Interview With the Host of CBC's Fear Itself, Christy Ann Conlin

Christy Ann Conlin, Photo by Bruce Dienes
Christy Ann Conlin is the host of the CBC's Fear Itself, a 10-part series investigating our deepest darkest fears. As you will see, our host finds fear inspiring. In her own writing, she challenges her own terrors and creates frightening scenarios for the pleasure of others. 

Conlin is the bestselling author of Heave, the story of a young woman coming to terms with her alcoholism, which masks an even deeper scarier secret. She also penned the horror novella Dead Time, based loosely on the notorious murder of a 15-year-old by another teen in order to prove his love for his girlfriend, the alleged mastermind of the crime.

No one can deny that fear governs our lives, dictating our actions and deciding our words. Yet, we shell out money for books and films to experience that adrenaline-pumping sensation. On the surface what frightens us appears simple, but in reality it is very complex. 

The CBC series has jumped into these murky waters to examine the fear of the ocean (episode 1), how we overcome fear (episode 2), the fear of getting caught (episode 3), how first responders and their families deal with fear (episode 4) and why a fiction writer and horror filmmaker create fear in episode 5.

Christy Ann has agreed to answer a few questions about the program and her own personal discoveries along the way.

HL: As any parent can attest, we live with fear every day, some rational and some irrational. And we are all just seconds away from a fight or flight response. How has fear impacted your own life, and overall what have you learned from your investigation?

CA: Well, I am a fear ridden person, ha ha, so fear has always been at the heart of my life, as I talk about in the opening show, "An Ocean of Fear." I jokingly call myself a "connoisseur of fear" but I'm also serious about this. My life has been about overcoming many fears. I can't stand saying I didn't try because I was afraid. It's my biggest fear, the fear of giving up. And in my creative writing I am always exploring fear, how characters lives are riddled with it, seeing how they respond to it. In Heave and my short fiction, it was more a quirky look at fear and sorrow. In my last novel, Dead Time, I moved into full blown horror, both personally and in the story. So fear was very interesting to me, in terms of motivation, and as a human experience.

Overall, the experience has left me with this startling respect for fear, not just as a human experience of keeping us safe (or as a limitation) but of fear as being this completely entwined partner of courage. Not to sound hokey, but where there is light there is shadow, and where there is shadow there is light...for all of us.

HL: Would you tell us about how you approached investigating fear?

CA: When we came up with the idea for Fear Itself I had some ideas about fear and its role in our lives, and so did the producer, Kent Hoffman, and so the show was very much about an exploration of our ideas,  what we didn't know and what we hoped we would discover. We wanted to peek in the back door at fear, look at it in unexpected and surprising ways. We sure do that in "Fear of Getting Caught," the third episode. And "Fear of the Dark," our last episode to air on August 27th. That episode is mind blowing for me, the unexpected approach we took.

HL: What have you learned about our shared fears and our reactions to it?

CA: We knew that there are many shared and common fears and doing the interviews really confirmed that. But what I learned from doing the interviews is that fear is not just a solitary experience that isolates us but it is a very common experience that can actually unite people. Of course, there is a very individual aspect to fear but realizing how we face so many of the same fears is very humanizing. "Childhood Fears," the August 6th show, is a great example of this.

It was also surprising at how many other names people have for fear, how often they dance around it, rather than call it by name. And that men and women often respond to fear in different ways, for different reasons. The episode
"Fear and Violence," which will be broadcast on August 20th, is one show where we look closely at this. 

HL: In "Creating Fear" (episode 5), author Andrew Pyper talks about feeling "rattled" when he’s written something frightening, and this, he says, is a good feeling because it means he’s on the right track to scaring the bejezus out of his readers. What is the most unsettling that you have had to write and what were the physical manifestations of this fear?

CA: The most unsettling things I've written about in fiction are physical violence and sexual coercion. In Heave I felt queasy writing the sex scene that lies at the heart of the novel. When I write I see the story unfold in my head and it’s always disturbing to see/feel the characters suffer. In Dead Time, I had to write a very violent murder scene. I say “had to” because the book turns on this moment, a twist in it, and so showing it was critical to the structure. I knew the morning when I was going to write it and I couldn’t even think it through. I made a cup of coffee and then sat down and let the character, Isabella, show me. I felt ill writing it. She’s very young and so it was horrible to even contemplate this happening. You have to imagine what it is like to inflict violence, in very specific detail, so I dreaded this part of the writing. The editor said the book reads with an unrelenting menace. Imagine having that sort of character in your head for months – horror! Perhaps it’s my Quaker background. I like peace. I was relieved to have it done and then it was like a bad memory than fear.

HL: In episode 5, you also speak to a blogger who maintained Scare Yourself Everyday, a blog in which he challenged a new fear every day for a year. He said that he felt much more confident after taking on his fears. In what other ways do you think that we can benefit from challenging our fears?
CA: Well, I think when we take on our fears we live outside our comfy box, and we are forever changed by this. We don’t look at things in the same way ever again. And I think we discover how courageous we are when we challenge fears. But challenging fears does not always mean we overcome them. Fear is also a unifying force. There is great power in knowing someone else stood and faced the monster.

HL: What can we expect to hear in the coming five weeks on Fear Itself?

CA: We have some fascinating shows coming up. In addition to the episodes I've already mentioned, next week we will be exploring "Working With Horror and Art: The Creations," and in week eight, we will be looking at something that most of us are afraid of in the "Fear of Death."

HL: It looks like you have plenty of research to spin a tale that will really scare your readers. Do you have any projects in the works?

CA: Yup, so much in the works it's scary! A sampling: I am working on the final draft of my novel,
Listening for the Island, a ghost story that links to my first novel, Heave, through the character of Fancy Mosher. It will be published by Doubleday. My short story, "The Diplomat," will be published in Douglas Glover's wonderful Numero Cinq Magazine. I have a new YA novel under way as well, Meadowsweet, a dark dystopian tale. And I'm busy working as an online creative writing instructor for The University of Toronto. Just listing off all of this makes me want to have a nap on the beach, augggh!

HL: It sounds like your plate is full indeed. We wish you all the best and look forward to the next five episodes of the CBC's Fear Itself. Thanks for your time.

If you have missed any of the first five Fear Itself episodes you can download the podcasts, or listen to them on the CBC site. To date, my personal favourites have been "The Fear of Getting Caught," which examines instances of highly destructive alcohol, drug and gambling addictions, and the stigma attached to suffering from bipolar disorder. Another episode that will get your blood pumping is "Fear and First Responders."

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