Let’s talk about fear, shall we? I’ve long been fascinated with the dark corners of the imagination. You know the ones that I’m talking about: they creep up on you when you’re trying to get to sleep at night. They whisper in your ear that one day you, too, will die, and there’s not a damned thing you can do about it. They tell you that, at any moment, it can all end to a careless driver, an earthquake, a stranger in the dark. Those corners are all too aware of the day-to-day horror that is our existence and the tricks that we play on ourselves to push any anxiety about that situation into the back of our minds.
Even with those coping mechanisms, these thoughts can still creep up on even the best of us when we’re at our most vulnerable. We push them away as best as we can, but the popularity of the horror genre just confirms that these fears are both impossible to ultimately escape and best met head-on.
Those are the things that fire my imagination the most. I try to focus on the positive and sometimes my imagination is even up to that task, but even still, I am – and have always been – acutely aware of my own mortality and the ordinary and extraordinary events that can bring this all to a crashing halt. So I thought I’d assemble a quick list of the concepts that frighten me the most.See if you can detect their echoes in some of my fiction; many of them lurk under different names.
1. Death of the Universe. No way around this one. It just boggles my mind. Seriously, sit with this concept: one day the very idea of matter itself may no longer exist. Scientists have identified a few competing concepts, but the most accepted model at the moment is the Big Freeze, in which the “universe…asymptotically approaches absolute zero temperature” (Wikipedia). This means that everything essentially stops moving. Humanity will likely be long gone by that point, but it’s still mind-boggling to consider that even the energy that once constituted our bodies will effectively be slowed to an absolute stop. My favorite, by far, is the Big Rip. In this theory, the very fabric of the universe is torn apart by the ever-expanding universe; as I stated above, matter itself may cease to exist. This one is many billions of years in the future (perhaps trillions), so we don’t have to worry about it in our lifetimes, but the concept itself never fails to evoke an existential dread in my gut.
2. Plane Crash. I realize some people don’t understand my fear of this one, and I admit it’s a personal anxiety issue, but come on. Let’s say you’re at cruising altitude, 38,000 feet, and a critical piece of the plane snaps off. Absolute catastrophic cascade of events that leaves you in freefall, no chance of survival, and we’ll assume that the airframe remains intact, as losing pressure at altitude can knock you out and give you a blissfully unaware death. No, in this scenario you’re very much aware the whole way down that you’re about to die. Many variables can change the amount of falling time, but in general you’re looking at about four minutes. Keep in mind that one of humanity’s most primal fears is that of falling; it’s a hard-wired instinctive fear, one that’s responsible for so many dreams of falling. Now imagine that for four minutes. Four minutes of overwhelming terror, terror that you cannot begin to understand even in the most vivid imagination.
Then tell me my fear is irrational, even with the statistics.
3. Nuclear War. I’m a child of the Cold War, specifically, Ronald Reagan’s Cold War, an especially volatile period of the 1980s. It’s hard to explain the daily dread of that era to people who either didn’t live through it or were too young to understand what was going on. I probably should have fallen into the latter camp, but in November, 1983 ABC aired a movie called The Day After, in which war in Germany leads to an all-out thermonuclear exchange between world powers. These days I recognize it as a little silly (if you want real terror see the BBC movie Threads, that will keep you awake for days), but as a seven-year-old, the film was gut-wrenching and the concept even more so. It seemed like a scenario straight out of science fiction, but I was constantly reminded that it was very real and, indeed, very possible. It haunted me for months: everything around me could vanish in an instance, all at the whims of a process much larger than myself, an implacable, unstoppable monster that could spin out of control no matter what I did or didn’t do.
I’m a bit more philosophical about the concept these days, even as it’s become even more likely: I’d prefer to perish in the first blast than deal with the fallout. Still, every now and then, I dream of mushroom clouds bursting in the distance.
4. Singularity. This is a bit of a weird one, I admit, as the odds against such a thing ever happening are remote, but it is possible. What if a black hole wandered close to Earth? First of all, while the chances are indeed very remote, it is a possibility. If a black hole were part of a binary system and its twin star went supernova, it could – and has – sent a black hole hurtling off into space, consuming everything in its path. The nature of a black hole just makes this all the more frightening, as it would be very difficult to detect its movement until it was too late – you see, the thing is, we have to have some other source of energy nearby to help detect its gravitational lensing (warping of space-time), and with no stars anchoring its course, it would become very, very difficult to detect indeed.
Our first sign would likely be the effect of its pull on the other planets, giving us something like 100 years to escape. It sounds like a lot, but in the grand scheme of things, getting all of human life off of Earth and into a safe system in 100 years is a monumental task. Once the black hole became close enough, even a near-miss could send us hurtling right into the sun or out into deep space, where we’d freeze to death in short order. But here’s the real terror: much like that plane crash, this is a disaster in slow motion. With the way that black holes warp time and space, it would appear to take an eternity for something like Jupiter to circle the drain to the center of the black hole. Imagine staring that fate in the face, knowing that everything on the planet is about to be completely and utterly torn apart. That’ll help you sleep at night.
5. Oblivion. This is the grandfather of all fears, the one that underlies just about every other thing on this list: what comes after death? Near Death Experiences (NDEs) only get us so far in understanding the nature of life after death and whether it exists at all, as there are some plausible explanations as to why those occur (as well as cases where those ideas fall apart). I have my own concept of what happens, but I won’t claim that they have any more validity than anyone else’s concept. Ultimately, the thought of an afterlife, even a bad one, is somewhat comforting; it means that there is more to this existence, something beyond the misery that even the best of us must one day experience.
But what if there’s not? What if this is it, and once we die, we’re simply gone? I realize that if this is true, I won’t know any better – but that’s just what’s so terrifying. No dreams, no possibility of reawakening. Just oblivion. For me, that is the true dread behind everything else, and it keeps me awake at night.