Whether it’s the last person on Earth, a castaway on a deserted island, someone trapped by themselves in a haunted house, or a prisoner locked away in solitary confinement, there have been many people, real and imagined, who have every reason to dread being left alone.
The opening theme for Healthy Fears: “Dark Game Background Loop” by Claudiu D. Moga, licensed through Envato.
The closing theme for Healthy Fears: “Hitchcock Thriller” by JBlanks, licensed through Envato.
Other music for this episode: “The Suspense Adventure” by Alexander Rufire, licensed through Envato.
One of my family members was once a big country music fan, which is why, even though I’m a black guy who came of age in the 90’s and remains a big hip-hop head, Wu-Tang is forever, Outkast is essential, Geto Boys and Cypress Hill got me through junior high, Common is my favorite, Tha Liks are underrated, and Kendrick Lamar has ascended to the throne as the G.O.A.T. — I said it, feel free to disagree — even though all of that applies to me and much more, I also like some country music.
Particularly country hits from the late 80’s through the mid 90’s from when said family member was the one taking me to football practice and school plays and whatever else I had going on. They had control of the radio, they kept it on their favorite station, so even though since then I’ve been introduced Kris Kristofferson’s classic material and some of Porter Wagoner’s stranger tunes, and love those songs and others akin to them, I’ll always have an affinity for the music by singers I heard on the radio when I was younger. Garth Brooks, Martina Mcbride, John Anderson, George Strait and more.
My favorite country song–and one of my favorite songs still–is Clint Black’s “State of Mind” where he talks about walking by himself down a lonesome road, and thinks of melodies that bring him back to a better place and time. Speaking of being by yourself, another favorite tune of mine comes from my favorite country artist overall, Reba McEntire. With its multi-syllabic rhymes and a couple of solid metaphors and similes, I’ve always liked her song, “The Fear of Being Alone.”
I wonder if you were wondering when I would get to the title and subject of this episode properly. Well, one of the things that stands out to me about Reba’s exploration of this fear in her song is the way she treats it. She essentially acknowledges that this fear might be contributing to her feeling more strongly about a new lover than she really should. Does she really like this guy this much, or is she just overreacting due to a fear of being alone? Recognizing this fear is making her cautious. And this is one of the ways I feel fear can be healthy for us, in a roundabout way. The simple recognition of certain fears can steer us into possibly making better choices. Of course, it’s also possible that this could backfire. The fear of succumbing to fear itself of being alone could lead to overthinking, hesitation, misguided decisions and missed opportunities.
In the wider world of fiction, of course, the fear of being alone can take on many forms. One of the earliest and most influential survival horror video games is titled Alone in the Dark. And while darkness certainly factors into the intended scariness of that title, you’re not literally in the dark for any significant portion of that game, otherwise it would be unplayable. You are effectively alone, though, which is the case in most survival horror video games, and what makes the best of them feel so frightening. Silent Hill wouldn’t be nearly as scary if everything else about the game was the same except that instead of being on your own, as a character, you were part of a group of people. The original Resident Evil, early on, makes the wise decision to split its characters up so they can’t even be a tandem. In each game, the ordeal of running from monsters bent on killing you is greatly heightened by having no allies to rely on.
This can show up in less blatantly horrifying, fiction too. For whatever reason, it always stuck with me in the 1995 film Jumanji that Alan–the character played by Robin Williams as an adult–was alone in that jungle for all those years, even though we never actually see what it was like for him. We hear him tell of it, though, and Robin Williams really conveys the damage that it did despite the constraints of a children’s movie limiting how far he could take it. The scene where he describes what it’s like to hear an animal hunt another animal in the jungle, in the dark, hear the prey cry out and the predator devour its meal, always hit harder for me due to Alan being by himself when he heard these things. Make no mistake, hearing an animal devouring another–while fearing you might be next–could be terrifying even if you were among friends. But then you might have some sense of security due to the numbers. Even if you had only one other person with you, and neither of you had any survivalist skills, you’d at least have another person to commiserate with. There was no one else to share in Alan’s fear.
