An Exercise in Peddling Fear24 min read

An Exercise in Peddling Fear24 min read

The question at the heart of our venture, distilled to its purest form, amounts to this—what is scary? I don’t mean the definition. I mean, what causes someone’s pulse to pound, to make their mind cower in the darkest corners of their consciousness? What fears, slithering below the serene surface of your rationality, are unique to you? Few things are universally frightening; we know that. What scares you may not scare Mr. Monihan next door. So, my brethren and I make it our business to get to know you, to figure out what makes you humans tick. Over the millenniums since you arrived, I think we’ve developed a decent many trade secrets.

I’ll peel back the curtain a bit for you. Imagine you are lying in bed, curled on your side, the blanket wrapped tightly around you against the cold. You are facing the wall, and you feel your partner lay gently down beside you. You hear the easy rhythm of their breathing. As you drift into sleep, something begins to gnaw persistently at the base of your thoughts. Something you forgot.

Your partner is away on business.

Did your heart just skip a beat? This is a key part of what is scary, where fear is effective for you. The stranger in the dark, we call it. It is a basic setup, even making its way into urban legends. The man hiding under your bed, licking your hand in place of the family dog. The dark figure huddled in the back seat of your car, waiting for you to pull away from the gas station. You fear a breach in your security, the intruder at the door. It’s a trigger in humans, really gets the adrenal gland going. That’s exactly what we want. Makes the world go round. My world anyway.

Like I said before, though, it must be a customizable trade. Scary is limited only by two things—your imagination and my own. That’s the beauty of the whole thing, why it’s a good business to be in. Now, I won’t speak of the jump scare. It is amateur, purely an activation of the fight or flight reaction. The jump scare is not where the good stuff is, the real nougat of human fear. So, let us pretend that my little scenario before had little to no effect. No racing heartbeat, no hair standing on end. Then we can push forward, see where I can take you with a little prodding.

Again, imagine you are lying in bed, curled on your side, the blanket wrapped tightly around you against the cold. Your back is to the wall, as it always is. You like to face the door. It is instinct. You subconsciously want to face the only entrance so you can be ready should anything unfriendly try to slip your perimeter. As you drift into sleep, something begins to gnaw at the base of your subconscious. Your skin goes cold, and the tiny hairs stand up on the back of your neck. The breath catches in your chest as you realize that you feel as though you are being watched. Someone, or something, is standing at your back, between your bed and the wall. It can’t be though, not really. You have been watching the door ever since you got into the bedroom and turned off the lights. Nothing could have gotten in.

Unless.

Unless it was already in before you were. You didn’t check under the bed before you snuggled under the sheets. You did not bother to check in the closet, either. While you watched the door, this person slithered—oh so silently—out from your closet. On all fours like an animal, crawling across the floor. And now it stands behind you, looking down at you lying in the bed.

You don’t turn immediately. That would break the spell. If you turn, it knows that you know and that is when it descends, all teeth and hot breath and screaming, screaming. Whatever stands behind you, you instinctively know that it operates the same as any predator. Once the deer bolts, the lion gives chase.

Eons pass and still nothing. You eventually have to look, when the waiting becomes so terrifying that it is either turn or lose your mind.

You are greeted with nothing, just dark air between you and the wall. You let out your breath in a long whoosh; you have been holding it for almost a minute. You want to chuckle at yourself for being so foolish. Of course, there is nothing in your room, your mind was just playing tricks on you.

You roll back over to resume your usual watch of the door. As you do, movement catches your eye from the foot of the bed. You watch, nauseated with horror, as long thin fingers raise themselves slowly above the edge of your mattress. The hands are followed by a pale skull, the scalp mottled with little clinging patches of hair. The flesh on the face that greets you is death mask gray and pulled back as if invisible claws were stretching the skin. That would explain the tiny tears that begin to appear in its face as the thing reaches one arm out and grips your thigh, nails sinking into your flesh. It pulls itself over the edge of the bedframe and mounts a thin skeletal chest on your legs. It then continues to pull itself up your body, inch by inch, while you can’t even scream. Your body fails you as the thing creeps closer, its eyes never leaving yours.

