Christa Wojciechowski is just an awesome person. There’s no other word for it. She might write stories that utterly disturb me, but she’s great. She is, to date, the only author I actually correspond with on a semi regular basis. That says a lot. She’s written Sick, which I’ve reviewed here, and Sicker which I hosted a giveaway for. She’s got a talent for getting under your skin, and was the perfect person to write this piece on Why Psychological Thrillers Terrify Us. I hope you enjoy reading it, and high recommend you check out her books!
The Horror of Being Human: Why Psychological Thrillers Terrify Us
by Christa Wojciechowski
Horror books are scary because they trigger human beings’ most basic survival instincts: fear of creatures that might eat us, fear of the unknown, fear of the bogeyman, and fear of other nasty possibilities such as disembowelment or possession. It’s easier to face our fears by inventing monstrous archetypes because it’s “just pretend.” But the most terrifying monsters lurk within each one of us as life twists and shapes us by our experiences.
I’ve been told my psychological thriller series, SICK, is disturbing. I didn’t necessarily set out to frighten and disgust anyone. My goal was to tell the story of John and Susan Branch. I see their relationship as an exaggerated version of any marriage dynamic. Beneath the “honey-dos and sweetie pies” is a constant power struggle and insatiable craving for the beloved’s attention. At the heart of SICK is a romance that shows how two terribly f*cked-up people are trying to survive with their mental health issues.
The reasons behind their freakish behavior are desires we all share: safety, acceptance, unconditional love. I think that’s why readers understand John and Susan even when they hate to admit it to themselves.
One of my readers, a mother, felt uneasy when she associated John’s clutching neediness with her relationship with her toddler. Several readers identified with Susan’s resentments and frustrations about caregiving and the conflicting emotions between wanting a sick person to live and wishing they would die.
We all have a shadow side, and depending on what school of psychology you ascribe to, this side can be slightly different things, but what’s agreed on is that this darker side is lurking in our unconscious mind. We are either unaware of it, or we blot it out and ignore it.
Another reason I write about psychologically disturbed characters is because mental illness is present in my family, and losing my mind is one of my greatest fears. As a writer, I’m always analyzing and observing people. I pick up little clues in their body language and in their speech. They’ll flash their shadow side, exposing some selfish or childish trait or pattern that I recognize in myself. I wonder how easily I could end up like them. Are they aware of how crazy they sound? Will I know it if I’ve lost my mind?
That’s why it’s important for me as a writer to explore this shadow side through my characters. We must be vigilant of our true motivations, fears, and desires so they don’t consume us.
The reason books like SICK may affect readers on a deeper level than a traditional horror novel is because they expose this desperately hidden dark side. Underneath the bright and ordinary exterior of everyday life, people like my characters DO exist. We see parts of ourselves in each of them, and facing the inky void of our shadow side is the most frightening confrontation our conscious selves can imagine.