The Use of Fear

In our writing classes, we are told repeatedly: find out what your main character fears the most and make it happen. Make the obstacles insurmountable. Just when you think it can’t get any worse, make it get worse.

Today, I finally saw Gravity.

This movie perfected all those things they keep telling us to do. I sincerely wanted the movie to end because I couldn’t handle one more bad things happening.

Maybe my reaction was heightened because of my aversion to space. I don’t like jumping off things. I don’t even like flying, to be honest. Someday I will go skydiving as a symbol of my mind conquering all. Well, all except zombies. But other than that, I have no desire to have atmosphere between me and the solid ground.

I’ve heard mixed reviews about the movie. People claim that it has no story. Well, those are the kind of people who probably don’t believe that anything happens in their own life. Every conflict is a story. If you drive up to an ATM only to discover that you’re too far away to reach the buttons, that is a conflict and therefore a story that you could tell. If you end up free-floating in space, I challenge you to never tell anyone because it’s not a “story.”

Point being, this use of fear in a movie I found to be very profound. Did I realize that I have an aversion to space before the movie? Not really. I know I don’t like flying, and certain kinds of rollercoasters. Do I think it would be cool to go to the moon? Absolutely. Do I want to be conscious in the process of getting there? Absolutely not. Watching this horrifying experience made me realize something about myself.

Not only that, but there was a pattern. She overcame a bunch of obstacles, and for a minute I thought she was safe. Then a barrage of new problems arises, where she has to use what she’s just learned from the first set of problems. I see that happening frequently in my own life. In fact, it happened today in finding a new route home from a part of town I’m not familiar with. This pattern, I find, is extremely useful in overcoming fear.

When I moved to Germany over six years ago, I had a lot of doubts and fear. I’d never left America before. Not even to Mexico or Canada. But I learned a lot over the year, and what I learned there changed me enough that I was able to move to Scotland and hardly miss a beat about it. Instead of taking weeks-to-months to figure out public transportation, my way around the city, and to make friends with a ton of different nationalities, it took me days-to-weeks. I can walk around the streets of Edinburgh with essentially no fear (except for zombies, and the paranoia that comes as a side-effect of self defense training, which I don’t count as a fear because I’m confident in my ability to kick some trash).

Fear is, well, pretty much essential to good story-telling. A good character has something to lose. Why else would you want to watch them?

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