Violet Welles is a freelance writer and math tutor who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with her rescue cat and greyhound. Her first professionally published fiction, the short story “Round-Trip Runaways,” appears in EQMM’s current issue, September/October 2020. Two other (unpublished) stories of hers have received, respectively, honorable mention in the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest and posting on World Geekly News as a runner-up in their Horror Flash Fiction contest. In this post, the author provides an interesting answer to a question often asked and very pertinent to our genre: Why do people seek out, and enjoy, fiction that inspires fright?—Janet Hutchings
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had both an anxiety disorder and an affinity for mystery. Those may seem like two completely unrelated things to tell you about myself, but I don’t think they are.
At age five, I would watch Are You Afraid of the Dark? with my mom and older sister, eyes glued to the TV screen and a glass of chocolate milk clutched in my tiny hands. Are You Afraid of the Dark? was a nineties show about a group of kids who gathered deep in the woods to tell ghost stories, and I loved it. The stories were eerie and strange and mysterious, which was apparently just my style, even at five years of age. By age ten, I was already writing stories of kidnap and death, of monsters and suspense, and I stored them underneath my bed beside my collection of old clowns and cracked dolls. Needless to say, I was very cool and popular at my middle school.
Now, I’m not exactly sure when my anxiety started to get bad or if, in the words of Lady Gaga, I was just born this way. But at any given moment, there seems to be a mystery going on inside my mind. Let’s say I’m waiting for my best friend to meet me at our favorite Thai food restaurant (something we used to do in the good old days when it was acceptable to see each other without a wall of plastic separating us).
Maybe it’s ten minutes past our designated meeting time, and she’s still not there. Logically, I know she probably just got distracted watching her pet snails crawl along the side of her aquarium (not as uncommon an occurrence as you might think—she is obsessed with her snails). However, there’s another part of my brain—the one that’s utterly bored by such a rational solution and wants to add a little spice to my life. That’s the part that immediately starts spinning stories of all the different horrible things that could have happened to her. It goes a little something like this . . .
Anxiety: I wonder if she got into a car accident on the way?
Rational Brain (this voice sounds a lot like my therapist): Maybe she just forgot.
Anxiety: Or maybe she finally went mad in quarantine or maybe she got COVID and is stuck in an infinite coughing fit or maybe she died instantly on impact or . . .
Rational Brain: Dude, she probably just got distracted by her snails again.
Anxiety: WHAT IF HER SNAILS DIED?
My mind is always writing some kind of mystery story, whether I’m actively choosing to do so or my anxiety is just taking me for a fun little ride. She gets bored sometimes, and I’ll give her this, she can be very imaginative when she wants to be. See, she’s perfected the skill, having twenty-some odd years to run free in my brain.
So why would I choose to write and read and watch mystery when it’s the very thing causing me so much anxiety in my daily life? You would think I’d rather run from it all, to read light fantasy trilogies or cute romance novellas as an escape from my everyday thoughts. But on the contrary, it’s exactly mystery fiction which provides me that escape.
When I read mystery, I’m able to explore uncertainty in a world that’s completely separate from my own. By focusing on the mystery of that story, I spend less time focusing on the mysteries going on inside my own brain. Because if my mind is going to go to those dark places regardless, why not get ahead of it? Why not choose to go there in a more controlled environment, some place divorced from my own reality?
Writing mystery is even better. When I write, I get to explore my anxieties and fears in a land that is totally within my control. I get to do whatever I want. I don’t have to worry about whether or not my main character was kidnapped and murdered, because I’m the one who gets to decide her fate. I don’t have to worry about whether or not her pet snails broke loose from their aquarium, swallowed her whole, and are now ravaging their way through the city. Because if I ever chose to write that travesty of a story, I would know exactly what was coming. I would know all the whens, wheres, hows, and whys, and for someone who deals with such uncertainty on a regular basis, that knowledge is quite freeing.
Now, because my anxiety is a workaholic with a sick sense of humor, she doesn’t even slow down when I sleep. I have frequent nightmares. As I dream, she still spins her stories—there’s the woman who lives inside my chimney and builds fires at a quarter till midnight, the young girl stuck inside the old mansion whose walls shed wallpaper like snake skin, the monster who lives inside the light of the boy’s candle and tells him to do things he doesn’t want to do. I wake up shaken, and it takes me an hour and two cups of tea to feel normal again.
But I also wake up craving to write mystery.
Until I can learn to lucid dream, I can’t control my nightmares, just as I can’t control my anxiety. But what I can do is take the fear and uncertainty they instill in me and capture them on the page. There, they are immediately powerless. There, I control their fate. I can now choose to finish the story any way I want. I could wrap it up sweetly—maybe the protagonist wakes from a nightmare, hugs her cat close, and watches an episode of Parks & Recreation before drifting off to sleep once more. Or I could take it down an even darker path, stretching out the mystery and plunging the heroine into even more peril.
When it’s on the page, I am calm. That is, until it comes time to share my work with someone. Don’t even get me started on the anxiety that comes with that.