Horror Fiction: A Vaccine Against Fear

– by Josh Schlossberg, JoshsWorstNightmare.com

I’ve deliberately kept a low profile during the last few weeks, not wishing to add to the flood of (mostly mis)information flowing from the fingers of the anxious and ill-informed.

I wanted to break my silence by assuring you that I’m not here to fan the flames of fear, but to help put them out. While we’re not out of the coronavirus woods yet, it may be that before very long we’ll be approaching the edge of the forest. Indeed, China’s outbreak peaked sometime in February—with only a trickle of new cases these days—with life over there in the process of returning to normal. 

If the most densely populated nation in the world that made zero advance preparations for this pandemic is through the worst, that bodes very well for everywhere else. I’m not saying there aren’t challenges ahead, or that governments shouldn’t be enacting strict measures, or that people shouldn’t be taking precautions. To nip this in the bud, we’ve all got to come together (not literally!).

While I don’t want to downplay things, trends do suggest that COVID-19 will peak and decline before very long in most regions of the world. It’s this evidence-based optimism that makes me feel justified to write not about the pandemic itself, but people’s reactions to it.

Simply put: People haven’t been reading enough horror fiction and it shows.

Some of you may be aware that I’ve been researching/writing/worrying/warning about disease outbreaks in both a fictional and journalistic capacity for over a decade, specifically since the 2009 H1N1 pandemic. So, back in January, while the world was distracted with who was saying what mean words to whom on social media, I was paying close attention to the outbreak of a new respiratory ailment in Wuhan, China. 

Having read many zombie novels, I recognized the plot line: A handful of cases in some far-flung region. Initial reports suppressed or dismissed. When the reality of the incidents could no longer be denied, people telling themselves it couldn’t happen here. And then, before long, the zombies scratching at your door. 

While I didn’t expect corpses to reanimate (OK, maybe a little), I did begin to physically and psychologically prepare for what I knew was probably inevitable. I started disengaging from public social events, stocking up on food and other household products, and quietly suggesting others do the same (nearly all of whom ignored me and/or thought I was crazy). 

The result was that, come March, when people were finally starting to wake up to the situation and began freaking out, my anxiety had already peaked and is now on the downslope. What this means is I’m not needlessly feeding the collective fear by emotional venting, spreading inaccurate (or out of context) information, or prognosticating apocalypse. 

Speaking of feeding, since I had already procured my necessities during a time of overabundance, I didn’t need to do any last-minute panic shopping and add any stress to the supply chain. (The most ironic thing about panic shopping is that it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: When everyone buys way more than they need all at once for fear of running out, they genuinely do create scarcity). Had more folks paid closer attention to zombie novels, perhaps there would now be enough toilet paper to go around.

While horror fiction can certainly warn us about specific calamities such as disease outbreaks, its much greater benefit is how it can help prevent a lot of needless panic, which is more dangerous than any pandemic. 

In other words, reading horror fiction is like a vaccine, inoculating you with a harmless germ of terror to build up your immunity for when shit really hits the fan.

The COVID-19 pandemic is but one example of multitudes, as life itself is full of both rays of light as well dark twists and turns we’d best prepare for. This isn’t to say we let ourselves be consumed by the shadow by, say, reveling in snuff films or drinking wine from the skulls of our enemies. But we can’t afford to ignore it, either.

To the contrary, people’s largely unhelpful and sometimes hysterical reactions to recent events prove that the world could benefit from more people who have built up a bit of tolerance to fear. And it just so happens horror fiction is one of the best tools at our disposal to help us get there.

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