He emphasizes the fact that he was alone when he’s talking to the now-grown-woman who inadvertently abandoned him to his fate when she was a kid. She responds that she was alone too for all those years, in her own way, and I’ve always jokingly thought that, yeah, you were, but not the same way he was. He’s literally alone with wild animals and a Most Dangerous Game style of hunter who wants to kill him for a trophy, while you were alone because you were ostracized by people who thought you had lost your mind for thinking a boy got sucked into a board game. It’s not an apples to apples thing. But jokes aside, I do get what she saying. That sort of societal loneliness, that ostracism, is legitimately damaging, and in a practical sense is something much more of us are afraid of in modern civilization than we are of ever being left alone in the wilderness.
There are many works, though, where the idea of being on your own in the wild is the primary threat of the story. There aren’t any hunters or mystical board games to enhance the danger in Castaway. Just a man alone on an island. Likewise in 27 Hours, the story revolves around someone trapped by himself in a crevice. In Stephen King’s The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon we spend the novel with a girl who gets lost on a hiking trip, and yes she has delusions of “The God of the Lost” and believes it inhabits the body of a bear she must confront late in the novel, but there’s really nothing but the natural world that is a threat to her. What else does their need to be?
Sometimes even having someone there doesn’t come close to fully curing the sense of loneliness, because they’re strictly there in a physical sense, not in a meaningful or engaging way. In the film Arctic, Mads Mikkelsen technically has a companion for part of the film, but that companion is mostly incapacitated and doesn’t give him someone else to share his experience with. Or does she? She might not completely alleviate his loneliness, but she at least gives him another human to fight for. She gives him an objective beyond himself which at times proves crucial. Even that little bit of a reprieve from total isolation is beneficial to him.
Complete isolation is something dreadful enough for us to use it as a punishment. Solitary confinement is reserved for prisoners deemed too dangerous to be among other prisoners, or… inflicted on those who need to be “taught a lesson.” Made to fall in line. Made to suffer. Not having someone else to even look at or just talk to or listen to… for social creatures, this can be torture, at minimum. In some cases, it’s an indirect death sentence.
To maroon someone is to deliberately leave them trapped in an inaccessible place, traditionally an uninhabited island. While historically, punished sailors who fell victim to this weren’t always left alone, it was not unusual for that to occur. Such castaways might be given minimal provisions to help them survive for a time. Alexander Selkirk, the inspiration for the character Robinson Crusoe, was given a gun, hatchet, knife, a pot to cook in, clothes and bedding, and a Bible. This was actually a little more than other castaways received. Nonetheless, when faced with the reality of his predicament alone on a deserted island, he begged to be let back aboard the ship, despite the reason for his marooning being that he doubted the ship was safely seaworthy and had told the captain he’d rather take his chances on the island. I don’t want to say things changed after the captain called his bluff, because by all accounts it doesn’t seem Selkirk was initially bluffing. And incidentally he was right, the ship soon proved not to be seaworthy. He seemed sincere, but fear got the better of him before he was forced to even spend a minute alone on the island. Though he managed to survive for four years in isolation, in that earlier moment he fully appreciated the depth of the peril he was in.
An even surer death sentence by way of isolation is on display in the Italian psychological thriller Le Orme, aka Footprints on the Moon. It opens with a dream of a film-within-the-film, depicting one astronaut dragging another, unconscious astronaut out of a lunar capsule and onto the surface of the moon. The stranded man wakes up just in time to see the capsule taking off without him. All of this is done for the purpose of an experiment we’re not meant to understand, but as the film flashes back to scenes of the marooned astronaut, it appears that the failure of his life support system might not be what kills him. Rather it’s the panic he feels at the hopelessness of his situation, which drives him to remove his helmet, while also removing any chance he has to survive.
