fairy=tales ran through his head, unbound, circling, spinning, growing. The folklore of monsters and witches filled his consciousness, red eyes and bloodied claws.  Beasts moving in the night, stalking, watching, waiting. He had been terrified as a child, watching the corner of his bedroom in the twilight. The covers had been enough. The high pitch rattle stopped.

There was something there, and it had seen him.

The darkness seemed to rush inwards, become focussed on the mass hiding within it. He began to pick out its contours. It was huge, muscular, and wide. Something moved, and he could swear that he could see wings. No! Wings? Why would it need wings? They were a mile below the surface. What creature would need wings down here? Could it see him? No, it was dark. Very dark.

Maybe that was why it was eating that darkness up.

The rattle began again, faster this time. Whatever it was, it was excited. Alex remembered the route behind him. ‘It’s dangerous’, Jane’s voice came again. It was a straight shot, 10 metres into the pothole. It couldn’t follow him there. But to get there he would need the lamp. And then it could see him. It would chase, and it would get him. He would be pulled into the darkness with it.

There was something there, and it was waiting.

He felt for the hammer on his belt. His adrenaline surged and the cold was all consuming. He found the handle, and pulled it slowly from its hook. It was tiny, but might be enough to get in one hit. Enough to shock it. It probably didn’t expect any resistance. It’s prey down here was tiny, rats, moles. Whatever scurrying things hid in the blackness.

But then why was it so big? What did it feed on? The darkness had almost disappeared, and had become something monstrous. Alex couldn’t quite understand it, and his brain riled at the sight. It threw it back up. Nothing in his fairy-tale could begin to explain it. The creature in the corner was nothing like the shadows in his bedroom. The fairy-tales were a lie, sugar-coating the horrors they told. Jane screamed ‘It.’

It was hanging against the wall, Long spindly arms, coarse and muscled, wiry black veins bulging from a deep azure skin. Huge long claws, maybe a metre, glinted in the still moments of rare light. They were caked in blood, sinew and skin. Its chest was pitted, the ribs carved starkly against its mottled skin. Huge legs, covered in feathers, ended in talons. And its face, oh fuck, its face.

It was smiling. It had a mouth, but it ended in a razor sharp beak. Its eyes were milky white, blind, but rolling left to right. Its head was raised, sniffing the air. Searching. The smile widening as it picked up Alex’s fear. A tongue, purple and thin, lolled from the corner of its maw. Its wings suddenly spread. Its face turned to Alex, and the milky white eyes fixed on his.

There was something there, and it was hungry.

Alex panicked. He flicked the switch, and for a brief second the cave was illuminated. He was in a nest. Bones lay in piles on the floor, torn rucksacks, skin, humans and animals. A little yellow cap with ‘Disney’ written on it. And somewhere in the mountain of gore, tiny white eyes stared frantically. He was in a nest, and mother was hungry. And mother filled his vision.

There was something there. ‘It’ he thought, the words tumbling over and over as the beast began to feed.

This story was written on the fly in around 15 minutes. In the corner across from me sits a copy of Stephen King’s  ‘It’. This was the first horror novel I ever read. I remember one thing distinctly, the feeling of unease. Nothing could ever be as terrifying as the question of what was watching. If you would like to learn more about fear, read my article on the subject.

Perhaps one day I can write a proper horror novel.

What do you think? Let me know!

Image courtesy of Beatrice Murch.

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Why Do Things Scare Us? What Makes Your Heart Beat? Inside; Fear Explained.

All of us have had moments when we have been scared out of our skin.  ‘Jumpscare‘ voyeurism, that is watching people react to horror, has become an internet fascination. With big YouTube gamers like Markiplier and Pewdiepie building their early success on playing games like Amnesia and Five Nights at Freddy’s, there is something oddly fascinating about horror.

But why do ‘Jumpscares’ cause us to ‘jump’. What is happening inside us and why?

There’s Something In There

‘Everything down here floats,’ that chuckling, rotten voice whispered, and suddenly there was a ripping noise and a flaring sheet of agony, and George Denbrough knew no more’ – Stephen King, It, p 27

Last night I was walking home along a familiar path. It was dark, and the only sounds were the rustling of the bushes and my footsteps on the leaves. It was calm, and the long shadows cast by the gentle moon were reassuring.  I was lost in thought, the humdrum of a busy mind, when, all of a sudden, something appeared. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a shadow rise from the bushes, the gentle ambience was broken by a rush of leaves.

Something had come from the darkness. Something unfamiliar, maybe dangerous. Wait no, certainly dangerous. Something inside me saw teeth, claws, my imminent evisceration at the whim of something ancient and devilish.

Immediately I stopped, straightened up and my body was filled with energy. But not good energy, a lance of fear. My heart rate increased, I became super focussed on the shadow, time seemed to slow down and my mind speed up. Within seconds I realised it was nothing, but my body still held on to the fear. Why? What is this emotion? And why did it cause such physical changes.

