Most of what I write is scary, and most of what I read is scary, too.
Let’s not talk about what scares us, rather let’s talk about how it scares us. I’m going to use two different terms, and neither in the clinical sense. FEAR vs. PHOBIAS. I have both of these, and my phobia shows up in four of my five manuscripts. Water, to me, is absolute terror. It’s my phobia.
I’m often asked about why water shows up in my stories and I will quickly mention my phobia. And that inevitably leads to a question about what that’s like, how it affects me, what it means. And that usually leads to me dodging the question a bit, but I won’t here. Let’s get into it, shall we?
Fears vs. phobias. I’m not speaking for other people, I’m just speaking to my breakdown of those very, very, very different words. Everyone has fears. One fear of mine is snakes. I had a rather awful experience with a hognose snake while camping in Indiana growing up. I will not go into that, but you can read all about what they do and just know that I dealt with it first hand, alone, on a trail. These snakes are all about fear. Fear is their defense mechanism.
For me, snakes (a fear) repel me. If there’s one on TV, I look away or change the channel as quickly as possible. If I see one in person, I literally will jump and run the other way — as I did earlier this summer. My reaction to a fear is to get away from the thing as quickly as possible. But where I live and in my daily routine, I don’t come in contact with snakes. The one I saw this summer was the only snake I’ve seen in person this millennium. I don’t go into the reptile house at the zoo, duh. In my daily routine of getting the family out the door and coming to work and sitting at a desk, snakes simply aren’t a thought. And that’s key here. Out of sight, out of mind = fear.
I don’t sit at my desk and just think, “Boy, I really don’t like snakes.” They’re never a thought until confronted with one. Then I remove myself from the situation, and the thought goes away.
Now, let’s get into phobia. Water. My reaction to water is almost a 180-degree difference from my reaction to snakes. When I see a body of water, I do not run from it, or even turn away. My body freezes, mentally and even physically, to a degree. Everything clenches. My vision goes crazy like a short-circuit. Lights and bright colors wash out everything in my view, like playing with the brightness and contrast in Photoshop. My ears are also no good. I hear a deafening buzz, as if you were at a rock concert and sitting right in front of the speakers for hours and hours. These things happen instantly.
But I don’t run, I don’t turn away. Fears repel me, phobias call to me. I instantly picture what it would be like to accidentally fall into that body of water, and as my imagination goes and goes, the lights get brighter, the buzzing gets louder, my muscles get tighter.
Now, like snakes, I don’t come in contact with bodies of water in my daily routine. There aren’t any rivers, bridges, ponds between my home and work, or the grocery store, or my daughter’s school. But none of that matters. Out of sight out of mind does not apply to my phobia. At least once a day, with seemingly no prompt, I think about water, about drowning, about struggling in it. I’ll be sitting at my desk, looking at a boring spreadsheet, and it calls to me. My muscles tighten, my vision gets clumsy, and there’s that buzzing sound; not as pervasive as when I’m confronted with water, but it’s there.
Fears repel, phobias call.
And that is probably the best explanation for why in five manuscripts, I have never cast a snake. I’m repelled by them. I don’t want them around. But water? I almost always drown or nearly drown a character in every book. Because I’m drawn to it. I can’t help but think about it. It can’t be repelled.
As one of my characters said in an earlier manuscript: “Water. It has humanity by the balls. Flood waters can destroy an entire city, yet leave the survivors desperate for … you guessed it, water.”