This is RPG-ology #11: Scared, for October 2018.
Every once in a while I will surprise someone, that is, my abrupt appearance causes them to jump. Usually they say, “Oh, you scared me.” I always think, and sometimes say, “No, I startled you.” I always say that when the situation is reversed, if I jumped and someone says, “I scared you,” correcting them that I was not scared, I was startled. Although the two are related, there is a difference.
With Halloween on top of us, it might be worth a moment to consider the difference.
Scared is a state, an ongoing condition experienced over time. We say, “I’m scared,” or “I’m frightened,” and we mean that we have a feeling of foreboding or ill ease. We can be scared because we don’t know how we’re going to pay our utility bills, or because we are walking down a dark city street at night and do not feel safe, or because we have been threatened by someone who might be able to harm us in some way. Those are in a sense examples of being scared in reality. We are also sometimes scared in unreality. A well written horror story in almost any medium can set a mood that causes us to feel on edge, to anticipate negative events, to expect the worst. Mood has a lot to do with this, and so does creating a stake for the character (see my web log post #132: Writing Horror or the French translation Maîtriser l’Horreur, and also more recently Faith in Play #5: Fear).
It is also very individual. I once read an entire book of Lovecraft short stories, and the only one which scared me was the one atypical story, unlike everything we normally expect from him. If you want to make someone fearful, you must know him well enough to understand his fears. What are you afraid of? It probably is not the same thing as the person sitting across from you. Fathoming that is essential to creating fear, to scaring someone.
When someone jumps out from behind a door and yells, “boo”, you’re not scared, you’re startled. Sure, your heart rate rises and your body tingles for a moment as you catch your breath, but that’s not fear, really. Of course, if you are already afraid—if you are fearful, if you are anticipating something bad—then that startle has a much greater effect—the reason that you jump when the cat leaps out from behind the curtain in the horror movie. The startle has more impact because it is fed by the fear. That’s why so many campfire ghost stories end with someone shouting something after talking quietly for several minutes: the mood builds the fear, and the startle from the shout is intensified by the fear.
So if you’re running a game for Halloween and you just want to startle someone, well, that’s easy enough to do. Storytellers have done it around campfires for generations. If, though, you want to scare them, you’re going to have to give some thought to the matter, and particularly to who they are, what makes them tick, and of what are they afraid.