Monday, October 3, 2016

Familiarity Breeds Fear and Pain

Happy October, everyone!

Here in Utah, we have rain and festive-colored trees, so it finally, FINALLY, feels like fall. I'm enjoying every minute of it. I ate Pumpkin Spice Cheerios this morning. Yes, they are real things. Happy Halloween!

I've been literarily (read it again) preparing for Halloween by reading horror books. I swear, the temperature drops below 70 just once, and I grab every book in the library about monsters and killers and ghosts. And the king of those books? Stephen King.

Over the last month or so, I've read a couple of King horrors: It and Cujo.


They're both good, but one left me feeling emotionally satisfied (It) and the other just bugged me (Cujo). Which was weird, because It definitely had a lot more horrifying scenes and moments than Cujo did.

So, like I do with anything that bugs me, I pick at it. And this is what I determined: It can't happen. It can't. It's a supernatural monster that taunts and scares kids and eats them. It shapeshifts. It doesn't exist in the real world, and when the book is over, the monster is dead. It can't come where I am.

Cujo, on the other hand, can happen. It's a rabid dog, not a supernatural monster. There are touches of the supernatural in this book, but not enough to place that barrier of disbelief in my mind. A dog can go rabid. It can trap a mother and son in their car on a hot summer day. The mother and son can be stuck there, day after day, as no one comes to find them. This CAN happen, and the monster is really out there, somewhere.

So it freaks me out even more.

I don't think this is a phenomenon unique to me. I had a conversation with my sister about The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Disney movie), and she told me she thinks the saddest part of that movie is the scene where Esmeralda and Phoebus kiss as Quasimodo watches. She claims this is worse that any other scene in this movie, and let's remember, this movie involves death, emotional abuse, and physical abuse and humiliation in the Feast of Fools scene. But no, rejection is the most painful, and I actually agree: this is the saddest scene.

I think this is because few of us know what it's like to experience humiliation on that scale, or even events like the deaths in that movie. We don't know what it's like to have food thrown at us in front of everyone. But we know exactly what it's like to be rejected, to fall in love and have the subject of our affection choose someone else. We can feel that heartache because we've felt it before.

On a related note, I remember seeing an Internet post about how Professor Umbridge from Harry Potter is the worst and most hated because we don't normally interact with terrorist dictator evil overlords like Voldemort, so we see him as evil in the abstract, whereas Umbridge, the power-mad teacher who uses her authority to hurt, is much more relatable. We know her, and we hate her, because she's familiar.

Seriously, how much hate do you feel looking at her right now?

I think this idea is interesting to think about, that the familiar hits us harder. It gives us writers a key to making stories more emotionally impactful without being manipulative. Give the reader something familiar, and they'll already have the emotions ready made. The pain of rejection, the loathing of a tyrannical teacher, the fear of a psycho dog under the control of a very real disease. Once it becomes personal to the reader, it becomes real, and once it's real, the feelings deepen.

What do you think? Do you know a story that got under your skin because something about it was so  familiar that it stirred up real, present emotions in you?

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