- We use horror and suspense in fiction because people love to be afraid.
- JT MacCurdy described psychological responses to being bombed during World War Two.
- ‘Near misses’ were emotionally devastating, but ‘remote misses’ made people feel invincible.
- Does reading or watching horror replicate the feeling of a remote miss?
We flock to fairgrounds and pay for solid ground to be whipped from under us. We scream our way through horror films that put us in the sweaty, bloody place of the prey of monsters we hope never to encounter in the flesh. Perhaps more relevant for the writers among us, we make authors like Stephen King and Dean Koontz into worldwide successes because they’re so good at scaring us.
Can JT MacCurdy explain the Stephen King phenomenon?
So what is the attraction?
I found a possible answer in The Structure of Morale by the psychiatrist JT MacCurdy, who was writing about reactions to being bombed during the Second World War. Stay with me, I am going somewhere with this!
MacCurdy was a Canadian psychiatrist who spent most of his career lecturing on psychopathology at Cambridge University. The relevant insight is contained in Chapter 1, titled Passive Adaptation to Dangers, which was informed by his observations of the Luftwaffe’s bombing of Britain. His approach lacked the scientific rigour of the great psychologist of the Blitz, Solly Zuckerman, whom I pontificated about recently, but rather offers anecdote to inform speculation. If we liken them to modern writers of popularpsychology, MacCurdy was Malcolm Gladwell to Zuckerman’s Daniel Kahneman. One of MacCurdy’s speculations, however, offers some insight into the success of scary horror writers.
Britain had entered the Second World War with a fear of ‘civilian neurosis’; the breakdown of civilian morale and sanity in the face of heavy bombing. By 1943, Britain had endured the worst the Luftwaffe would throw at it and while bombs and missiles would continue to fall for another two years, British civilians had proved considerably more resilient than pre-war planners had given them credit for.
MacCurdy pointed out that the absence of civilian neurosis could have been predicted as cities had already endured heavy bombing without its appearance in the Spanish Civil War and the ongoing Sino-Japanese War:
We read in the press that peoples as different as Spaniards and Chinese had adapted themselves to bombing; were they braver than the British? No one asked that question.
MacCurdy doesn’t mention whether he asked the question himself at the time, but he doesmake the point that his observations on British cities are not unique to the culture of mid-20th century urban Britain.
The insight I find most interesting is where MacCurdy says that bombing divides people into three psychological categories. The first category is the dead, whom he dismisses as psychologically irrelevant:
Corpses do not run about spreading panic, but the fact, important though it is, is rarely stated or reckoned with.
Let’s assume for the moment that we’re not writing about zombies and grant MacCurdy the point.
His second category are the ‘near-misses’, people who have had a narrow escape. They have felt the blast of the bomb, and may have been injured or have been buried under the rubble of their own house. A near miss, MacCurdy tells us:
…may result in ‘shock’, a loose term that covers anything from a dazed state or actual stupor to jumpiness and pre-occupation with the horrors that have been witnessed; or there may be merely in tougher specimens a vivid reminder of the reality of bombs…In the near-miss group are those who have been mentally incapacitated by bombing or are, at least, shaken. Their attitude is: ‘Thenext one will get me’ or, ‘Will the next one get me?’
Psychological definitions are always being revised, but we can recognise what is currently described as ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’ in the description. As writers, we want to engage our readers’ emotions but inflicting PTSD on them would be going a bit too far.
The real thing
I was most interested in MacCurdy’s third category, which he calls the ‘remote misses’. Like everyone else in Britain, these people had been anticipating the oncoming Luftwaffe for months. They had been issued with gas masks, watched the barrage balloons go up and rushed for the shelters in air raid drills. Then, finally, anticipation gave way to howling air raid sirens and the drone of approaching Heinkels and Dorniers.
This, at last, is the real thing. There is tense waiting for the next ones will they come nearer? They don’t. The all-clear sounds and it seems to be all over. Psychologically it has not ended; indeed the experience was just the beginning of a new mental attitude. The survivor goes through such phases as the following: ‘It has happened and I’m safe.’…There is a contrast between the actuality of the destruction of others and one’s own scathelessness. Of all the signals of danger the sound of the bomb’s explosion is the most vivid and with it has been associated not the previous anticipation of destruction but the actual experience of successful escape. The emotion now conditioned with the signal is a feeling of excitement with a flavour of invulnerability.MacCurdy, ever fond of anecdotal evidence, quotes a friend:
When the first siren sounded I took my children to our dug-out in the garden and I was quite certain we were all going to be killed. Then the all-clear went without anything having happened. Ever since we came out of the dug-out I have felt sure nothing would ever hurt us.
The fear of oncoming death is replaced with euphoria at having survived it. As the ‘remote misses’ realised their fear was misplaced, the concluded there was nothing to be afraid of. It was an entirely irrational attitude; where the bombs fell depended on where the Luftwaffe was aiming them and how well they aimed them, not on whether you had survived an air raid unscathed before.
