Fear of being buried alive is called taphephobia. Also known as live burial, premature burial, and vivisepulture, it’s been around forever—and is with us still! Those buried alive often die of asphyxiation, dehydration, starvation, or hypothermia. If fresh air is available, the buried person can last days.
Fear of being buried alive reached a peak in 19th century England. More than 120 books in at least five languages were written about it, as well as methods to distinguish life from death. (See below.)
The Sullen in Level 5 are kept just below the waters of the River Styx, forever near drowning.
The Heretics in Level 6 are trapped in flaming tombs.
Murderers in Level 7 are covered by a river of boiling blood.
In Level 8 (where all types of fraud are punished)
Flatterers are encased in human excrement.
Simonists are buried head-first while flames burn their feet.
Fraudulent Counselors are encased in flames.
The Treacherous in Level 9 are buried in ice of varying levels depending on their sin.
Accidental or Unintentional Burial
Reports of being buried alive date back to the fourteenth century. In spite of hype and hysteria, as late as the 1890s patients have been documented as being declared dead and accidentally sent to a morgue or encased in a steel box, only to “come back to life” when the coffin is dropped, the grave is opened by grave robbers, or embalming or dissection has begun.
During centuries when embalming wasn’t common practice, coffins were mostly for the rich, and rapid burial was the norm especially during major pestilences such as cholera, bubonic plague, and smallpox. In these cases, rapid burial was an attempt to curb the spread of the disease.
Several medical conditions can contribute to the presumption of death: catalepsy, coma, and hypothermia.
How to Know When Someone Is Really Dead
Jan Bondeson, author of Buried Alive, identified methods of verifying death used by 18th and 19th century physicians. (Personal reaction: shudder!) The methods were any acts the physician thought would rouse the unconscious patient, virtually all imaginatively painful.
Soles of the feet sliced with razors
Needles jammed under toenails
Bugle fanfares and “hideous Shrieks and excessive Noises”
Red hot poke up the rectum
Application of nipple pincers
A bagpipe type invention to administer tobacco enemas
Boiling Spanish wax poured on patients’ foreheads and warm urine poured into the mouth
A crawling insect inserted into patient’s ear
A sharp pencil up the presumed cadaver’s nose
Tongue pulling (manual or mechanical) for at least three hours
The traditional Irish wake was (and is) an occasion for family and friends to celebrate the life of the deceased while watching the body for signs of movement.
Most agreed that the most reliable way to be sure someone was dead was to keep an eye on the body for a while. To that end, waiting at least 72 hours from apparent death to burial was mandated. In the mid-1800s, Munich had ten “waiting mortuaries” where bodies were stored awaiting putrefaction. Each body was rigged to bells to summon an attendant should the corpse come back to life.
We presume that modern science has surpassed this sort of mistake, defining death as brain death. Even so, earthquakes and other natural disasters often result in people being accidentally buried alive.
But Wait: Sometimes People Are Buried Alive on Purpose!
Sometimes live burial is a method of execution. Documented cases exist for China, German tribes, Persia, Rome, Denmark, Faroe Islands, Russia, Netherlands, Ukraine, and Brazil.
When death was not enough, often a spike was driven through the body of the person executed by live burial, perhaps as a way to prevent the person from becoming an avenging, undead Wiedergänger.
In some parts of the world, live burial is still practiced as a means of execution. Often, the victim is buried upright with only their head above ground. In these cases, death is very slow and painful, often the result of dehydration or wounds caused by animal scavengers.
And sometimes live burials are another horrific act of war.
There are accounts of Khmer Rouge using live burials in the Killing Fields.
Live burial was a form of execution during Mao Zedong’s regime, particularly during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution..
Very rarelypeople willingly arrange to be buried alive, for any number of reasons. Sometimes it is to demonstrate their ability to survive it. The Indian government has made voluntary live burials illegal because the people who try it so often die. In 2010, a Russian man was buried to try to overcome his fear of death, but was crushed to death by the weight of the earth over him.
