There's no dearth of scary news, so why add 'faked-up' fears to real ones?

If the results of this year’s Booker Prize are anything to go by, there’s fame and fortune in gloom and doom. And the gloomier and doomier the better.

The £50,000 award – not counting the bonanza of royalties the flashbulb-popping prize generates – went to Paul Lynch for his dystopian novel, Prophet Song, about a woman desperately trying to save her family from a vortex of violence as Ireland is engulfed by a tidal force of totalitarianism.

Describing the impact of the book, the chairperson of the judges said, ‘From that first knock at the door… we felt unsettled… submerged in and haunted by the sustained claustrophobia of Lynch’s powerfully constructed world.’

The shortlist for the Booker reveals that existential blight in its manifold forms remains as bankable as ever. In Chetna Maroo’s Western Lane, three sisters try to come to terms with their mother’s death. Paul Murray‘s The Bee Sting uncovers ‘dark secrets that threaten to shatter a family’. Paul Harding’s This Other Eden focuses on an isolated island mixed-race community that is destroyed by White outsiders who attempt to ‘civilise’ it.

In a world where Gaza and Ukraine remain aflame, the deadly pall of climate change shrouds the planet, and nuclear Armageddon is a clear and present danger, do we really need made-up fears to add to our only too real ones?

The answer seems to be yes. Why is fictive fear such a money-spinner? Why does scaremongering sell? Why does dire dystopia – the opposite of utopia, a word denoting a perfect society described in Thomas More’s 1516 Latin work, the title of which translates as ‘No Place’ – find so many buyers? The answer to these whys might lie in what the Germans call ‘schadenfreude’ – pleasure at someone else’s misfortune. Aristotle would have us believe that the witnessing of enacted catastrophe brings about a catharsis, a therapeutic purging of the emotions of fear and pity. King Lear as a metaphoric laxative?

That maestro of the macabre, Alfred Hitchcock, had a different take on why horror sells like hotcakes: we delight in having the living daylights spooked out of us, triggering as it does the adrenaline rush of the primal fight-or-flight survival mechanism.

From Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein through Bram Stoker’s 1897 Dracula, to HG Wells’ 1898 The War of the Worlds – the 1938 US radio version by Orson Welles caused panic among listeners who thought they were tuned in to a real news broadcast of a Martian invasion – and Hitchcock’s own slasher classic, Psycho, the horrific boasts a pedigree of dreadful distinction.

Hollywood thrives on the fatal attraction that air-brained teenagers have for batwing-dark deserted mansions, full of echoing corridors, and doors that open and shut off their own volition with the creak of a coffin lid being pried loose, from the inside…

And there’s no point in yelling at the nitwits to get the hell out of there before Fiendish Freddy turns up to give them their gory comeuppance. Because, axiomatically, their cellphones have zero battery charge the moment they cross the threshold into terror cognita.

All we can do is sit back, eat our popcorn, and enjoy the shocks and shivers devised for us. As must have the audience when the guy got on the stage and delivered his spiel: ‘I could a tale unfold whose lightest word/ Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,/ Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,/ Thy knotted and combined locks to part,/ And each particular hair to stand on end,/ Like quills upon the fretful porpentine.’ Had he been around, the ghost of Hamlet’s dad might well have been a shoo-in for the Booker. Or for moviedom’s Hall of Horror.


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