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Be afraid, be very afraid: L. D. Smithson on why scary stories can be good for us

Be afraid, be very afraid: L. D. Smithson on why scary stories can be good for us

When I was nine years old the movie Jaws played for the first time on UK TV. 23.5 million viewers tuned in to watch, including my babysitter and me. For what seemed like an eternity afterwards I was scared of that big fish dragging me under the waves, so scared I refused not only to go swimming, or anywhere near the sea, I even resisted a bath and I wasn’t entirely sure I was safe in the shower. Night after night I called out to my parents and they would come, shake my pillow, and reassure me that the bad dreams are gone now. But still they came.

Less than a decade later I was hosting ghost story nights with my school friends and consuming Stephen King novels by the dozen, relishing the thrill of not wanting to turn that page but doing it anyway. Had Jaws inspired me or insulated me? I honestly don’t know, all I do know is that I’m not the only one who loves the thrill of a scary story.

When I began writing The Escape Room I wanted to explore how far a Reality TV show might go to push people out of their comfort zone and the more I thought about it, the more scary the options became. What would everyone do if they were locked in and couldn’t get out? What would they do if they were running out of food and water, if they were made to solve problems when they were hot and tired, if one of them died? I then had to ask myself, would anyone want to read about such an awful scenario? I canvassed my editor and my friends. ‘Hell yes,’ they all said.

As a psychologist I have some insight into why we are so keen to watch others suffer. It doesn’t make us all cold-hearted psychopaths who lack empathy, in fact quite the opposite. The very fact that we can feel fear (something your run of the mill psychopath doesn’t worry themselves with) is why we want to see others scared. When we consume something horrific on some level our brains react as if it’s really happening. Our fear triggers the release of adrenaline which heightens our senses. We become alert, energized and ready for fight or flight. It is a sensation most of us infrequently experience in real life – thankfully – and it doesn’t half make us feel alive. But it is the rush of endorphins afterwards, when it is over, that is the really intoxicating part. Psychologists call this Excitation Transfer1. When we experience horror from a place of safety – in front of a screen or outside of the pages – the enjoyment we feel when it is all resolved is even more satisfying.

Riding the emotional roller coaster is not the only reason we choose to be scared. On a more intellectual level it can feed our curiosity about novel experiences. It allows us to vicariously live out alternative realities and ask ourselves, what would I do? Or it can tell us something about the darker side of the human psyche. We get to walk in the shoes of a serial killer and find out what they are capable of. Something we could never do in real life.2

In The Escape Room I wanted to explore all of this and more. I wanted to pitch my everyday characters against a truly horrible enemy who would demand that they play their games and face pain and suffering in order to survive. Then I wanted to see if they would come together or turn on each other. My protagonist Bonnie shouldn’t even be there, she has fraudulently taken up her sister’s place on the brand new TV show and in her interviews with the podcast Unbelievable after escaping, she describes how her initial fears about exposure were quickly overtaken by something far more primal.

She is joined by seven Escape Room enthusiasts including retired prosecutor, Dennis, who seems disdainful of the whole experience, alpha male and all round showman, Grant, who is keen to point out he was once a University Challenge finalist, one-time child chess champion, Maria, who has finally decided to do something with her life, and sweet natured Charlie who reminds Bonnie of her sister and dresses like she’s on Love Island. Then there is the intimidating, Doc Martin wearing, Jaide, who keeps herself to herself, Geordie father of twins, Russ and Jacko the son of a violent father who is looking to escape more than just the show. Together they face the kind of danger that I hope will flood readers with adrenaline. They will attempt to solve conundrums that will have readers wondering what they might do, and when all of that is done, and the ending comes, it will all have been worth it.

And rest assured, despite the fact my Escape Room is set on an abandoned Sea Fort out in the depths of the Solent, I promise there are no sharks.

See Also

The Escape Room by L.D. Smithson is published by Bantam (29th February 2024, £14.99)


C.A. Hoffner and K.J. Levine Enjoyment of Mediated Fright and Violence: A Meta-Analysis

H. Yang and K. Zhang The Psychology Behind Why We Love (or Hate) Horror. Harvard Buisness Review

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