There are even performances in which people have an opportunity to be buried alive for fifteen or twenty minutes. As a publicity stunt for the opening of the 2010 film Buried, a lottery was held for a few fans to have a very unique viewing experience. Four winners were blindfolded, driven to the middle of nowhere, and buried alive in special coffins equips with screens on which they could watch the film. (A 2003 episode of “Mythbusters” demonstrated that, even if a person buried alive was able to break out of a coffin, they would be crushed or asphyxiated by the resulting dirt fall.)
Irish barman Mick Meaney remained buried under Kilburne Street in London for 61 days in 1968, mostly to win a bet. Tubes to the surface allowed air and food to reach him in his temporary, underground prison.
Bottom line for writers: consider a character being buried alive—or being threatened with it—as a way to up the tension.
Live burial isn’t the only attention-worthy aspect of dead bodies. For more, check out books such as these.
Satan, also known as the Devil, is an entity in the Abrahamic religions that seduces humans into sin or falsehood. In Christianity and Islam, he is usually seen as either a fallen angel or a jinn who used to possess great piety and beauty but rebelled against God.
In Judaism, Satan is typically regarded as a metaphor for the yetzer hara, the evil inclination (or as an agent subservient to God).
The Christian figure of Satan is viewed as a horned, red, demonic human figure with a pointy tail and sometimes hooves. Sinners are sent to the domain of Satan after death—to hell, an underground world of fire and sadistic demons under Satan’s command.
Other versions of Satan appear as a Zoroastrian Devil and Jewish Kabbalism, but the name “Satan” first appeared in the Book of Numbers in the Bible, used as a term describing defiance. In the Book of Job, Satan is an accusing angel. In the apocryphal Book of Enoch (written in the first century B.C.) Satan is a member of the Watchers, a group of fallen angels.
Early on, satan was simply a word meaning adversary. In the Book of Samuel, David is depicted as the satan of the Philistines. In the Book of Numbers, it is used as a verb, when God sent an angel to satan (oppose) Balaam.
In the New Testament, Satan is established as a nemesis of Jesus Christ and the final book of the Bible, Revelations, he is the ultimate evil.
The words “Satanism” and “Satanist” appeared in English and French during the 1500s, when the words were used by Christian groups to attack other, rival Christian groups. For example, a Roman Catholic tract in 1565 condemned the “heresies, blasphemies, and sathanismes [sic]” of Protestants. Anyone who didn’t follow one’s own “pure” Christian views was condemned.
Gradually, it morphed into meaning anyone leading an immoral lifestyle. It wasn’t until the late 1800s that it was applied to those suspected of consciously and deliberately venerating Satan.
According to online sources, during the early modern period, fear of Satanists took the form of witch trials (1400s to 1700s, which doesn’t seem all that modern to me, but hey, witch hysterias, and the inquisition). Across both Protestant and Catholic regions, witch trials emerged. Between 30,000 and 50,000 people were executed as Satanic witches.
Skipping lightly past offshoots and variations, prior to the 20th Century, Satanism did not exist as a real, organized religion. Satanism is a modern, largely non-theistic religion based on literary, artistic, and philosophical interpretations of the central figure of evil. It wasn’t until April 30, 1966 that the Church of Satan was formalized.
Anton LaVey’s Satanic Bible was published in 1969. His teachings promoted indulgence, vital existence, undefiled wisdom, kindness to those who deserve it, responsibility to the responsible, and an eye for an eye code of ethics. In his view, a Satanist is carnal, physical and pragmatic, enjoying a physical existence, propagating a naturalistic worldview that seems human as animals dieting in an amoral universe. The ideal Satanist should be individualistic and noon-conformist. He encouraged an individual’s pride, self-respect, and self-realization by satisfying the ego’s desires. Self-indulgence is a good thing. He said hate and aggression are necessary and advantageous for survival. Bottom line: he praised the seven deadly sins as virtues.
By the 1970s, groups were splintering off to form alternative churches. In 1978, the U.S. Army included the faith in its manual for chaplains, “Religious Requirements and Practices.”
The most successful of the church divisions is The Satanic Temple, opened in Houston in 2015. The Temple calls itself a non-theistic religion embracing the Devil as a symbolic form of rebellion in the tradition of Milton. It devotes itself to political action focused on the separation of church and state, religious equality, and reproductive rights.