You don’t have to place someone in barely survivable conditions for isolation to remain a cruel, unusual, and sadistic punishment. The Black Mirror episode “White Christmas” gives us two different flavors of this. One where a person can become a pariah who is shunned and effectively blocked by every other person, denied any meaningful interaction. The other, far more extreme, places a consciousness in a white void for an extraordinary stretch of time, no one else with them, the only possible external stimuli available being whatever their tormentors wish to subject them to. A song on repeat for what might as well be infinity, for example. An even direr version of this punishment is captured in one of the SCP entries, “True Solitary,” consciousness while in a state of absolute sensory deprivation, not even able to hear the sound of your own voice, or feel any part of your body.
Even without the extremes of removing all sights, sounds, and really anything else recognizable as reality as we understand it, the burden of loneliness can be maddening. In the original novel I Am Legend and in subsequent film adaptations, one common component is the added stress of being the last person on Earth, or even just believing that’s what you are. Having to survive the onslaught of vampires, mutants or zombies is obviously its own immense hardship, but having to do so all by yourself, humanity’s last torchbearer, adds a terrible weight to it. Say what you will of the Will Smith adaptation–and as a fan of the book, I was a little let down by it, especially given the alternate ending would have at least hewn closer to the meaning of the novel’s title–but having said all of that, it effectively captures the deleterious effect being alone has on Neville. All he has to talk to is himself, his dog, and department store mannequins. When one of his enemies moves a mannequin out of its normal place to set a trap, his dwindling sanity makes him think he sees the mannequin’s head turn to look at him, and makes him scream at it, demanding that it tell him if it’s real person or not.
And yet, it’s not really unusual for some among us to choose to be alone, or at least prefer some significant degree of solitude. History gives us many examples of those who prefer to be on their own for as much time as possible. Some do so for religious reasons, believing it the best way to get closer to their higher power, others because they prefer nature to civilization, or have come to abhor society, or some combination thereof. In the famous Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough at Last,” the protagonist, Henry, exults in the aftermath of an H-Bomb wiping out all other life in the city, because now he’ll at least be left alone to read his precious books. It’s worth noting, though, that in the original short story, written by Lynn Venable, Henry isn’t at all the absolute misanthropic bookworm he is in the adaptation, nor is anyone around him the kind of Philistine who would vandalize a book. Instead you get the impression–based on the way he’s ignoring the bleeding wound in his leg, and the fact that he’s never actually finished a book before–that some part of him is aware of the awfulness of the loneliness that awaits him, and that he’s trying to get a head start on maintaining his sanity by diving into every book that he can.
Either way, for those who embrace and choose isolation, one primary reason why they wouldn’t fear it is that they have some control over it, and can presumably end whenever they want. Not having a choice would make a world of difference. You might wake up each day wondering if this is the end of your seclusion, or a just another day closer to the beginning of it than to the end of it.
There are spaces between choosing to be alone and being forced to be alone. A gray area that may exist because being alone feels like the better choice between two undesirable options. You might choose to be alone because you are faced with a true dilemma: isolate, or be destroyed, and potentially destroy others while you’re at it. People you care about, or love, or at least have some sense of obligation towards. Sometimes the fear of being alone gets overridden by the fear of what will happen if you’re not alone.
Two different men are confronted with this choice in the film Parasite. Each man elects to live in what is effectively a prison of their own making, in exile from their loved ones, rather than be subjected to the punishment of others, which in one case would include prison. Both men are involved in criminal activity that leads them to make unwanted but–in their view–necessary decisions to be apart from their loved ones indefinitely.
The title-character of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “Rappacini’s Daughter” — Beatrice Rappicini — is left lonely in the world due to her scientist father’s obsessive experimentation with crafting poisons. She developed an immunity to the assorted poisonous plants and other materials she was raised around, and fed, by becoming poisonous herself. Flowers die when she touches them. An insect dies when it flies too near to her. She’s lived a lonely life, but it’s the responsible thing to do, we soon see. When a smitten, secret suitor sneaks into the garden to visit her once too often, despite early attempts Beatrice makes to keep her distance, he becomes a living poison as well, although not as potent. An attempt to save himself and Beatrice just leads to her death, and before she dies she takes slight solace in now being free of the quarantined life she was forced to live.