How was that? Better, worse? You may be brave, and my words failed to produce the desired result. Bravo for you. If these words reach you while you sit around in the company of the living, or slouched in an armchair on a sunny afternoon, they may have no immediate effect. But the seed is planted. When you sink into bed, restless and alone one evening, the scene I painted will unfurl itself. A kernel of fear will find its way into your chest and you will think of the man slinking from your closet to climb his way up your body. My job is already partially complete. Just a waiting game for you, until I can harvest that fear.

It gets a little trickier with the unimaginative. For them, you need to work on the real primal scares. The two big ones—death and darkness—usually help. For the unimaginative and ignorant, we tend to go with the fear of the impersonal other. Racial and religious strangers coming for their children sets these folks on edge, has them locking their doors at night. It’s dull, but we can leverage these kinds of things if enough of these people are in one place. Then we start talking fear on a geographic, national level. It can be spread like a virus until—what do you know—you’ve got a war, and just—fear everywhere. Gobs of it.

That’s not my department, though, and thank goodness for that. The players given that work are masters of the craft, don’t misunderstand me. Creatures of skill, but old school, power-driven—trying to rack up the body count to impress the councils. Me, I get the fun cases, where I can stretch my creative side to its limits. Real artisan scary. Which is why I’m here, skulking in the corner of this cabin. Hidden. Part of the darkness and cobwebs. It is a rustic place, perched on top of a dark hill in a forest in Oregon. The owners rent it out to families and couples looking for weekend getaways. I believe that is what brings these two up here.

They drive right past the cabin as they wind their way up the unpaved road, rocks pinging off the rental car’s guts. The road is unlit, and the numbers on the infrequent mailboxes are difficult to see in the settling gloom. When they finally find the place, the motion sensor lights pop on, temporarily blinding the man driving. From the second-story window, I watch as the two of them remain in the car for several minutes. They’re fighting, frantic hand gestures and flared nostrils. I should probably listen in; anger can provide real personal insights for my work.

“Again! This is the second time on this trip alone that you’ve gotten us lost!” the girl mutters, crossing her arms.

“We aren’t lost! We’re here. This is it,” the man enunciates those last three words sharply. Unwise.

“Yeah, after an hour of driving around! How could you think your phone would have reception out here to even pull up Google maps?” This silences the man for a moment. “You never think ahead Mark. Ever. And then I’m the one forced to solve the problem!”

The man’s shoulders slump. He draws in a deep breath. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”

The girl’s features soften in the shadows cast by the glaring front lights coming in through the windshield. She turns her face away, so he can’t guess that she is just a fraction less upset. She shrugs.

“It’s fine. Whatever, I’m over it. Let’s just go inside.” Although she says this, she doesn’t make the first move to open the door. She may be mad, but the darkness beyond the spotlight and the unfamiliar forest surrounding the cabin make her hesitant. She doesn’t know it yet, but she is unsure because she is nervous. Frightened.

The man turns the car off and opens his door. Only then does she grab a bag from the backseat, open her own door, and jump from the vehicle. They unpack the car, saying little to one another. Once they are finished, the man returns to the car for one last grocery bag. As the door shuts, he freezes a moment, casting his eyes skyward to admire the stars. There is only the sound of cicadas and crickets, clicking away with their shrill songs—until I rustle some leaves in the forest to the left of the dirt driveway. Not loud—just audible enough so that he can hear it. His head turns in my direction and he squints into the darkness of the woods. The halo of light created from the spotlight may be comforting, but the concentrated brightness makes it difficult to see outside of its safety net. The man knows this, but shakes his head and moves back towards the cabin. Just an animal, I’m sure he is telling himself. He quickens his pace a bit as he mounts the cabin steps.

He shuts the door a little quicker than he normally might. The two go about unpacking for the evening, only speaking occasionally to one another. She scales the stairs to the small second-floor bedroom loft that overlooks the rest of the cabin and sets down the bags. He unpacks the groceries. The silences between speaking grow smaller as they settle in. It was just a small spat. Just the tension of a long day on the road. They open a bottle of wine. The man builds a fire from the stock of wood to the right of the fireplace and they huddle together on the couch. They love one another. I would smile if I had lips. I don’t enjoy love the way they do, but it has its uses.

There is nothing scary about love? It might be the scariest thing of all. It’s the fear of losing love that terrifies most people, sometimes even more than the fear of death. I’ve seen men and women give their lives before seeing a loved one hurt! People take their own lives when spurned by a lover! It is a powerful emotion, love. Twisting that feeling is powerful too. I know this man does not want to lose this woman, nor the woman the man.

