Writers are often told, "Write what you know." Historical thriller novelist Steve Berry says, "Write what you love." As a novelist and psychiatrist, I've become intimate with fear, and while I don't "love" it, I do love writing about it. I'm not referring to ordinary worries or anxieties: things such as, will I get fired, or will the IRS audit my return? These are troubling concerns, but they don't rise to the level of true fear -- the kind brimming in psychological thrillers.
I'm talking about raw, gut-quivering, life-threatening fear -- the primal upsurge of emotion that has been with human beings since they first populated the earth. It's fear so profound, it can be life-altering. It arises from the brain's limbic system -- specifically, the amygdala -- which plays a central role in triggering that primitive emotion upon which our ancestors depended for survival. It can cause a heart-thumping, pupil-dilating, sweat-pouring, knee-quaking bodily reaction -- the nervous system's fight-or-flight response. It's elemental, basic, biologic. Fear is a legacy every one of us has inherited. It lurks in the deepest recesses of our consciousness, capable of erupting in a millisecond when we're threatened. In fact, much of life can be viewed as orbiting around attenuating or eliminating fear: we want to live secure, peaceful lives where we don't feel threatened or endangered by someone or something.
Through my work as a forensic psychiatrist, I've become intimate with fear. I've seen it in many settings. I've treated or examined combat veterans; survivors of concentration camps; people who lived through the 9/11 terrorist attack; railroad, airplane and bus crash victims; survivors of vicious dog attacks, catastrophic automobile and industrial accidents; and people who lived through riots, rapes, and other near-death experiences.
As a writer, I know when it comes to fiction, the most frightening depictions are those describing events that could really happen. Those situations resonate deeply because, unlike paranormal experiences, they fall within the realm of possibility. They depict horrific situations that could happen to any of us.
In psychological thrillers, fear drives the plot and mesmerizes us. We can read about the most terrifying things, experiencing them vicariously. These novelistic true-to-life situations arouse our primitive, instinctual atavistic fears. In a sense, we "exercise" our fear response and keep it honed, at the ready. That's the psychology behind why we take rollercoaster rides, watch scary movies, or read thriller books.
I think the most frightening novel Stephen King ever wrote is Gerald's Game because it depicts a terrifying situation that could happen to anyone. (Imagine being handcuffed to bedposts in a remote cabin, miles from civilization. Your husband is dead at the foot of the bed and a wild dog roams nearby).
For a shrieking level of fear, there's none better than Thomas Harris's Red Dragon, or for that matter, The Silence of the Lambs. Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl is not only compellingly well-written, but conjures real fears: where and how has my wife disappeared? Why am I suspected of being a murderer? What will happen to my life?
Dennis Lehane's Mystic River is a psychological thriller in which primal fear is preeminent. A young boy gets into a car with two strangers and terrible things happen to him -- every parent's fear. A young woman is found murdered. The police have no clue who killed her. The girl's father decides to take matters into his own hands and seeks vengeance. The outcome is tragic as fear, suspicion and preconceived conclusions take their toll on the characters.
Pat Conroy's The Prince of Tides is a beautifully written psychological thriller -- it depicts a minefield of childhood psychic terror as related by Tom Wingo, the narrator of this rich and multi-layered tale of family traumas. Virtually every scene involves fear, and the psychic scars inflicted on a man's sense of himself and his life.
William Styron's masterful novel, Sophie's Choice, describes the incalculable horrors of the Holocaust as told by the survivor, Sophie. It also depicts the psychological terror and torment of severe mental illness -- and the potentially lethal consequences of obsessive love, paranoia and inescapable guilt.
There are good reasons why the best-seller lists are populated by novelists like Stephen King, John Sandford, Lisa Gardner, Dennis Lehane, James Patterson, Andrew Gross, Lee Child, Harlan Coben, Dean Koontz, Janet Evanovich, and others. Their novels depict people dealing with the psychology of unmitigated fear, the primeval common denominator of the human condition.
And we share that fear, vicariously, from the safety of our armchairs.
Author of Mad Dog House and Love Gone Mad