Does Fiction Ever Become Too Real?

There are relatively few things that legitimately creep me out, and even fewer that downright scare me. Some of my favorite things in the world, fiction-wise, come from the horror genre. Even stuff that should weird me out doesn’t. I generally have a pretty good mental filter that helps keep even the worst of the bad juju at bay. Because I know it’s not real.

I can read Lovecraft, and I’m great. No Elder Things are haunting my dreams. I can read Stephen King, and I’m dandy. The Crimson King has been erased by Patrick Danville, never to bother me. I can even watch a Michael Bay movie and only shriek a couple of times. Optimus Prime can’t destroy the Megatron of fear that Bay instills in me that the film industry is going downhill, but I’ve made my peace with that.

I can watch horror movies, and nothing bothers me. I love the Saw series because as ridiculous and gory as they are, I know that it’s all special effects and no one actually gets hurt. I love watching Jason Voorhees mutilate campers for having sex and doing drugs because I know that it’s all make-believe.

But when something crosses that threshold where my mind separates fiction and reality, I squee and cringe and wonder how in the world I’m going to sleep at night.

Today, I found an article that does that just. A friend on Twitter posted about How Long A Severed Head Will Stay Conscious, and I lost it. This is the part that got to me:

Here, then, is what I was able to note immediately after the decapitation: the eyelids and lips of the guillotined man worked in irregularly rhythmic contractions for about five or six seconds. This phenomenon has been remarked by all those finding themselves in the same conditions as myself for observing what happens after the severing of the neck…

I waited for several seconds. The spasmodic movements ceased. […] It was then that I called in a strong, sharp voice: ‘Languille!’ I saw the eyelids slowly lift up, without any spasmodic contractions – I insist advisedly on this peculiarity – but with an even movement, quite distinct and normal, such as happens in everyday life, with people awakened or torn from their thoughts.

Next Languille’s eyes very definitely fixed themselves on mine and the pupils focused themselves. I was not, then, dealing with the sort of vague dull look without any expression, that can be observed any day in dying people to whom one speaks: I was dealing with undeniably living eyes which were looking at me. After several seconds, the eyelids closed again[…].

It was at that point that I called out again and, once more, without any spasm, slowly, the eyelids lifted and undeniably living eyes fixed themselves on mine with perhaps even more penetration than the first time. Then there was a further closing of the eyelids, but now less complete. I attempted the effect of a third call; there was no further movement – and the eyes took on the glazed look which they have in the dead.

Had I read that in a King or Lovecraft novel, I never would have thought about it as being as disturbing as it really is. But the fact that it is a man’s supposed actual observation crosses that line where my mind can no longer filter out the humanistic consequences.

It’s kind of like the idea of “willing suspension of disbelief.” I can recognize things as being grotesque and morbid, but I can always console that part of me inside that squeals because there is no way it could happen that way. Had I read about a severed head fixing its gaze on someone in a Stephen King novel, I’d have chuckled at its description and kept reading. Even when there are significantly disturbing images, I know that what I am seeing in my minds’ eye whatever the author was able to dream up; it has no basis in reality. Sure, maybe something could happen in real life, but that doesn’t mean it has or ever will.

I guess it all goes back to the fact that I like a good story. I love to hear “what if” tales, which is why I think that horror, fantasy, and science fiction are my genres of choice. And like I said before, I have a really good filter in my mind that has never let me down in determining the difference in realty and fiction. I have never thought that Lovecraft’s Elder Things really helped populate Earth, nor do I think furniture-selling vampires are moving into my town as in Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot. I understand that those are made up.

However, when reality becomes so gruesome that it borders on the ridiculousness I like to find in fiction, I shut down.

I don’t want to read about anything genuinely unsettling.

I guess it’s an ostrich-esque kind of coping mechanism. I am fine to seek out the most disturbing ideas possible when I want them, I even thrive on reading the most unsettling ideas as I can because they make me feel safe inside my own little world where I control the vertical and horizontal, but the moment my idea of safety is shattered and that idea goes out of the realm of “what if” and into the realm of “is,” my head is buried in the sand. As long as those ideas remain solidly in the realm of fiction, I can’t be hurt by them.

I only push my psyche to the limits when I know for sure that there is no basis in reality.

Do any of you guys or gals have anything like that? Where you think something won’t bother you because the situation is entirely controlled and safe, but the moment it becomes real or can affect you, the façade drops and you realize that the fiction is just as disturbing as the reality?

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll go back to my Golden Books about puppies and other cute animals.

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By B.J. Keeton

B.J. KEETON is a writer, teacher, and runner. When he isn't trying to think of a way to trick Fox into putting Firefly back on the air, he is either writing science fiction, watching an obscene amount of genre television, or looking for new ways to integrate fitness into his geektastic lifestyle. He is also the author of BIRTHRIGHT and co-author of NIMBUS. Both books are available for Amazon Kindle.


  1. I can't say I've really thought about it too much. I feel like I have a good handle on reality like yourself and therefore am not bothered by the same things.
    I do recognize that not all people do so. I've been careful about handing out Wizards First Rule by Terry Goodkind because of the fairly graphic torture scenes.

  2. I'm not a fan of the near-pornographic obsession with violence in any format, real or otherwise. Of course, I'll also play Street Fighter with nary a fuss, while avoiding potential real world fights. It's the same sort of dichotomy, but my threshold is different.

  3. Well, I had a near-death experience after an eight-month close reading of Lost's first three seasons, so yeah, I'm familiar with how fiction can breach reality. Then again, that's what epic mythology is *supposed* to do.


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