They spend an hour in front of the fire and begin to nod off. Both agree, smiling, that it is time to turn in for the evening. They change, prepare themselves to sleep, and lie down in bed. My process, although set in motion earlier in the woods, starts now in earnest. If they are reading, I’ll let them read. A dark thought can be erased, should they then lose themselves in a story. We don’t want distractions; we want them focused on what we feed them.

And they do read, she on her electronic reader, and he a paperback. He flicks the light off first, and she reads by the glow of her screen. After a moment of this, she reaches over and grabs two small orange foam objects from the nightstand. She proceeds to pop them one at a time into each ear. Earplugs. She is deaf to the world. This changes our scenario, our initial approach. No matter, I’ve been in the business for a long time.

The man rolls over to his side while she reads on. I crouch by his bedside and drop into his thoughts, ever gently, a reminder of the rustling leaves near the driveway. He squints as his mind works, recalling the moment. I rush outside while the memory plays and snap a twig, just below the window to their second-story bedroom. I get back inside in time to watch the man’s eyes widen at the sound. He rolls back over in bed and looks across his partner, still reading, towards the window. She glances away from the book and looks at him.

“What?” she says. He doesn’t answer for a moment, just stares towards the window. She repeats herself and pulls one earplug out.

“Nothing, I guess. Probably just a deer or a raccoon or something.” But he doesn’t yet look away from the window, and she doesn’t look away from his face. He is supposed to be the brave one, and she’ll be spooked if he gets spooked. So when he does turn his face from the moonlight pouring in through the glass, he smiles at her and shrugs, then rolls back over. The nonchalance of the gesture reassures her, and she turns her book off. They both lie back in bed in the darkness.

The woman can’t hear it, but I rustle some more leaves as she begins to drift off. The man hears it. He tosses and turns but doesn’t get out of bed. He doesn’t want to alarm her for what is likely just an animal or the wind. It’s a trick that humans often play with their minds, attempting to rationalize their fears. Sometimes it works against the small potential scares, especially in your own home, secure in its familiarity. This is different. This cabin is a strange place. The first real tinges of fear emanate off him. It is intoxicating, but just a preview.

The man drifts off well after the woman. They are both restless, as I whisper in their ears. The man even wakes once, catching the tail end of a scream as it fades somewhere in the distant forest. It sounded like a coyote, I’m sure he thinks to himself. He would be right; it did. But it wasn’t.

When he later sits up with a start, shadows cling to the corners of the room. He turns to lay his arm across his partner, but his arm hits empty bed. Groggy, he tries to wipe the sleep from his mind and his eyes.

“Babe?” he calls into the gloom. It takes him just a moment before he realizes there is no need to call out. He sees the woman standing in front of the window, bathed in the moonlight. She does not move or turn at his call.

“Hon, what are you doing? Come back to bed.”

Again, nothing.

He shifts in the bed, pulling the blankets from his legs. “Is something wrong? Do you see something out there?”

Still, no answer. I can hear his heart begin to thud heavier against the inside of his chest, smell the adrenaline seeping into his bloodstream. His bare feet touch the cold floorboards, and he walks around his side of the bed, closer to the woman, who stands frozen. He freezes too, at the base of the bed. Her silence unnerves him.

“Annie? Babe? What’s wrong?” he whispers. He steels himself. His concern for her outweighs his sense of foreboding. This is vital. This is what I am counting on—his rationality and sense of self-preservation at odds.

He pads over, unconsciously on tiptoe. He reaches her and gently rests a hand on her shoulder. She does not stir, so he gives her a gentle shake and repeats her name. Nothing. He moves to her side and looks her in the face. His surprise is obvious when he sees that her eyes are closed. The surprise turns to concern.

“Are you sleepwalking?” he asks, but more to himself than to her. He takes her by both shoulders now and tries to turn her back towards the bed. “Come on, let’s get you back to bed huh?”

“No.” she mutters, sounding far away. He jumps at her voice. A cheap scare, not worth much, but it lets me know I’m heading in the right direction. He’s on edge. His nerves are fraying. “They’ve asked me to wait for them,” she says. “They’ll be here soon.”

I can’t read his thoughts, but I can hear his heart speed up. I’m sure he’s rationalizing to himself. The woman is only sleepwalking, his inner monologue will begin. She is talking gibberish; it doesn’t mean anything. She isn’t waiting for anyone. It’s fine, it’s fine, it’s fine, just get her back to bed, it’s fine.

