It’s a Mystery! The Power of Fear

By Katherine Sharma

The “dark and stormy night” is a cliché illustration of how writers appeal to universal fears to heighten suspense. Just look at the National Institute of Mental Health’s list of the 10 most common phobias: fear of public speaking, fear of death or dying, fear of spiders, fear of darkness, fear of heights, fear of socializing or being in a crowded place, fear of flying, fear of confined spaces, fear of being unable to escape an open place, and fear of thunder and lightning. So let’s set the scene with our protagonist trapped in a dark closet crawling with spiders while thunder rumbles, lightning flashes, and a killer lurks on the other side of the door! That’s the stuff of a B movie, but good writers do the same thing more subtly. Consider author Stephen King’s cogent remarks about fear in the introduction to his short-story collection Night Shift: “Fear is the emotion that makes us blind. How many things are we afraid of? We’re afraid to turn off the lights when our hands are wet. We’re afraid to stick a knife into the toaster to get the stuck English muffin without unplugging it first. We’re afraid of what the doctor may tell us when the physical exam is over; when the airplane suddenly takes a great unearthly lurch in midair. We’re afraid that the oil may run out, that the good air will run out, the good water, the good life…. Fear makes us blind, and we touch each fear with all the avid curiosity of self-interest, trying to make a whole out of a hundred parts. We sense the shape. Children grasp it easily, forget, and relearn it as adults. The shape is there, and most of us come to realize what it is sooner or later: it is the shape of a body under a sheet.” fear bed

Horror writers and murder mystery writers approach that mortal fear from different angles, perhaps because of the nature of their readers. The murder mystery reader handles fear of “a body under a sheet” by turning it into an intellectual puzzle to solve; and while thrills along the way make the puzzle-solving exciting, the mystery reader’s strong sense of justice and order demands a resolution of fear, that the evil threat is punished and removed. For mystery writers, fear’s blinding quality is also a great way to distract readers from clues to the who, how and why. But I also would hope that by facing fears in fiction, readers can deal better with fears in real life. Cue Dr. Robert L. Leahy, psychiatrist and author of the lauded The Worry Cure and Anxiety Free: Unravel Your Fears Before They Unravel You. One of his suggested ways to cope with fear: “Turn your anxiety into a movie (or a book, I would add). You can let go of a worry by disconnecting yourself from it… sit in the audience, eating popcorn, a calm observer.” For more of Leahy’s advice, see


Katherine Sharma’s family roots are in Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas. But after her early childhood in Texas, she has moved around the country and lived in seven other states, from Virginia to Hawaii. She currently resides in California with her husband and three children. She has also traveled extensively in Europe, Africa and Asia, and makes regular visits to family in India. After receiving her bachelor’s degree. in economics and her master’s degree in journalism from the University of Michigan, Katherine worked as a newspaper and magazine writer and editor for more than 15 years. She then shifted into management and marketing roles for firms in industries ranging from outdoor recreation to insurance to direct marketing. Although Katherine still works as a marketing consultant, she is now focused on creative writing.