Beneath the Shining JewelWhat scares you?

As an author whose speculative fiction books either contain elements of horror, or are straight up Horror, Dark Fantasy, or Supernatural Thrillers and as someone who enjoys horror cinema and television, this is a question I often ask.

Why are horror genre television shows like Supernatural, Sleepy Hollow, Grimm, American Horror Story, Penny Dreadful and The Walking Dead so popular?

Beneath the Shining JewelFrom an early age, we learn to recognize and accept familiar shapes and scenarios. A two-year-old can tell you a bird is a bird because it looks like a bird. It does not matter if that bird is a stuffed toy, a drawing of a bird, or an actual pigeon or parrot.

This ability is also the source of prejudice and stereotyping. We might see a sweaty young man wearing thick glasses with tape holding the cracked frame in place and assume he is a nerd. In that assumption, we also assume he is awkward in social situations, highly intelligent and into things like tabletop role playing games and computer coding. In reality, he might be a criminal who broke his glasses while fleeing a strong-arm robbery he committed, which would also explain his sweat, but most would never associate such a person with the committal of a violent crime.

We recognize and accept patterns.

Beneath the Shining JewelPicture yourself sitting in your living room, watching your favorite television show, when someone staggers by your window. You notice blood dripping from his flaccid bottom lip.

What would you think? He’s drunk? Maybe he fell and hurt himself, or someone beat him up?

If this was a movie, you might notice these things or you might not, but the audience notices that you don’t notice. That would make for an unsettling scene.

Let’s continue with the scene: A little girl, also staggering, follows a few feet behind the man.

Now normally, children don’t get drunk. Are they victims of the same beating? Not likely. Were they in a car accident?

Now a woman passes your window. She is staggering too.

Three people staggering up the block at the same time?  Things are not fitting into the patterns you have grown to recognize and accept. You do not recognize this pattern, and when faced with that lack of recognition, we are disturbed. We whisper “What the hell?”

And then, we investigate this new pattern.

Is that woman missing a chunk out flesh of her cheek? She is!

The response you expect from a person with a chunk missing from their face is to press a hand to the wound as they scream in agony. But this woman just keeps on walking by. She’s staggering, yes, but not like she’s really all that messed up. She certainly isn’t acting the way you would moan if you somehow lost most of your cheek.

Wait! Now Mr. Grayson, the eighty year old recluse who lives across the street just burst out of his front door and is running down the street as fast as his bowed and twisted legs can carry him. And Mrs. Grayson, his wife, is now staggering out the door. Her eyes are wide and her face is a mask of anger. Obviously Mrs. Grayson is pretty pissed off. Mr. Grayson walking away from an argument makes sense, but an eighty year old man – a recluse at that – running away from his angry wife does not. You do not recognize this pattern either. Now, you are really disturbed. “What is going on?” you gasp.

Now, Ray-Ray, the bad little boy who lives three houses down from you, is hauling ass up the street. He is sprinting past Mrs. Grayson. Mrs. Grayson just grabbed Ray-Ray. He’s trying to pull away and is screaming at the top of his lungs…Mrs. Grayson has just bitten off all the fingers on Ray-Ray’s hand and is now chewing his little digits with delight.

“Oh, shit!” you scream. An old woman eating a bad ass little boy’s fingers does not fit any pattern at all. You need a pattern that makes sense. Helping Ray-Ray makes sense. That is a patterned response you understand.

You grab your old Louisville Slugger baseball bat – you aren’t taking any chances with Mrs. Grayson’s crazy ass. You charge out of your house with the baseball raised and ready to strike…but hold up…Ray-Ray doesn’t seem to notice his fingers are missing and his eyes now look as crazed as Mrs. Grayson’s.

You need a pattern you recognize. You need a template for action. 

Something that lets you know you have not lost your grip on reality; that you still exist in the world that you know.

Anything.

Now fear slithers up your spine and coils around the depths of your brain. Your primitive cortex freaks out as your frontal cortex madly searches your hippocampus for anything even remotely familiar. 

Congratulations. You are now officially experiencing horror.

Beneath the Shining JewelHorror, in psychological terms, is defined as the initially familiar becoming increasingly unfamiliar.  The easier it is to question what you’re seeing, the less familiar it is by definition. 

A “drunk” man (familiar) becomes something different (because the little girl is also “drunk” and little girls don’t get drunk) and an angry elderly lady, like Mrs. Grayson is not uncommon, but is drastically off when that elderly lady bites off and eats someone’s body parts (elderly ladies don’t tend to eat other people). 