He attempts to steer her again, using a bit of force. She resists, he puts more muscle into it. I can see frustration starting to build—tension in the small muscles of his jaw and neck. Aggression can be a side effect of panic. He shakes her, harder than before, and hisses her name.

“They’re here,” comes her answer.

“What? No one is here. Please baby, I need to get you back to bed.” He gives another pull and she lashes out, seizing his forearm in what must be a painful grip. Eyes still vacant, she points past the glass pane with her free hand, to the moonlit yard below. He looks out to where she points. He can’t help himself. He doesn’t see anything at first, just thick shadows at the tree line. He stares, leaning so close that his breath fogs the cold glass. He wipes the condensation away with a closed fist but moves to look through an upper pane anyways. It’s then that a figure, tall and pale and naked, steps from behind a tree and into the yard.

Bile rises in the man’s throat. I can smell it.

“What the fuck?” the man says out loud, though his catatonic companion pays him no mind. “Annie, don’t move.”

He crosses back to the bed, to the nightstand. He moves to flick on the light, then hesitates. Smarter than I thought. Light is comforting. It wards off the inner darkness. But he’ll be unable to see out, and whoever is out there could see in. Instead, he searches the tabletop for his phone.

“Where’s my phone? Annie, where is my phone?” he questions, his voice low but strained and urgent.

“They’d like to come in.”

He ignores her comment. He scans her side of the bed but finds nothing. I watch him pull back suddenly and shake his head. He looks around in confusion, his mind balking at the high strangeness of his situation.

This happens on occasion, although it varies from person to person. I just need to draw his focus back to the situation at hand, not let his mind wander too far or analyze too hard. More whispers.

Across the room, the woman reaches up—a slow, muddled motion—and unlocks the window. The man watches only for a moment before dashing over. He pulls her hand away and relocks it.

He looks back to the yard below. The figure that emerged from the shadows now stands in the middle of the yard. Even standing bathed in full moonlight, its features are difficult for the man to distinguish. He must know that whatever it is, it does not look entirely human. Its proportions are wrong, and its skin is corpse pale. Although it is naked, he cannot distinguish if it is male or female. To his perception, it is perhaps both, but also neither.

Movement back near the edge of the yard draws his attention, as a second figure steps forth from the trees, then a third. They walk slowly to join the first. When the three are standing abreast, they look up at the couple, in unison. The details are easier to see in the moonlight now, as close as the creatures are to the house. Hairless, long limbs—far too long—reach and stretch towards the window, as if waiting to catch a falling child. The creatures focus on the couple, their eyes glinting yellow then dimming to purple. The man stares back, briefly as frozen as his partner, ensnared in this paralytic spell.

Then he manages to break the enchantment, and when he does, the three below move towards the cabin, covering the distance in a heartbeat. The door rattles first, then comes the crash of glass as windows shatter in the living area below. There is no door to slam upstairs, so the man gets creative. To be fair, it is more than most would think to do, in my long experience. The adrenaline coursing through his body, he drags the bed over to the stairs leading up to the loft and flips it, blocking the way up. He looks down onto the space below. The door is bulging on its hinges. One of the things is trying to crawl in through the shattered window near the fireplace. It drags its belly on the jagged shards remaining in the frame, unconcerned, blood spilling down the wall and pooling on the floor below.

The man screams the woman’s name while he paws open a bag near the bed. It is chaos in the small cabin, the pounding on the door audible over his repeated shouts. I watch as he finds what he is looking for and stands up, clutching the set of keys to their vehicle. He runs past the woman, who has taken one dazed step from the window and stares with clouded eyes towards the railing and the lower level. The man unlatches the window and throws open the glass. He sees no movement below and turns back to the woman as the first footfalls can be heard on the steps.

“Babe, please snap out of it. We need to move. We need to get out of here!” She turns her attention towards him, but her face is still blank. The corners of her mouth turn up in a slight smile.

“But they just arrived,” she says, her voice monotone. The man grabs at her arm and drags her a few steps towards the open window. She stumbles, but he pulls her with all his might, urging her towards the opening. He tries to lift her leg to the windowsill, but I insist, and she resists. Just a little, but that’s all it takes to make his goal impossible.

