Can we talk about fear for a second here? As Stephen King said, “Let’s talk about fear, you and I.”
I’m a horror writer, so the subject interests me. I feel it should interest everyone. Within a horror fiction context, I think many of us–if not most of us–tend to view fear as an escape vessel, a channel through which we can find a good thrill. And it’s effective as that. But it’s also more. Not always, but often enough.
I say all of this because I feel like the little face in the keyhole of this poster for the Turkish horror film Baskin captures a genuine, useful fear. The kind of life-preserving fear that justifies its own existence.
We feel fear for a reason, after all. It’s no more tangibly measurable than pain, but we all know it exists, and we’re all born with it. Fear is part of any living, thinking creature’s defense mechanism, whether defense of self or defense of someone else. It’s an instinctual response to a dangerous situation. People speak sometimes of having “no fear,” but that usually means your brain is broken. Fear is there for a reason. Sometimes it tricks us, sometimes we activate it when we don’t need it just so we can explore a thrill, or just because we’re paranoid or worried about a threat that isn’t real. But fear has a purpose. It’s useful.
I’m going to get slightly more personal here than I usually do, but only to say that I was once was almost stabbed by a man in the parking lot of my apartment complex, which is the kind of story most guys would love to have in their back pocket, provided they survive without any injury that alters your quality of life. In my case, I didn’t even get a good scar out of the deal, and I didn’t do near the damage to the bastard who attacked me, my only regrets regarding the incident. Part of why I did no damage, however, was because I went on the defensive immediately. Once the blade was bared and I knew flight wasn’t an option because of the close quarters I found myself in, my mind went on emergency alert, and focused solely on the knife. Trying to control it. Trying to take it from my assailant. Trying to make sure it couldn’t do the damage I knew it could do.
Fear drove that. Fear crystallized my focus.
I’ve never been that afraid since, and hadn’t been anywhere near that afraid before, not even during a few very close-call automobile accidents I’ve experienced. That fear was unlike anything I’ve ever felt. It was pure urgency that possessed me like a force, like a presence. Like my will to live was separate from my consciousness and assumed control of my body for my own sake. I got out of that situation largely because my fear motivated my actions. Also because I’m a pretty big dude, and even though I’m not really a fighter and don’t live in the gym, I’m not completely on the weak side of things either. But that’s neither here nor there.
Let me get back to this poster. That fear you see from the man in the keyhole, his hands trying to pry it open so he can escape… that look of fear is closer to the look of madness that immediately comes up when you search for “American Psycho Christian Bale” than the typical look of “terror” in the eyes and agape, screaming mouth of many horror movie actors.
That’s no slight to those actors. Most, probably, just aren’t aware. Most people in civilized society, thankfully, don’t have the firsthand knowledge. There’s a level of pure fear that is motivation. That is urgency. The man in the keyhole, desperate to escape, he has the look of someone whose unbridled self-preservation instinct has commandeered his body. And that look is indistinguishable from that of a maniac. A madman. Obviously I couldn’t see my own face during my own attack, but I know I had that look. I know it.
Perfectly juxtaposed below this man’s horrified mania are the large, languid, deadly malevolent eyes of another man. The threat. The one to be feared.
There is no urgency in his eyes and that makes him even more frightening. There is no evidence of insanity, no indication that he is unhinged, or angry, or ferocious, or gleefully evil, or anything besides knowing. Certain. Those are the eyes of a man who has every advantage, and has work to do. He’s in no hurry. He has his prey captured. He has no time for folly, but he need not rush either. Everything is on his side.
The knife-wielding man I fought in the parking lot… his eyes were uncertain. He had to rush. He wanted blood, but not as badly as he didn’t want to be caught, and nowhere near as badly as I wanted to live. This relaxed, evil-eyed man in the Baskin poster, however, he can afford to wait. And he knows it. And his weary, resolute expression tells you he’s done this before, and he finds no joy or sorrow or satisfaction in what he does. It’s just what he does. What he’s going to do.