Her early demise might have been avoided if Beatrice’s suitor had listened to a local man who warned him to stay away. Yet another reminder that, sometimes, when the locals tell you to stay away from a place where they will not follow–when they let you know, explicitly or implicitly, that if you don’t heed their warnings, you’ll be on your own–they might not just be doing this because they have something to hide. They might be trying to spare you considerable suffering. In one of my favorite ghost stories, The Woman in Black, even after the haunting becomes irrefutable, it is not always as worrisome to the protagonist as the fact that he is by himself, cut off from the rest of the world.
Even before he makes it to the ominous Eel Marsh House, Mister Arthur Kipps is already something of a man on an island when he comes to small town of Crythin Gifford. The town is hardly abandoned or anything of the sort, but almost everyone he encounters treats him as persona non grata when he tells them he’s there to settle the affairs of the recently deceased Alice Drablow. The few people in town who are willing to spend more than a sentence or two on him still withhold the complete truth about Eel Marsh House, who once lived there, and the tragedy that befell them all.
I first came upon the story of The Woman in Black via the 1989 television movie adaptation, where Kipps is actually named Kidd, but I’m going to keep going with Kipps. This adaptation features, in my opinion, one of the best jump scares ever captured on camera. It happens so abruptly it could be considered a bit of a cheat, and sort of looks like an editing mistake, but I still think it’s amazing. So far as I can remember, it’s the only jump scare to actually get an exclamation out of me as a grown man. There’s a video you could find of it on YouTube titled in part “that scene,” but I strongly recommend you watch the entire movie to appreciate the full impact of it. Similar to the terrific jump scare in Exorcist III, part of what makes it so effective is having to wait for it.
And while that signature moment is part of what earned the 1989 movie a bit of a reputation among certain haunted house horror fans it’s only part of its appeal. The later adaptation and its sequel flood the screen with jump scares, to the extent that a seven-minute compilation can be found online featuring all the jump scares in the 2012 film. It also has an almost oppressively grim atmosphere. It’s a world made largely of fog and shadows, and to a certain degree I admire the brazenness of the aesthetic; if you’re going to go overboard with that sort of thing, you may as well commit and go all the way, make sure you hit the waves and not the side of the ship first on the way down. I actually don’t dislike the 2012 adaptation, but I do believe it’s I nferior to the earlier movie, as well as the original novel, obviously, and even the 1993 BBC radio play. Because in the Daniel Radcliffe film, even though Kipps spends considerable time by himself in the house, the extreme emphasis on his supernatural surroundings suppresses the idea of him being alone, because he’s very evidently not. He may be the only living person on the premises, but he’s clearly not the only individual walking the halls or staring out of windows.
Susan Hill’s novel, the 1989 adaptation, and, from my understanding, the apparently splendid stage play–which, if I’m ever fortunate enough to visit London while it’s running will be one of my top priorities–these iterations of the story capture Arthur’s isolation very well. It is directly said by one character in the novel that if Kipps insists on going to the house on the Causeway that is inaccessible when the tide rolls in, he should not do so alone. Said character, Toovey, loans Kipps his dog Spider to provide the man some company.
Unlike in 2012 adaptation, the actual woman in black of the story is seen sparingly in the superior versions of the story. And while she makes her first appearance early on, the idea of her being a specter is far more subtle. When Kipps makes it to the house, she is largely content to remain unseen, to the point of seeming absent. One of the very few occasions when he sees her again–the one time she behaves aggressively and is most conspicuously supernatural–is when she probably wasn’t even there, and Kipps was just dreaming of her.
