illustration by Brianna AshbyGhosts, vampires, ghouls, and zombies are not intrinsically frightening things. Their capacity to create fear lies mainly in their ability to shock. But the best creature movies actually scare us because they represent a threat to the people and lives we have taken the time to cultivate, appreciate, and value. Real fear is born out of real caring. To be truly afraid, you have to understand the value of your life. Scary movies can attempt to frighten us, but they can’t terrify us; they can startle us, or give us nightmares, but it’s never real fear. Feeling genuine concern for a person, whether fictional or not, takes time and investment; rarely can Hollywood studios afford the luxury to invest that time, and so most scary movies fall short.
Quantifying such an abstract and subjective feeling as “being afraid” is difficult, I know, but I don’t think getting scared is as easy as Hollywood would like to believe it is. Vampires, poltergeists, psychopaths, and the undead simply don’t rank high on the fear scale for me. There’s nothing of value there, because there’s nothing for me to care about. Real fear is being faced with a black abyss—devoid of everything we value—and not knowing how to move through it. This abyss often starts with the end of love, and it’s why I can’t see a way out of it. And most scary movies simply can’t capture that depth.
Television shows that deal with scary situations do a better job of being truly frightening. This is because television studios thrive on having time to invest—the goal of most shows is to garner viewers that are obsessively involved with the characters that the writers create. Personally, I refuse to watch any show unless it has vampires, werewolves, aliens, or some other sort of supernatural element to it. I think this is because scary television shows, like scary movies, aren’t really about the scary things; they’re about the people the scary things are happening to. When a character you spend time with every week is being chased by a werewolf, or haunted by a ghost, it’s easier to feel scared because you’re much closer to genuinely caring about that particular character.
My favorite television shows are the ones that are built first and foremost upon a foundation of deep relationships that I become invested in—and then pour a whole bunch of demons, wendigos, or killer ghosts on top. It’s a recipe for the kind of heart-pounding, edge-of-your-seat suspense that most horror movies attempt, but are often only able to achieve through an over-use of dramatic music and quick camera edits, shortcuts to our compassion and emotions.
One of my favorite television relationships—one that essentially drives the entire premise of its show—is the relationship between the Winchester brothers from Supernatural. Since 2005, Sam and Dean have hunted werewolves, slayed dragons, exorcised demons, been to hell, dealt with angels, and thwarted an apocalypse or two. Still, Supernatural is not really about supernatural things, even if there’s a monster of some kind in every episode. Rather, Supernatural is about the relationship between Sam and Dean. And it’s clear that nothing scares Sam and Dean more than one another. If they were fans of U2, which they most certainly are not, they would sing “I can’t live, with or without you” while staring deeply into each other’s eyes. The love story of Sam and Dean Winchester is as epic as the ’70s rock anthems that provide the soundtrack for their lives. And, because of that intense love, the fear I feel watching them struggle with one another is also intense; it moves closer to a real fear because of the investment I’ve made in the characters. This is why fandoms are frequently so insane as well: we feel with the characters in a meaningful way. We feel their love and, as a result, their fear becomes an actualized concept within our collective psyches.
Throughout the series the Winchester brothers have encountered a bit of everything, from ruthless archangels to Bloody Mary, leviathans with jaws that dislocate to reveal rows of razor-sharp teeth to the four horsemen of the apocalypse, from rugarus that feast on human flesh to Death himself. Their friends and family have been killed; in fact, both Sam and Dean themselves have been killed at some point. Both have literally been to Hell and back. Dean has been to purgatory; Sam was a human meat puppet for Lucifer.
If real fear stems from real caring and a heightened understanding of the value of life, then the Winchester brothers have got it on lock. Sam and Dean have spent their entire lives fighting supernatural beings, but no one has dealt them more damage than the damage they’ve dealt one another. It’s a complicated relationship, one only made more so by the fact that both have given up normal lives with women they love in order to live a life where they are basically each other’s only companions. It’s an ordinary relationship between two brothers living extraordinary lives. They make mistakes with each other’s trust. They hurt one another for their own good. They lie to spare each other’s feelings, to avoid each other’s pity. They annoy each other and die for each other. It’s a relationship I envy: it’s a relationship I wish I saw reflected in my relationship with my own brother.
I want to be Dean and I want my brother to be Sam.
But instead, we walk through the mall and he mentions in passing that we’ve never been close, with a nonchalance that makes it obvious he’s ignorant to the fact of how that hurts me. He calls me only to ask me questions about his schoolwork. He texts me only to tell me when a new kpop MV has been released. I watch three episodes of Supernatural instead of making the 45-minute drive to see him. I only text him to comment on the series finale ofVampire Diaries.
My brother and I have lived privileged lives barren of tragedy and trauma. There have been no hunting trips to destroy vampires to strengthen our relationship, but it’s what we both suspect is about the only thing that would work. We’ve spent 26 years developing the timbre of our relationship and have yet to reach a point where we simply say, “I love you.”
I want to know my brother’s favorite kind of pie, and be able to sit down at the end of the day and have a beer with him. I wonder what it would be like to be “The Wests”, and what that would even mean for the two of us.
At the end of season five of Supernatural, Lucifer has taken over Sam’s body, but Dean refuses to let go of him. He drives the Metallicar (the black 1967 Chevy Impala that features heavily in every season) to confront Lucifer. Lucifer beats the crap out of Dean as he begs Sam to come back to him. Dean doesn’t even fight back. Do you know what this means? It means that the prospect of being beaten to death by the Devil himself is not as frightening to Dean as the prospect of having to live without his brother. And the thing that ultimately ends up saving Sam is this love for Dean. It’s a love that can redeem Sam after he’s been possessed by the devil; it’s a sacrificial love. I wonder if that sort of fear exists in my relationship with my brother. Would I die for my brother? I’m not even sure how to imagine it. Am I afraid of living without him? Does it terrify me to picture a life with no midnight texts about G-Dragon’s newest song? Could the memory of my relationship with my brother redeem me, if I were lost? The fact that it probably couldn’t is perhaps the scariest feeling of all.
It’s an acknowledgement of the way our family accepts distance and losing touch. It’s accepting that a quarter century of invested time has only resulted in an “afraid” on the hypothetical scale of fears. The terror seeps in when realizing that we don’t lie to each other to spare each other’s feelings, or to avoid each other’s pity. We don’t hurt each other for our own good, we don’t annoy each other, and we wouldn’t die for each other. That particular feeling is very much like looking into an abyss, and not knowing how to move through it. For the Winchesters, family is everything, it’s the reason for existence. But life isn’t like television. Life is scary because we care, but aren’t sure if it’s enough. Life is staring out at the black abyss, because we’re not sure if it will ever be enough.
Katie West is a writer, editor and photographer. She likes cats and watching shows with vampires and werewolves in them.