Last night, my husband and I went to a pumpkin festival with another couple. The town blocks off downtown’s main drag, and skeletons, witches, monsters, live music, and laser shows filled the streets.
Dozens of lit jack-o-lanterns on shelved staging fringed one side of the road — the focal point of the evening’s festivities. The only thing missing was a haunted house. Fine by us. We don’t chase the adrenaline high of fear.
Which brings me to today’s subject: Fear
Fear is a universal, physical response to danger. We associate fear as a negative emotion, but it also plays a vital role in keeping us safe by mobilizing us to cope with potential dangers.
What happens within the body when we’re fearful?
Fear begins in the amygdala, which then activates the pituitary gland, where the nervous system meets the endocrine (hormonal) system. The pituitary gland then secretes adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) into the bloodstream.
Meanwhile, the sympathetic nervous system — a division of the nervous system responsible for the fight-or-flight response — nudges the adrenal gland, encouraging it to squirt epinephrine (aka adrenaline) and other catecholamines into the bloodstream.
The body also releases cortisol in response to ACTH, which raises blood pressure, blood sugar, and white blood cells. Circulating cortisol turns fatty acids into energy for the muscles to use should the need arise.
Catecholamines include epinephrine and norepinephrine, both hormones that prepare the muscles for violence by causing the following:
- Boost activity in the heart and lungs
- Reduce activity in the stomach and intestines, producing “butterflies” in the belly.
- Inhibit the production of tears and saliva, which explains why dry mouth often accompanies fright.
- Dilate the pupils.
- Produces tunnel vision.
- Reduces hearing.
The hippocampus part of the brain is heavily involved in memory, whereas the prefrontal cortex aids in high-level decision making. Both these areas help us control the fear response and determine if the danger is real or exaggerated. If the latter, these areas of the brain dampen the fear, allowing us to read scary books or watch slasher films.
Biologically, fear responses include:
- Increased breathing.
- Increased heart rate.
- Peripheral blood vessels in the skin constrict while central blood vessels around vital organs dilate and flood with oxygen and nutrients.
- Blood pumps the muscles so they’re ready to react.
- Muscles at the base of each hair tighten, causing piloerection aka goosebumps.
- Eyebrows raise and pinch together.
- Upper eyelid raises while the lower tenses.
- Jaw may slack and part stretched lips.
- Voice pitch rises, tone strains.
- Posture either mobilizes or immobilizes or fluctuates between both.
- Breath shallows.
- Muscles tighten, especially in the limbs.
- Increased sweating.
Metabolically, glucose levels spike to provide energy if needed for action. Fear also increases levels of calcium and white blood cells.
Tips to Show Fear
To show a believable fear response in your main character, consider the above scientific and biologic changes within the body. Then get creative. An effective way to enhance fear is to slow down. Visualize the context. What’s happening in this moment? What is the character experiencing, moment by moment? By drilling into slivers of time, we’re telling the reader to pay attention. We’re creating emotional resonance. We’re drawing readers farther into the story, forcing them to turn the page.
Trigger the Senses
Do shadows obscure the threat? (sight)
Do the leathery wings of a bat flap overhead? Or do footsteps ricochet off the building and make it difficult to pinpoint direction? (sound)
Does the metallic sweetness of blood assault the back of the throat? (taste) Or fill the sinuses? (smell)
Is the thick bark of the ash tree she’s hiding behind rough and scratchy? (touch)
We already know hearing is impaired by biological changes. How does the impairment affect the MC? Do muffled sound waves heighten other senses? Or does the MC enjoy the adrenaline rush that accompanies fear?
Emotion is Layered
Characters shouldn’t be totally fine one second then immediately immobilized by terror. Let emotions build over time, even second by second.
“In the real world, no two people are alike, which means each of us expresses emotion in our own way. Some people find it perfectly natural to share what they feel with those around them, experiencing little to no discomfort with their emotions being on display. Others find the idea of revealing what they feel horrifying and will avoid situations that could lead to such vulnerability. Most fall somewhere between these extremes. This spectrum of expressiveness is called an emotional range, and it will influence not only which feelings a person overtly shows but when and how they will manifest.”
—Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi, the Emotion Thesaurus
Emotions — especially ones as extreme and universal as fear — unfold on a continuum. To impact the reader, show the MC’s physical and emotional responses in the correct order and with the proper intensity, or fear may come across as irrational or melodramatic.
Any adrenaline junkies in our audience? Do you ride roller coasters? Like haunted houses? Have you ever zip-lined? What about jumping out of an aircraft? Care to share a frightful experience?