I would imagine you have had the same. Something moving in the darkness, a loud sudden sound, something out of the ordinary that puts you on edge. We, as humans, and like animals, have a simple and consuming reaction for the sudden imposition of the dangerous unknown, Fear. And the feeling of ‘Fear‘ is just part of a syndrome (a collection of symptoms and physical signs,) that characterises our ‘Fight or Flight (or Freeze) response.

It’s almost as old as life itself, and because of it, we are here.

Fight, Flight or Freeze (FOFOF)

Fear was the hand of the devil holding a scalding hot branding iron and touching your brain and your stomach and yelling at you to run with leaden feet. – Dan Groat, Monarchs and Mendicants

It all comes down to evolution, physiology and psychology. Simply put, those who reacted in an adaptive way to avoid death long enough to mate would pass on their genes. Evolutionary theory suggests that over time, those animals within a species with adaptive traits allowing them to survive and reproduce, would become dominant. Whether this trait is a large plumage, as with Peacocks, or lightening speed, as with Cheetahs, it doesn’t really matter, as long as it works.

So when the ‘monster’ in the bush appeared, I was left with three options. Fight, Flight (leg it,) or freeze (hide.)

Fighting is a solution in very specific circumstances. If you are larger, more powerful, or hold some advantage over the other, you can fight. Many animals faced with threat will make a very quick assessment (often based on simple things like size,) to judge their next move. Many will attack, convinced they will win.

Flight is more common, as most creatures are smaller than their hunters. They will rely on speed, camouflage and a near safe place to survive. This is the normal reaction of a mouse, cat, or anything smaller than you. Not all will run, a spider may attack instead, but this speaks of the system being more complicated than just size. Remember, nature is complicated.

Freezing is a third option, and can occur for a variety of reasons. If you have been spotted, and the eyesight and memory of your predator is good, it probably won’t help. But if you have heard a sudden sound, the predator may not have seen you. If you run, you give off sound, it can chase and find you. If you stay still, it may pass you by. Your natural camouflage is more effective when staying still. Especially in the night.

In my case, I froze. The situation was ambiguous, and humans have a tendency to analyse where they can. The FOFOF response surpasses this tendency, and for good reason, we could be eaten whilst we figure things out. Had it been a bear, my analysis would have given it time to kill me. But weirdly enough, humans tend to freeze quite a lot. It says something about our ancestry.

Where FOFOF Comes From

“Thousands of years ago, when our ancestors encountered a predatory animal like a lion, it was best to react immediately and not stand around thinking about the lion, admiring its beauty or wondering why it was bothering them instead of tracking down some tasty antelope. Thus, the fast track to the amygdala kept our ancestors alive.” – John B. Arden, Rewire your Brain..

The ‘FOFOF’ response is just one evolutionary adaption forged early on in the tree of life. Exposure to danger causes an instant chemical reaction, the secretion of adrenaline, with profound effects on the body. The substance causes the heart rate to rise, blood to be drawn into the limbs and brain, and diverted from our stomachs and pelvic areas**. The body is geared up to be focussed, strong and fighting fit.

And we feel terrified. This is a good thing in short bursts, it tells us that we are in danger. It gives significance to the bodily changes our brain has signalled. It compels us to act, to relieve that feeling by action. Adrenaline is a short lived substance, and ignoring it tends to make the feeling worse. Biologically, prolonged exposure to fear results in anxiety, which can become all consuming and repeated. Panic Attacks are just adrenaline surges caused inappropriately*.

Jumpscares And Entertainment

So with this all in mind, why do we love jumpscares, horror and adrenaline. The simple answer is addiction, the more complicated rooted in deep psychological explanations.  Fear in a ‘contained environment’ (i.e. one which presents no real risk, is often associated with the release of dopamine, our pleasure hormone. This is the same hormone released with cocaine and other drugs, as well as many things that make us ‘happy’.

We become addicted to the situational aspects of horror. It seems crazy to think about it, but it makes sense. If we survive an attack, we feel pleasure. It makes sense for our bodies to reinforce the behaviour that leads to pleasure. This is why we queue for horror films and buy ‘Five Nights at Freddy’s’. Its why we love ‘Jumpscares’ and watching others view them. We take pleasure from it.

So  next time you are on the edge of your seat, remember that you are taking pleasure from an ancient system designed to save your life. Kind of macabre, right?

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  • Learn more about ‘Evolution’ by reading ‘The Selfish Gene‘ by Richard Dawkins

The opinions expressed in this article are those of Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates. Image courtesy of Eden, Janine and Jim.

*The subjects addressed in this article have been simplified to reflect their effects on a majority of the population. There is always room for individual variation in behaviour (and this is fundamental to evolutionary theory anyway,) which means that not everyone will react the same way. Anxiety for example has many different syndromes, be it Generalised Anxiety Disorder or Panic Disorder, with different effects on behaviour and emotion. The aetiology (cause,) of these diseases are multifaceted, and deserve their own article as opposed to a throwaway clause.

** This is why we often feel a need to ‘shit our pants’ during fearful situations. It is also possibly why ‘Performance Anxiety’ is such an issue, if you are nervous around sex your brain isn’t focussed on diverting blood to the desired regions (and things are slack,) and the last thing we can focus on is sex.