When Realities Don’t Add Up

It’s been about a week now since I’ve returned home from Bermuda. My Player 2 and I travel a fair amount and have really set travel and seeing the world as one of our top priorities. When traveling, heavily dependent upon the trip, I’m often not within reach of my laptop and sometimes not even my kindle/keyboard setup. I try to keep a notebook on me or nearby, but often I use the time that we are actively traveling on a plane, on a ferry, on a train, on a bus, or on a tender, to just stop and think. Having time to fully unplug and immerse myself in thoughts is so valuable to me.

Here is a picture from Horseshoe Bay in Bermuda that I took one morning at the beach while I had time to sit and think.

On one of our flights, it was still early and dark outside. I closed my eyes and embraced the silence on board with everyone trying to squeeze in some extra sleep. Shortly after the plane took off and while my eyes were still closed, a man behind me sneezed. My body reacted with a small jolt. Why? It’s a very small reaction, but I enjoy picking these things apart. I think understanding very small reactions like a tiny jolt after hearing a sneeze, helps us to understand the bigger reactions like what terrifies someone and causes them to scream in a haunted house.
As humans, we have something called an orienting response. Say you are in a meeting and someone at the end of the table drops a stack of books on the floor and upon hearing the loud noise, everyone in the room quickly turns to look before they even know what has happened. This is our orienting response. No one in the room is trying to embarrass the person who dropped the books by looking at them (well, hopefully, right?) but the noise drew attention simply by our minds’ automatic response to an unexpected stimulus in our environment. Unexpected is the key term here. If you are in a busy mall, our minds have this construct that things around us will be busy and noisy and that keeps us from having to inspect each and every stimuli in that environment.
This brings me to the idea of expectations. Our expectations can be a driving force for a lot of different emotions. We see this a lot in movies, tv shows or in books. The man has been set up on a date. He is older, slightly goofy, but an all-around nice guy. He is told by his friends to meet the date there at 7 and so his expectation is set. He waits until the clock reads 7:30, then 8:00, and then 9:00 before accepting that the reality is that his blind date is not coming. His reality did not meet his expectations and this makes him sad and it makes the viewer or the reader feel sorry for him.
This can work in horror, too. A young woman in college prepares herself for a night out with friends. Her expectation for the night is to look pretty, drink, take selfies and have fun all night. Going over to her friend’s dorm room, her immediate expectation is to find her friend there getting ready. She opens the door and finds that her friend has been brutally murdered and is looking upon a very gory scene. Her expectations, both immediate and for the night, have been pitilessly violated and drives home a cocktail of emotions for her, including fear.
I think that horror can go a bit further with this, though. Let’s go back to the small reaction. On the plane, my eyes were closed. We can look at this a couple of different ways. We could say that my expectation while the plane was taking off and it was completely dark, was one of a decent level of silence on board (minus the noised associated with a plane that is taking off—that’s part of the expected construct we have of the plane taking off.) So, we could say that the reality of the sudden sneeze didn’t meet that expectation causing a reaction. Or, bare with me, the two realities of my eyes being closed and only seeing darkness, did not match a sudden sounds around me that I didn’t have a person creating the stimulus to pair it with.
Let’s look at this in a different way to really grasp what I’m getting at here. In grad school, we went over this study of infants in one of my classes. The jist of the study was that the infants were being shown adult faces that did not match the sounds that were being heard by them. For example, the adults would be making a face portraying them making the sound “O” when actually the babies would hear the sound “EE.” The result? They would cry. It was too difficult for them to wrap their minds around the fact that the adults were not making the sounds that they seemed to physically be making. These two realities of what they could see happening with the adult’s face and what they could hear happening with their own ears, didn’t match.
I think on a very basic level, this is what scares people about something going bump in the night. It’s unsettling to us when two realities that we experience at once, do not add up. When something goes bump in the dark of night, the reality of what they see and the reality of what they hear do not match, and that makes their skin crawl.
So, what do you think? What are you reminded of when you think of times in scary movies or books where expectations don’t meet reality or maybe two realities are not adding up?

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S.L. Ember

Horror and dark fiction writer.

2 thoughts on “When Realities Don’t Add Up

  1. When the movie Halloween came out in the theaters my friends and I went and sat in the back row of the theater. There was a part in the movie where Jamie Lee Curtis was going to investigate a noise she heard behind a door. As she got closer, the camera was focused on the door and the music was getting more intense. This is usually the part where people expect Jason to come busting through the door. They do not, however, expect a smart-aleck kid to jump up from the back row and yell, “BOO!”, which I did. Jason didn’t jump out, but the whole theater jumped and screamed.

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