Imagine riding your bike along a winding country road on a beautiful summer day. The wind is in your hair, the sun is shining, and your tires hum over the pavement; it’s the sound of freedom. Your mind is elsewhere on this perfect day, and as a smile twists your lips, you think, it’s good to be alive. You don’t hear the car creeping up behind you, hunting you. You don’t hear the window going down over the rhythmic pumping of your legs and the grease-smoothed rolling of the bike chain over the gears. How could you?
The car seems to leap up beside you out of nowhere and a grinning man-boy leans out the passenger-side window and latches onto your handlebars. He cackles with maniacal glee as your bike shudders violently under his sudden, unwelcome grip, and you try to keep from wiping out. Somehow you manage it, even though your heart is thudding like a jackhammer and your front tire is shuddering. You keep your tires straight . . . but then you feel a tug on the handlebars as the car speeds up, pulling you along with it. You’re not in control anymore, and you’re going too fast.
A fountain of dread splashes through your entire body. If you wrestle the kid’s arm off, you’ll wipe out, maybe even get run over. If you squeeze the brakes, you’ll fly right over the handlebars and face-plant onto the white line. Skull fracture, anyone? All you can do is hang on for dear life and scream as the car goes faster and faster . . .
I heard this story as a kid from someone’s older brother’s cousin (from a different town, of course), at time in my life when my bike was my main mode of transportation. My friends and I were riding all across our mostly rural, partly suburban little town that summer. I understood deep down that when I was on my bike, I was vulnerable, and in those days I was on it all the time. I found myself looking over my shoulder as I rode, cringing whenever a car whispered up behind me, and feeling a bullet of fear whenever I thought about those boys. Daytime was the worst. No headlights to shine on the trees and give approaching cars away.
The story about the pair of teenagers targeting bicyclists for a little bit of sadistic fun traveled from mouth to ear and eventually nestled into the minds of me and my far too gullible group of middle school buddies. Years later, what I’d eventually come to think of as the “Biking Game” morphed into a gritty scene in my debut novel, Brachman’s Underworld, centering around two teenagers having a little “harmless fun.” This scene resonates with readers. It’s powerful and disturbing because truth lurks in my sentences. Readers sense the vulnerability I felt when riding my own bike that summer.
What’s my point?
For me, the seeds of terror in my horror novels (or any emotion actually) often lie in the truth of my experiences. Psychologists may tell you there are certain types of fears, such as rejection, pain, or loss, to name a few. I’m talking about going deeper than that. I’m talking about analyzing your personal experiences and then painting them into your stories. If you really think about it, you’ve probably experienced quite a range of different terrors and didn’t realize they could be just the thing to make your tale really chilling, or maybe take that so-so scene to a completely different level.
For instance, when I was twelve and my mother told me she had cancer, I felt coldness wash through my whole body. I got dizzy and lightheaded, like I was balloon bobbing in the wind; I couldn’t really feel my legs because they weren’t grounded in that moment. Then I hugged my mother and told her she was going to be okay, not only because I wanted her to be, but because I needed her to be. This experience provided the opening scene in a novel I’ve been crafting for many years.
Or what about the overwhelming social fear of my peers laughing at me behind my back when I realized my prom date only came with me so she could hook up with another dude, even though she knew I thought it was a date all along?
Or that time I was in a car accident, my hot little red sports car rolling over and over down the road—the world’s worst carnival ride—pieces flying off it in every direction. That was a mindless sort of fear that seemed to stretch out time. All I could do was hang on and pray.
These experiences are a little personal, right? They should be, because honesty resonates with readers, even if it’s masked in the guise of fiction. Sure, maybe I change just enough to protect the innocent and all that, but I keep the main thrust—the truth—intact as much as I can. I try to be creative and innovate, sure, but most of all I try to be honest.
Try it out and see how it works. Think about what types of fears you’ve experienced, and how and why they came about, and don’t be shy about them putting them on the page. How did you react to them? How did you feel? What did you do to mitigate them? Who was involved? It might be just the thing to elevate your story from disturbing to disturbing.
Don’t stop at fear, either! Dive into your whole range of emotions and experiences and see if something you’ve lived firsthand applies to your characters or your stories, using honesty as your vehicle. You might be surprised by how the outlines of your past can illuminate the stories of your present.