He is near tears and glances the stairs. The invaders are tugging and shoving at the bed, their bodies straining to squeeze into any space that brings them closer to the couple. He swings a leg out the window, one hand grabbing the frame for balance. He seizes her arm with the other and tugs. She stumbles closer to him but doesn’t attempt to join him. He shouts her name inches from her face, his voice brimming with a wonderful, desperate panic. She does not react.

The things at the stairs flip the bed over the railing, and it crashes to the floor below. The man panics now and swings his other leg over the windowsill. I want to smile again, to physically manifest my joy at his wild desperation.

“Come on! We need to go now!” He gives a final, immense pull on her arm. He manages to slam her against the edge of the sill, but no further. The three creatures begin to cross the room. He looks down at the dirt below, back towards the things, and just for a moment, into the woman’s blank eyes. Then, he jumps.

He lands in the dirt below, making no noise. The man wastes little time in dragging himself from the grass and sprinting towards the car.

“Mark!” The man stops at the front of the truck as the scream reaches him. He looks back at the cabin. Annie looks down at him. I do not whisper or meddle, but let his mind be his own. Her eyes are no longer vacant. They are wild and confused.

“Mark, what’s going on? Where—” she cuts off her question as the sounds draw her attention away from the window. It is then that she starts screaming. She turns back to the window and manages to scream his name one last time before three sets of arms drag her back into the darkness.

Mark takes one step back towards the cabin, then stops, his foot skittering gravel in the driveway. His eyes fill with tears as he listens for one second longer, then gets into the truck. The woman’s screams grow distant as he drives away.

When he wakes up in the morning, sweat dampens the shirt against his body, and it sticks to the leather seat. His heart thuds against his ribs. Bright sunlight floods the inside of his car, which is pulled off at the end of the long drive leading to the cabin. I watch, senses dulled a bit in the bright daylight, from the backseat. Confused, sick to his stomach, he jolts to full consciousness. He scans the area around the car with a frantic, urgent, pleading, delightful look on his face. There are no creatures lumbering through the underbrush towards him. No pale intruders hammering at his doors. He turns the car on, slams it in reverse, and backs up the driveway as fast as he can control the vehicle.

When the man leaps out, feet sliding on the loose gravel, he notices the window into the bedroom is shut—not flung wide open from his wild escape. The front windows are unshattered and bloodless. This slows his heartbeat just a bit but doesn’t quell the paranoia racing through his mind. He edges towards the front door. When he reaches the steps up to the porch, he freezes. He rechecks his surroundings, eyes settling on a rake leaning against the wall of the cabin. Once armed, he ascends the steps and slowly pushes open the front door.

He finds the room untouched, no signs of the things which had assaulted this sanctuary under the radiant moonlight. This breaks part of the spell, and he rushes forward, bounding up the steps. The solidifying reality largely dissipates the perfume of fear lingering in the air, the intoxicating aroma fading to the mundane smells of pine and wood smoke.

I watch from the rafters as he enters the bedroom to find her resting undisturbed. He feels relief at first; it’s written across his face. He’ll think to himself that it was a dream. The most vivid he’s ever had. It made him sleepwalk, drive the car. Not something he’s done before, but still. A dream. The relief will last as he pads across the room and down the stairs to the bathroom.

I watch him as he stands in front of the mirror. Despite his immediate exultation, he won’t meet his own gaze. He’ll tell himself over and over it was just a nightmare. That does not stop that fear from settling in his gut. But it is not simply of the phantoms I helped to conjure. Most humans believe that bogeymen do not venture far from the dreamscape. For the most part, they’re right. I can’t bring them through in the flesh—not yet at least. That requires my brethren, wielders of more substantial and rare powers.

No, no. It isn’t just my demonic visages that cling so tenaciously to his consciousness. Despite his rational self, he knows that he left her there. Dream or not, he fled. He’s frightened of what truly sits in the dark recesses of his heart and mind. Cowardice, inadequacy, seeds of doubt that will linger and fester and poison and grow. A banquet of fear for me to feast on, all the days of his life.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Chris DeStefano has been fascinated with horror and the macabre since reading a story of spontaneous human combustion as a child.  He currently lives, works and writes in New York, NY with his wife and two black cats. You can find his work here, of course, on The Dread Machine, or various dark corners of the internet. https://twitter.com/chrisdestefano

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