Invincibility is exciting
MacCurdy uses an anecdote of his own to show how remote misses acclimatised people to being bombed:
In October 1940 I had occasion to drive through South-East London just after a series of attacks on that district. Every hundred yards or so, it seemed, there was a bomb crater or wreckage of what had once been a house or shop. The siren blew its warning and I looked to see what would happen. A nun seized the hand of a child she was escorting and hurried on. She and I seemed to be the onlyones who had heard the warning. Small boys continued to play all over the pavements, shoppers went on haggling, a policeman directed traffic in majestic boredom and the bicyclists defied death and the traffic laws. No one, so far as I could see, even looked into the sky.
It’s worth noting that London was first bombed on 6th September so as MacCurdy dates his anecdote to the October of that year, the indifference he observed had taken hold after no more than a few weeks of high explosive falling from the sky.
Do MacCurdy’s remote misses tell us why people love to be afraid? If unrealised fear makes us feel invincible, no wonder we seek it out. Invincibility feels good.
Write like a thousand-pound bomb
So if we are writing suspense, and so inviting our reader to share the fear of our protagonist, perhaps what we are doing it offering the gift of a remote miss in a more benign way than the Luftwaffe did.
If so, it’s worth asking how best to go about it. We don’t want to overdo it with a near miss and reduce our reader to a gibbering wreck. We writers can be a cruel lot but if we drop our word bomb too close to them, they won’t buy our next book. Fortunately, there’s little danger of that. What we’re throwing at them is words from a page, not bombs from an aeroplane, and the mere fact that they can close the book ensures that any miss is aremote one.
The bigger danger is in making it too remote, and here we may look at where MacCurdy thinks the Luftwaffe went wrong. The Luftwaffe started its attacks on Britain with raids on military targets, and then transitioned gradually to progressively larger scale attacks on cities. Military installations were often close enough to cities for people to hear the bombs, and MacCurdy believed those early attacks gave people a chance to acclimatise. He went on to suggest how the Royal Air Force’s offensive against German cities, which was gaining momentum at the time he wrote it, could be informed by the Luftwaffe’s mistakes:
We may be sure that gossip is carrying about Germany tales of how terrific R.A.F. bombs are. These stories are going to people who, probably by the million (thanks to R.A.F. policy), have never heard a bomb explosion. The untouched have not had their fear reactions extinguished and rumour will reinforce them. It is sound psychological policy not to hit until you can hit hard.
The comforting shriek of a falling bomb
The ideal strategy, MacCurdy suggests, would be to let the Germans wind themselves up with rumours and then hit them hard enough to saturate the population with psychologically shattered near misses.
He dismisses the suggestion of attaching whistles to give falling bombs a banshee-like shriek for a similar reason: the warning might give enough warning to turn a near missinto a remote miss.
The Germans, with their facility for exploiting the obvious in matters psychological, tried shrieking bombs in this war. One anecdote will illustrate their usefulness to us. At the time in 1940 when attacks on British aerodromes were beginning, the enemy spent a large part of one night in bombing a certain aerodrome from a great height with smallish, shrieking bombs. After each salvo, sappers went on the landing ground and filled in the holes. When they heard more bombs coming they ran to their shelters. By dawn all the holes had been filled in, the aerodrome was serviceable and there had been no casualties.
The less warning, the more terrifying the explosion.
The principle he describes is similar to a principle Alfred Hitchcock used in his film-making: suspense, the anticipation of a shocking event, would only dilute terror, the effect of the event itself. I pontificated about his view in one of my first Greater Minds posts.
So as writers, both Hitchcock and MacCurdy advise us to drop the bombs on our readers with no warning. We may foreshadow something ominous to come with techniques as non-specific as the rumours MacCurdy presumes among the soon-to-be-bombed Germans themselves, but we must not give any foretaste of the event itself. If our protagonist is about to encounter a monster, she may be allowed to know that something is not quite right but there can be no suggestion of mosnters until it roars out of the page at her. One way of achieving that might be to have her afraid of entirely the wrong thing: perhaps she’s worrying about her short-tempered overbearing boss when she should be worrying about the werewolf that’s just eaten him.
That’s a crude example to illustrate a point. The more unexpected the coming explosion, the more likely the reader is to fell the euphoria and invincibility of one of MacCurdy’s near misses.
The value of The Structure of Morale as a psychology text is questionable. MacCurdy writes with such indifference to the scientific method that it could have been written by anyone with a modicum of curiosity about human nature, and plenty of contemporary writers did make similar observations without being professional psychologists. He makes no mention of the effect of bereavement on someone who was in the remote miss category but who had lost friends and relatives to bombs, nor does he discuss the possible longterm effects on people being bombed. He appears to have thought that if people appeared to be carrying on as normal, they must therefore be normal, which is a large assumption to make without testing. We may also speculate about his relation with the Hippocratic oath, given that he was a psychiatrist and much of what he writes is intended as a manual for inducing en masse psychosis.
For all his failings, his description of near and remote misses does contain some insights we can use to terrify our readers in a way they will enjoy.
They will thank us for it.