So instead of relying so much on the ghost’s presence and the curse she carries to generate fear, the earlier tellings of the tale rely on Kipps being by himself in a large house that is itself uniquely isolated. Again, when high tide arrives the property becomes an island surrounded by wetlands that no one on the mainland can get to–and no one on the island get away from–until the water recedes hours later. Additionally, sea fog can make the trip across the causeway treacherous even before the water makes it impassable; if your only safe way across a murky marsh is a winding, narrow length of land and your visibility becomes so limited you can barely see the head of the horse drawing your carriage, your way across is no longer safe. Once Kipps commits to staying in the house, he’s helpless to do anything but follow through until someone can reach him.
Kipps is haunted by the idea of seclusion itself when he arrives at Eel Marsh House, almost as much as he’s haunted by the spirits within the house. The idea that Mrs. Drablow endured so many years of solitude herself just adds to the eeriness of it, especially when he listens to the dead woman’s recordings on wax cylinders, where she speaks mysteriously of her ghostly visitor. She does not sound particularly frightened or even distressed, but weary. She speaks of an unknown woman–her own kin–who she calls “troublesome,” and who awakens her at various points in the night with her activity. But Mrs. Drablow insists that she will not allow the woman to frighten her. Nonetheless, as the visitations repeat and the woman becomes “wicked and worse,” it’s easy to imagine that suffering through this by herself helped drive Alice Drablow into her grave.
Kipps decides to record his own voice and listen back to it during his initial visit to the house, giving him something to talk to, at least. When he returns later with Spider, he records himself again after hearing the horrible, disembodied sounds of a fatal accident in the marsh, and he says directly, “The dog is a great comfort.” This despite the fact that the dog, as is often the case with pets in horror stories, is more sensitive to the supernatural than he is, and alerts him to things he might be better off remaining unaware of.
From just a practical sense, having a human partner or two in the house would be beneficial. The property’s electricity is supplied by a hand-cranked generator stored in a shed apart from the house. When the power goes out at night, Kipps must decide whether to remain in the dark, or rush outside, alone, to crank the generator and restore power. Outside, in the dark. Outside, where he’s heard the phantom sounds of a tragedy over and over again, where he’s seen the woman in black herself, standing in the graveyard in broad daylight like a living person, her glare so hateful that it chased him into the relative safety of the house. Had someone been with him, he and his partner could have worked the generator in shifts, or paired up when going outside to watch each other’s back, or, if nothing else, another person could simply validate that the woman he’s seen and the sounds he’s heard were really there.
The Woman in Black never really hints at the idea that all of this is just taking place in Arthur’s mind, but it’s still presented in a way that makes it seem possible. And Toovey, initially, tries to convince him that the sound of a horse and trap falling into the water, and the screams of a boy sinking, were primarily a result of Arthur’s mind playing tricks on him. Though Kipps is faced with things that make it impossible for him to believe this, the psychological element to the horror might not be as effective if he was part of a team of people within the house, listening to Alice Drablow’s recordings, hearing an invisible child scream for his mother while drowning and said mother’s wail response. The dynamic would have also been different during the scene where he tries to break into a locked room, leaves to find an axe, then finds the door to the room mysteriously unlocked and open by the time he returns.
When he loses the great comfort of the dog, Spider, who runs out into the night after Kipps leaves the front door open on his way back from the generator shed, it’s easy to tell that Kipps is not just concerned for the dog’s well-being, but his own without the companion he’s had for barely over a day. What’s more sinister, the dog is lured away by the long distant whistle of someone never seen, hiding out in the darkness. The woman in black, presumably, which means that she deliberately sought to deprive Kipps of any company at all. The spirit that some time ago turned from mournful to malevolent, that turned “wicked and worse” according to her sister, the ghost with nothing but hate in her eyes for anyone who sees her, regardless of how far removed they are from the tragedy that ultimately made her what she is… That woman wants to torment Arthur Kipps, and anyone else who even temporarily stays in Eel Marsh House. And she knows that the best way to do this is to ensure that they are completely alone.