Being afraid is our body’s well-developed threat response system that tells us something is not quite right and prepares us to run or to fight. This fight-or-flight response is very similar to other high arousal responses such as those that occur when we are happy, excited, and surprised. The context is important when it comes to whether we put a positive or negative spin on the experience.

Beneath the Shining JewelBeing scared while lost in a working class white neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago? Bad.

Being scared during the Zombie Run obstacle course at Piedmont Park, in Midtown Atlanta, with your friends? Good!   

Not everyone likes being scared though, even in a safe place. For some, a racing heart, sweaty palms and the weight of anticipation is just too much to bear, let alone purposefully induce. But for others, being scared in a safe place is a source of enjoyment and makes them feel good. It can even serve as a confidence boost, reminding us that we can make it through a scary situation; that we are strong.

Beneath the Shining JewelAs far as the stereotype that Black people just aren’t into horror, we have been made to fear so much – the police, the dark, taking risks in business, God, the Devil, Hell, sinning, being labeled a government agent or informant, AIDS, what others think of how we dress, and so on ad nauseam, that for someone to create something that scares us – or to like the feeling of being scared – seems insane. To that I say fear is the root of all conflict and control. In order to be truly free; to be truly happy, we cannot be ruled by “fear,” which really isn’t fear at all.

Fear is a signal that warns of impending great bodily harm or death. It is a natural survival mechanism, thus it is positive. What we often label as fear is actually Worry – manufactured fear. Worry is unnatural and destructive.

Our worries limit us. I choose to operate from a position of power, not worry, thus I write what I choose; what I enjoy and the writing is better because of that. It is better to turn a negative experience into an enjoyable one, to be free of the shackles of worry. So, embrace the scary things; enjoy them; experience them on your terms.

And hey, let your first embrace be Beneath the Shining Jewel – it WILL scare the hell out of you…but in a good way!

Beneath the Shining Jewel Cover

About Balogun

Balogun is the author of the bestselling Afrikan Martial Arts: Discovering the Warrior Within and screenwriter / producer / director of the films, A Single Link, Rite of Passage: Initiation and Rite of Passage: The Dentist of Westminster. He is one of the leading authorities on Steamfunk – a philosophy or style of writing that combines the African and / or African American culture and approach to life with that of the steampunk philosophy and / or steampunk fiction – and writes about it, the craft of writing, Sword & Soul and Steampunk in general, at https://chroniclesofharriet.com/. He is author of eight novels – the Steamfunk bestseller, MOSES: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman (Books 1 & 2); the Urban Science Fiction saga, Redeemer; the Sword & Soul epic, Once Upon A Time In Afrika; a Fight Fiction, New Pulp novella, Fist of Afrika; the gritty, Urban Superhero series, A Single Link and Wrath of the Siafu; the two-fisted Dieselfunk tale, The Scythe and the “Choose-Your-Own-Destiny”-style Young Adult novel, The Keys. Balogun is also contributing co-editor of two anthologies: Ki: Khanga: The Anthology and Steamfunk. Finally, Balogun is the Director and Fight Choreographer of the Steamfunk feature film, Rite of Passage, which he wrote based on the short story, Rite of Passage, by author Milton Davis and co-author of the award winning screenplay, Ngolo. You can reach him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/Afrikan.Martial.Arts; on Twitter @Baba_Balogun and on Tumblr at www.tumblr.com/blog/blackspeculativefiction.

7 responses »

  1. Quinton says:

    Liberating piece. Thanks.

  2. sbunny914 says:

    Very good read and something I have talked to friends about. I love zombie and horror movies and always have, I often find myself writing characters set in known horror worlds. Not just POC but those who are not the norm….children, little people, those with physical disabilities. I was inspired by a story I read about a blind man at the end of the world.

    But this gives me faith that I’m going in the right direction and that I have examples. Thank you for what your doing….keep up the great work.

  3. Fujimoto says:

    Very informative, and Beneath the Shining Jewel definitely invokes fear. Your scenario is nicely effective, as is explaining why it’s effective.

    Have you considered a horror anthology? That would be fun to see.

    • Balogun says:

      Thank you!
      A horror anthology WOULD be fun!

      • Fujimoto says:

        You’re welcome! All kinds of blacktastic speculative fiction anthologies to explore in the future.

        I really should have finished Beneath the Shining Jewel but after starting two writing projects I forgot about it. I need to set aside a day to finish it

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