Why do readers like to be frightened?
They say a good series detective needs a town, a city, a beat for them to walk. Rebus has Edinburgh, Morse has Oxford, and so on. But another way of looking at it might be that every place needs a detective. Bradford is an industrial city in the north of England with a history of poverty, economic deprivation and ethnic tension, and AA Dhand has given it the hero it deserves: Harry Virdee, a detective, a progressive British Sikh – and an absolute force of nature to be reckoned with. The books burn with passion and anger, and deal with some very dark subject matter, so I was interested to discover what scares Amit himself. Over to him.
- Were you scared of the dark as a child? If not, was there anything else you were frightened of?
I wasn’t scared of the dark. Strangely enough, I liked the dark (and still do). As a child (and now also) only when it was absolutely pitch black, could my mind wander and formulate stories and ideas. To this date, when I’m thinking of a new story or indeed working on a new book, the night is where I do my best work and get my most vivid ideas. I’m a night-owl and have always been so. However, as a child, if I watched a scary movie or read a Stephen King novel, then I would be more-wary of the dark. The one thing I was afraid of was ghouls, demons and monsters but that’s only because I grew up behind the counter of a video-store and was watching horror movies way outside of my age-range! Freddie Kruger still makes me feel uneasy!
- What scares you as an adult – if anything? Do you notice any lingering fears from childhood?
Exorcisms / demonic possession and anything supernatural makes me uneasy. This is most definitely something I’ve brought with me since childhood, as my father used to rave about the horror movie, The Exorcist, which was banned when I was growing up. However, my dad had a secret, pirate copy and foolishly when I was about eleven years old, I stole it and watched the movie with my cousins. Oh. My. God. I didn’t sleep alone for a week. I was so freaked out! And I don’t think I ever fully recovered. A few years ago, whilst on a weekend break in London, I watched the movie, Paranormal Activity and Christ, I haven’t ever been so afraid in a movie cinema. It was a late show, I had absolutely no idea what the movie was about and was on a date with a woman who would soon after become my wife. She shouldn’t have married me having witnessed my reaction to that movie. I couldn’t sleep in the hotel room – I couldn’t sleep properly for a week! I’m not afraid of monsters and goblins but demonic possession is something which keeps me awake at night and I blame the effect that The Exorcist had on me.
- What’s the most frightening thing that’s ever happened to you?
The one memory which sticks with me – the one which made my bones shake was being home alone one evening when I was about twelve years old and my mother had popped out to drop my father to an appointment. We lived above a convenience store and she had put the store alarm on – a routine thing to do. A few moments after she left, the alarm started to sound – a screeching, horrific sound, piercing right through me. The control box was at the bottom of the staircase, leading into the closed store and I could see it. But that descent of seventeen steps towards that alarm box, to turn the key and stop the siren took more courage than I can possibly explain. I had to step into a dark shop full of ghostly shadows and turn off the alarm. Let me tell you – no seventeen steps since, have ever proved as difficult.
- Do you use writing to help deal with your fears and concerns about yourself or the world?
I absolutely use writing to help me deal with my fears and concerns about the world we live in, especially in what I feel are the most unstable times I can ever remember. For me, it’s a cathartic process – almost like therapy at times. I channel my fear, anger and emotions into my books and like to see my hero, Harry Virdee, do to criminals the things I think they deserve, none of which are legal! I like to think of writing as a rebalancing of my emotions and fears so that my day-to-day is mostly unaffected by my rage of the injustices and intolerances people bestow on one another.
- Why do you think readers enjoy being frightened?
I think readers enjoy being frightened because on one level, it’s a rush of adrenaline and a surge of acute emotions whether fear or excitement. The pharmacist inside me would say that, being frightened by a movie or a book gives us a natural, chemical high. It’s a jolt from reality and provides escapism. It’s when reality merges with fiction that this “buzz” of being frightened can manifest into anxiety or something darker, which is why, horror films which deal with psychological terror associated with exorcisms or possession are the most controversial and arguably the most terrifying, as we end up asking ourselves, ‘what if this really is possible?’
- Do you personally enjoy frightening fiction? If so, what’s your favourite scary book or film, and why?
I enjoy frightening fiction that is clearly engineered and not “true to life”. So, I won’t read anything to do with possession or exorcisms or religion but I love anything and everything by Stephen King and more recently, I read a book called Hex which was a fantastically creepy horror. My favourite scary book has to be Christine by Stephen King, as it was the first horror book I ever read (aged 12) and I had seen the movie. It was the first time I realised books could transfer to screen and that gave me a bigger buzz. The most frightening movie I have ever seen is Paranormal Activity. You could not pay me to ever watch the movie again! In fact, if I think too long on it, I won’t sleep tonight!
I’m an absolute sucker for films that use found footage and staged interviews. When done well, it’s a technique that adds immediacy and conviction, and has the potential to be genuinely unnerving. I think I can trace my affection back to watching The Legend of Boggy Creek as a child. I don’t know how old I was, but it was clearly too young because I had nightmares for weeks afterwards. It felt different from other films. They said it was real – and so it had to be, right? They couldn’t lie about something like that. Which meant that monsters really did exist. Sneaky of them.
I liked Paranormal Activity, but my favourite example of the genre as an adult has to be Lake Mungo, an Australian film released in 2008. It presents as a documentary. The performances are impeccable, and there are little touches throughout that create the sensation you’re watching something that really happened. It’s the story of a family dealing with their grief after the teenage daughter drowns, and then the supernatural events they begin to experience afterwards.
Did it frighten me? Well, it contains the single best jump scare I’ve ever seen, and there is a genuinely off-kilter sense of unease that builds as the events in the film play out in unexpected ways, but the answer is probably no. What it did do, though, was move me. It’s a ghost story of sorts, but the feeling I was left with at the end, and which repeated viewings reveal the whole movie to be drenched in, was sadness. It’s a film about grief, loss and missed connections more than scares. And that’s fine. There’s a part of me that thinks ghost stories should be sad by definition – someone has died, after all – and if I can’t be terrified by fiction the way I was as a child, I’ll certainly take being moved instead.
Huge thanks to Amit for answering my questions. Next post, I talk to Mattias Edvardsson.