What we fear the most
Out of every fantastical horror creation, every eldritch monster and sharp-toothed beast, there’s one thing that reliably scares us the most.
If that sounds trite, don’t worry. I’m not approaching this from a “humans are the greatest predator” angle.
But consider a scenario: you’re walking home at night. Ahead, barely illuminated by the streetlamp, stands a man. He wears plain clothes. His hands hang at his sides. He’s facing you—staring at you—and as you move closer, you realise he isn’t blinking. His expression is blank, emotionless. He just stares, and stares, and stares, even when you back away.
At first, you might be tempted to say the shadowed night-time setting creates the fear. But it doesn’t—not entirely. Place that same man into a brightly lit day, even surrounded by crowds of people, and, as long as he stares at you, he still has the power to frighten you.
We, regular people, have developed a complex system of body language and behaviour that is universally obeyed. We smile to show goodwill. We shake hands when one is offered to us (even if we don’t want to). We maintain eye contact… but not too much eye contact.
Some of this body language is conscious, but a lot of it happens on the subliminal—both receiving and giving. If a smile ends a second too soon or if a laugh is stilted, we receive the message that the other party wants to end the conversation. Blinking too often sends a message of anxiety. How we angle our body, how we breathe, our voice’s pitch: together, it forms a second language—one that’s not audible but speaks to the subconscious and is significant in forming others’ opinion of us.
We’re good at this second language. We’ve had a lifetime of practice.
And that’s why that strange man, standing on a dark street, can scare us. He’s not speaking our second language, the language everyone, even children, have learned. The language that is so deeply engrained within us that it takes conscious effort—or immense trauma—to override.
Our second language makes us predictable. Put out a hand and it will be shaken. Smile and receive a smile in return. We know the rules.
But this man? He’s not playing our game. The rules don’t apply. And that makes him capable of anything.
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