The One Thing that Scares the King

This week, Stephen King, the titan of terror himself, celebrates his 66th birthday. By this point, the man has penned so many novels that the sheer volume of horror that flows from his mind is alarming. Is there anything that frightens him anymore?

In June, King gave an interview to NPR’s Terry Gross to promote a new book, Joyland. Though the new addition to a long bibliography was the focus of the interview, Gross took the opportunity to probe the dark mind of this master for bigger answers.

From a very young age, King had a strange fascination with the horror genre. Perhaps it spawned from his parents’ enjoyment of horror radio broadcasts and movies, but he legitimately enjoyed being scared. King admits to cowering under his blankets from the boogeyman, but fear was an adventure for the imaginative youth. It was an opportunity to experiment with a primal emotion, an innate thrill that arose from something that could not actually harm him. To King, the beautiful thing about the horror genre is that he could lose himself in such a gripping sensation only to draw back to reality later.

With age, however, comes the sharpening of reality. Horror becomes fantastical as daily life grows increasingly severe. Our concerns shift from things that go bump in the night to the bump we find while doing a self-examination. King’s favorite genre remains as an escape into a thrilling world of suspense and darkness, but after countless trips into this menacing realm, he finds that few things can legitimately wrack his mind with pangs of fear. 

King says he has only seen one movie that has truly scared him in the last 12 to 13 years, and shockingly the film was not even a horror flick. “Iris,” a film chronicling the life of writer Iris Murdoch and her struggle with Alzheimer’s, is the last film to leave King shaken. Psycho killers, bloodthirsty supernatural beings, and visitors from other planes of existence all pale in comparison to the thought of losing his mind.

King is well acquainted with death. The author was hit by a car in 1999 and severely injured, puncturing a lung and almost losing a leg. In 2003, he suffered a severe case of pneumonia that nearly killed him. Though he does admit to pondering the afterlife in his progressing age, death takes a backseat to mental deterioration. An integral element of fear is the unknown, and mental illness is a frontier that remains vastly unexplored.

The thing that terrifies King most is loss of memory and identity. Losing himself, he says, has become his “boogeyman in the closet.”

Mental illness has only just recently gotten serious attention on a large scale, and it is becoming more and more apparent that it is an uncomfortable at best. While King was referring to Alzheimer’s, there are many other conditions that threaten one’s sense of identity. We can ignore them all we want or attribute them to environmental stressors, but at the end of the day, pulling the covers over our head will not protect us from this kind of boogeyman. 

King himself did not offer much insight into the social stigma against mental illness, but his fear of it should be enough. If the man best known for dealing with the stuff of nightmares is unnerved by something very real, perhaps we should recognize the grave importance of mental health.

As the legendary storyteller opens a new chapter of his life, readers will open a new chapter of his work. Doctor Sleep, a sequel to King’s wildly successful novel The Shining, hits the shelves Sept. 24. In an interview this past week with BBC, he expressed some concern that readers are all too wary of the tricks of his trade in a market saturated by Hollywood horror.

Stephen King is worried that his work will not be scary enough. My only response is that if he can still find things that scare him, then we probably can too. Perhaps we can pay a little more attention to his fears as well.