Extraordinary Delusions and The Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay (Part 8)

Fear of the Unknown

Witch Mania

Fear of the unknown is another powerful element in fiction. Those who use fear to achieve their ends make great villains. Those who oppose fear, who try and bring forth the light of knowledge make great heroes (or martyrs).

The chapter on Witch Mania concerns the global hunt for something that did not exist, but it was also about power. Misdirection is a key element of suspense. You can achieve a lot of mischief if people are looking elsewhere.

The Slow Poisoners

As the title suggests, this section of the book is about obsession with slow death by poison, whereby the victim appears to be dying of a wasting disease of some sort. The fascination with this method of death is rooted in a love of conspiracy and the nefarious dedication it takes to kill someone in this manner.

This type of death used to be prevalent among the aristocracy and in the murder of spouses (at least in literature). In modern days, well, we don’t seem to have the patience to wait for people to die slowly and so we have them off with a pistol. Crimes of passion as opposed to crimes of calculated and certain malice.

There are some notable exceptions though. The recent case of the poisoning of a Russian ex-spy for one. While not exactly a slow poison, the murder does fulfill the requirements of conspiracy. No doubt this method of death will appear in a bestselling book within the next year.

Personally, I like the slow poison method (in fiction of course). It’s romantic and dramatic. It speaks to deep passions, emotions seeped in shadow. In a word, gothic.

This may be reason enough to avoid it though. In more modern literature, this slow poison has required a sense of the supernatural to make it interesting. Vampirism is in fact nothing but a slow poison scheme. Read Dracula with that idea in mind and you’ll see what I mean.

Haunted Houses

The macabre is another popular recurring theme in bestselling fiction. We have desperate need to be scared (at least some of us do). Haunted Houses represent this need, this desire.

Mackay explores alternate reasons for the existence of haunted houses, being that he is thoroughly against the possibility of the supernatural. Instead, he details several examples of haunted houses pulled off as hoaxes for amusement or to conceal more nefarious schemes. Both possibilities are worth of exploration in fiction and the Haunted House is an excellent device to meet that end.

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