H.P. Lovecraft wrote a well-known essay called Supernatural Horror in Literature, and there’s a pull-quote from it I remember from the cover of the first HPL collection I owned:
The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear… and the oldest and strongest fear is the fear of the unknown.
It’s true, I’ll demonstrate. Thomas Harris wrote a trilogy: Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs, and Hannibal. Maybe you’ve heard of or read them, or seen the movies. They’re all books with serial killers in them.
In Red Dragon, someone’s murdering entire families in a creepy and ritualistic way and when I read the scene near the beginning where the criminal-profiler protagonist is walking around a crime scene imagining how it all went down, I was so terrified I had to get up off the couch and walk around the room, I literally couldn’t sit still.
The murderer was unknown at that point, essentially a force of nature, which somehow makes the fear more visceral: your hindbrain is thinking, “this could happen to me!”
In the course of the story, the killer, Francis Dolarhyde, has a character arc. It’s the sort Gollum has in Lord of the Rings, let’s call it the “broken redemption arc”, where he almost overcomes his urge to murder, but in the end surrenders to it and attacks the protagonist and gets put down. By the end, you’re almost rooting for the guy—this guy who slaughtered families—to overcome his demons, because the story makes you see him as a person. However you might feel about that, the end of the story, while still thrilling, isn’t scary the way the beginning is scary—it was exciting but I didn’t pace around the room.
Because now the murderer isn’t an unknowable force—maybe a force which could kill any of us—it’s this guy, and I might be scared of him but he is just a guy and not a tornado.
In the end, Harris has to pit Dolarhyde against the characters for whom we have even more sympathy, otherwise you might even be sad he gets killed.
In Silence of the Lambs, the killer is also a damaged human being. You don’t really know much about him except he’s a bad, bad man, and sure he has his damaged-in-youth reasons but you never really feel conflicted when Clarice Starling empties her revolver into him.
This killer, Jame Gumb, is stuck between the unknown and the personal, and so you’re not really either afraid OF him or afraid FOR him, the way you are with Francis Dolarhyde.
Last, we’ve got the shadow looming over the whole series, and the star of the last book: Hannibal Lecter. He’s one more human being who slaughters other human beings because he likes it, and yet not only is he not an antagonist, he’s more of an antihero. So… is he scary?
He’s more fascinating than scary; you wouldn’t necessarily want to be in a room with him yourself, but you get the feeling he isn’t going to murder anyone you care about. In fact, he only seems to kill people who, for the most part “had it coming” in the grey morality of a novel, which is how Harris gets away with having a third white male with a kill count in the dozens who you’re nonetheless cheering for in a way you’d never cheer for Dolarhyde and certainly not for Gumb.
By the third novel, Hannibal is in danger from his own enemies, and you’re perhaps more afraid FOR him than of him. The fear has slid all the way across the continuum from unknown to personal. You fear for him the way you fear for a protagonist: instead of projecting yourself as their victim (I’m afraid of the unknown murderer because I fear being murdered) you project yourself as the character (I’m afraid FOR the protagonist because I fear what will happen to them the way I fear for myself).
I don’t know if I’m totally satisfied with this thesis, but there’s something here. What’s something you’ve read that started off scary but got less so as you grew familiar with it? Has anything ever gone the other way?