Pretending fear doesn’t exist

For the novelist, fear of the events in the real world was more than enough

Topics: Horror, Parenthood, existentialism, Halloween 2012: What's scary?, Darth Vader, ,

Pretending fear doesn't exist (Credit: MIMOHE via Shutterstock)
What is scary? And why, when many of us bear witness to real horror, do we find the macabre and the terrifying so entertaining come Halloween? This Hallow's Eve, we ask our favorite writers to reflect on the meaning of scary. Read the intro.

I don’t seem to be very close to my fear. I experience it peevishly, vicariously, or sideways — as a kid, I nursed a grudge against Halloween, felt superior to horror movies (on no basis, since I never saw them), and, though I claimed to embrace “darkness,” this for me was always, actually, bleakness, i.e., sanctified modernist-tinged art in morbid philosophical or existential modes, à la Kafka or Beckett or Magritte or Talking Heads’ “Fear of Music.” For me to relate, my object was usually divested of anything visceral, revolting or goofy — which disqualified nearly everything traditionally spooky or supernatural. I liked vernacular popular art, but I didn’t like John Carpenter movies until I was in my 30s. Now, of course, I’m inclined to regard this as a sort of cognitive quarantine around everything I couldn’t even handle, and I can see in retrospect that my childhood consisted of vast submerged edifices of fear — fear of urban crime, and of my mother’s illnesses — I had to pretend didn’t exist. Yet I still get at it by inference, by working my way inside these feelings, often on behalf of a fictional character. Or through my kids. I can’t remember what I felt at Darth Vader’s mask coming off when I saw it myself, but I’ll never forget going through it with my 5-year-old.

Jonathan Lethem, the Roy E. Disney Professor in Creative Writing at Pomona College, is the author of, most recently, and the story collection "Lucky Alan" and the novel "Dissident Gardens."

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