The Top 10 Classic Fears in Literature

I mentioned in my article TED talks for Aspiring Crime Writers a speaker called Karen Thompson Walker. Karen told the story of the crewmen of the Whaleship Essex 3,000 miles off the coast of Chile, who found themselves in a spot of bother: choosing between a fate of being eaten alive by cannibals and starving to death.

What a choice.

Though this dilemma was awful for those aboard the whaleship, this kind of story is the sort we can’t get enough of. Films, TV shows and books put our favourite characters in terrifying scenarios time and time again, but instead of being horrified, we come back for more. And we pay for the privilege.

Why do we love being afraid?


I came across this interesting read on the TED Blog called ‘The top 10 classic fears in literature’. It lists the ten most common fears written about by authors, listed below:

  1. Death
  2. Avoiding death for the wrong reasons
  3. Hunger or other severe physical deprivation
  4. Killing or causing the death of someone you love
  5. Being rejected and/or being loved by the wrong person
  6. Illness, disease and ageing
  7. Lost reputation, divorce or scandal
  8. War, shipwrecks and other disasters
  9. The law and lawyers
  10. That real life won’t resemble literature

Some thoughts on probability

The funny thing is, the common fears we face day-to-day (spiders and public speaking) don’t make the list. Do we avoid reading about common fears because they are actually likely to happen to us? Is it a little too close to home?

Why is it that the fears we can’t get enough of in stories are the ones that would likely never happen to us? Is it precisely that they are unlikely, but described vividly enough by our favourite authors that we can imagine ourselves in these frightening situations?


The science of fear

Studies have found that people get a thrill from imagining themselves in the scenario they are watching/reading, and enjoy the feeling of surviving the experience they are observing. We enjoy being afraid when we can see a barrier between ourselves and the scary thing: a tv screen or the page of a book.

Reading a frightening book builds excitement and expectation that your body can’t wait to release, as the story reaches its climax. This is why in films there is so much build up to the scary thing that jumps out and causes you to scream or laugh.

When we’re afraid, the body starts pumping out dopamine and adrenaline as it prepares for a flight response. This response is the same no matter whether we are in real or imagined danger. We can see then, how fear and pleasure are closely related; dopamine is a feel-good chemical.


Are all stories about fear?

Given that everyone on the planet fears something, and every story is about characters, does that mean every story must be about fear in some way?

Likewise, not one of us can outrun death, it is probably the fear we have most in common. Perhaps this is why crime fiction is so popular – it allows the reader to explore the ins and outs of their own mortality through the relative safety of the fictional murder investigation.

Read more: The Writers A to Z of Fears


Over to you

What is your biggest fear? Do you enjoy reading about this fear? Could you recommend any great reads that feature a common fear or perhaps a phobia?

Leave me a reply!