This is a huge issue. The answer to this seems rather elusive.
I’m going to say what is scary are things that are both real and unreal; there and not there. And then I’m just going to distill it down into: things that are ambivalent.
Let’s see if we can’t break this down a little:
Always the dark is scary and aliens are pretty darn scary. If you don’t think so, just see how you feel the next time you are going into a dark place you have never been before. The thing about it is that darkness covers up what may or may not be there.
Bad smells are scary because we don’t know if we are in danger or not. Go into a pitch black dark room that stinks like sulfur and you will (or should) get plenty scared.
Alien things are scary because we don’t know where they came from and it is a connection to something unknown and possibly dangerous. Alien beings are scary because of their inhumanity. Though, most of us have never actually seen aliens, which, I dare say, makes them scarier.
Ghosts are scary because ghosts are either real or so possible they might as well be real, but also they are not there, or not wholly there, as in not in a solid body. Once I bought this book. It was about the size of the Encarta with the same size font and it was chockablock full of “real” ghost stories. I had this idea that I would read a little every night before bedtime. Three days later, I wasn’t reading from that book anymore. I was so spooked after a few of those when I was lying there in the dark, I could not sleep, or stay entirely sane.
What is scary? I think the idea of things is far more scary than the thing itself. The tension really holds up when you think someone or something is there, but can’t see them, which goes back to the “both there and not there” proposition. Then again, that is a form of darkness isn’t it? You can’t see…the monster. It’s also a kind of ghost: not there, but there. Real and not real. Interesting to think that maybe things that we can’t decide on are scary. That would include “fear of the unknown.”
Apprehension is scary. That moves it over into the “going to happen, not going to happen” category. I grew up in the 80’s and while that wasn’t the most war torn time to grow up, in fact, most of it was peaceful, we had the last vestige of the cold war. I remember being terrified of the atom bomb. And I really was scared of Russians invading, like I would just be going along, doing my thing, and bam, a Russian would appear in the backyard out by the clothesline or something. That was fear of many things: aliens, alien things, apprehension, and ghosts (in this case, we can say phantoms.)
So, we can boil it down to a list of things that are all there and not there; seen and not seen; real and not real; going to happen, not going to happen:
Alien things: objects, powers, energies
Invisible things: radiation, ghosts, entities, devils, insanity
Really small things like diseases.
Interesting to note that serial killers are sort of insane aliens; we know they have human bodies, but we suspect they are not the same kind of beings as we are and so we see them, but we don’t see them.
How about when we talk about dreams? they happened, but they didn’t. That can get pretty freaky.
God, now I’m starting to think there’s a lot of scary stuff out there. Or is there?