HOW TO SCARE A
WOMAN TO DEATH
by Stephen King
would want to scare a nice lady half to death, keep her up most of the night, make her race to shut doors, close windows,
and then lie awake shivering, perspiring even in her lightest nightgown? Well, me for one. Just the thought raises
a grin that, though I cannot see it since I have no mirror, feels wonderfully sadistic. As the little street
urchin in Oliver Twist says, I only wants to make yer flesh creep . . . and it's been my experience that ladies like
a good scare as well as anyone. So if you're an apprentice flesh-creeper (or even if you aren't), let me offer some
hints on throwing a jolt into what some of us still refer to as the fairer sex.
Who's minding the kids? It would be sexist to say that only ladies care about their children --
in fact, it would be a downright lie -- but there does seem to be such a thing as "maternal instinct," and I go for it instinctively.
Thought the idea of children in jeopardy is sometimes looked upon by critics with a disapproving eye, it's as old as
Hansel and Gretel and as new as the books of Mary Higgins Clark. Except, in my case, who's minding the kids is apt to
be something green and scally that just stepped out of the closet.
Pretty dark out here, isn't
it, Maude? You're a woman, maybe young, maybe pretty. You don't spend all day and all night aware of the
fact that you're a target, but you take the usual precaustions: you don't talk to strange men, don't wear a see-through
blouse on the first date, don't pick up hitchhikers on back-country roads. And then, one night, while you're driving
on a deserted highway, you look up into your rear-view mirror and see a face . . . and suddenly there's warm breath on your
neck . . . and hands wround your throat. All of which says that women see themselves as uniquely vulnerable, and in
a way or ways that men are not. Despite unique physical advantages (increased lung capacity in the female makes it possible
for her to hold her breath longer underwater, for instance . . . remember it if your husband or lover decides he wants to
drown you in the bathtub), most women are lighter and shorter than their men, often less well-muscled, sometimes less well
coordinated -- in many cases because of the sexual molds they've been forced into. I've never consciously made any of
the women in my books into shrinking violets, helpless screamers waiting for the knight in shining armor to rescue them, or
know-nothing twits, but I like to play on that unique sense of vulnerablility. It terrifies.
I must pause here and say that
after racking my brain for at least two minutes, I've decided that all the following other techniques work equally well on
men. So, take a deep breath and try these on:
My, it's getting close in
here. When you came, you thought it would be just another dull cocktail party, but now all the doors are locked
. . . and there's a funny rumbling in the walls . . . and speaking of the walls, aren't they moving? This is
that delicious feeling of claustrophobia, fear of tight places, and I play on it with great joy at every opportunity.
It's the feeling you get when there are twelve people in the elevator and it suddenly stops between floors . . . and someone
starts to scream.
Oh, dear, I don't know what that
is, but it's not chopped liver! You drop your damn compact, the one your mother-in-law gave you, and it rolls into
that funny little hole in the baseboard. You reach in to get it, and your hand closes on something there in
that musty darkness between the walls . . . and then the something starts to squirm in your hand . . . and sting. . .
and you can't get your fingers out. This is a highly usable combination of fears, centering perhaps on the phobia
-- the fear of the horribly slimy or squirmy something that you just can't see. It works well on women, who traditionally
scream about mice, gag over spiders, and faint at the sight of a snake slithering ut from under the bed, but it works just
as well on men, who do all the same things . . . inside.
What happened to the lights,
Jane? No doubt about it, this is the greatest fear of all -- fear of the dark and what might be there. Turn out
the lights in a lady's own peaceful living room (or even better, have a blackout at the height of a screaming thunderstorm),
and that peaceful room becomes a jungle. You forget where things are; you're apt to stumble over the hassock, lose your
sense of direction and run into the bookcase thinking it's the door to the hall, and end up feeling your way with your hands
groping the air in front of you. Absurd imaginings no longer seem quite so absurd, do they? You could almost scream,
couldn't you? And when an inhuman voice begins whispering your name over and over again in the dark, perhaps you do
. . .
The dead. They
don't come back. I know it and you know it. There are no such things as ghosts, except in the stories told around
the campfire. Vault doors do not creak open at mdnight. And then, three days after you bury Uncle Harry (and no
one even suspected the rat poison you fed him, you clever girl), the telephone rings . . . and it's Uncle Harry . . .
and he says you and he have something to talk about . . . and twenty minutes later the door knocker begins to rise and fall
in a slow and horrible rhythm . . . and you think you'll just go to the peephole and make sure it's only the paperboy . .
. and that's when the moldering hand pokes through the letter slot and clutches your wrist. What fun.
These are five of the ways I
go about my task of scaring ladies. There are others I'll not mention (I can't give away all of my trade secrets),
but let me add one more -- a very quiet scare that perhaps works best on women because women are slightly more imaginative
than men, slightly better tuned to the nuances of terror. So: What's missing from this picture?
In some ways, this is the most wicked thrust of all, aiming directly to a woman's need for pattern and order. This is
the terror of coming home and finding that the furniture has been subtly changed about; that the slip you'd folded so
neatly into the third drawer is now in the second, that the book you put on the dresser is lying open on your favorite chair;
that the radio you left tuned to AM-91 is tuned to FM-106.
This is coming home and finding that
the dog your husband left to protect you is mysteriously mising -- and one knife, the longest and sharpest, is gone from the
rack over the sink. And . . . just perhaps . . . at that point you hear breathing in the next room.
For me, scaring women is all
part of the job, but in this case I admit with no shame at all that my business is also my pleasure. And it might not
be unfitting to close with the words of Shakespeare, another writer not above throwing a scare into the fairer sex when the
chance came. "Good night, ladies, good night," said Ophelia, who was drivin mad by her own fears." "Sweet ladies,
good night, good night . . . "
And sleep tight.