It was recognized as a religion of the U.S. government in 2016, receiving tax-exempt status.
Note: Practitioners of LeVey’s version of Satanism do not believe that Satan literally exists and do not worship him. For them, Satan is an archetype for adversary, who represents pride, carnality, and enlightenment. The Devil is a symbol of defiance against the Abrahamic faiths that “suppress humanity’s natural instincts.”
However, Theistic Satanism (Spiritual Satanism or Devi worship) holds the primary belief that Satan is an actual deity to revere and worship. They believe in magic and ritual, often focusing solely on devotion.
Bottom line for writers: Satanism isn’t a unitary thing. If Satanism figures into your plot or character characteristics, do your homework, particularly for any historical setting.
A friend recently told me that the horror villains we fear are subconscious stand-ins for things we’re afraid of in real life. Vampires stand for a fear of change; zombies for a fear of crowds or strangers. Fear of clowns is a sign you’re a normal, well-adjusted, perfectly rational person.
Inquiring minds want to know! I started with vampires—and I never got past vampires!
When I went online to learn what it means if we fear vampires, what popped up was an article by Ralph Blumenthal, “A Fear of Vampires Can Mask a Fear of Something Much Worse.” He was writing in 2002 about villagers in Malawi believing that the government was colluding with vampires to collect human blood in exchange for food.
At the time, Malawi was in the grip of starvation, a severe AIDS epidemic, and political upheaval. He cited Nina Auerbach, author of Our Vampires, Ourselves, to the effect that stories of the undead embody power ”and our fears of power.”
In nearly every culture in the world, there is a legend of some variation of vampire-like creatures—the dead who reanimate and come back to feed on the living. And there is general agreement that the roots of vampire legends are in the misunderstanding of how bodies decompose and of how certain diseases spread.
In an October 26, 2016 article in National Geographic titled The Bloody Truth About Vampires, Becky Little wrote, “As a corpse’s skin shrinks, its teeth and fingernails can appear to have grown longer. And as internal organs break down, a dark ‘purge fluid’ can leak out of the nose and mouth. People unfamiliar with this process would interpret this fluid to be blood and suspect that the corpse had been drinking it from the living.”
Modern images of vampires are pretty stereotyped: fangs that bite the necks of victims; drinking human blood; can’t see themselves in mirrors; can be warded off with garlic, killed with a stake (or silver nail) through the heart; are aristocrats who live in castles and may be sexy. This image was popularized by Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of Count Dracula in the 1931 film adaptation of the Broadway show of the same name. Unlike Bram Stoker’s description of the monster in the 1897 novel Dracula as a repulsive old man with huge eyebrows and bat-like ears, Lugosi showed audiences a mysteriously elegant gentleman in evening dress.
In European folklore, vampires typically wore shrouds, and were often described as bloated, with a ruddy or dark countenance. Specific descriptions varied among regions: sometimes male, sometimes female, might have long fingernails, a stubby beard, the mouth and left eye open, a permanently hateful stare, red eyes, no eyes, etc. Fangs were not always a prominent feature, and blood was generally sucked from bites on the chest near the heart rather than the throat.
But perhaps the most important theme of Barber’s book is that, lacking a scientific background in physiology, pathology, or immunization, the common response of ancient societies was to blame death and disease on the dead. To that end, the interpretations they came up with—while wrong from today’s perspective—nevertheless were usually coherent, covered all the data, and provided the rationale for some common practices that seemed to be otherwise inexplicable.
Should you ever be pursued by a vampire, fling a handful of rice, millet, or other small grain in its path. The vampire will be compelled to stop to count every grain, giving you time to escape. I found no information on how vampires came to be associated with arithmomania, but it endures: remember The Count von Count on Sesame Street?
At this point, I realize that getting into methods of identifying vampires, protecting against vampires, ways to destroy vampires, and cross-cultural variations on vampirism is way beyond the scope of this blog. Instead, I refer you to books such as this:
Seeing a vampire in your dream symbolizes an aspect of your personality that is parasitic or selfishly feeds off others.
Alternatively, a vampire may reflect feelings about people you believe want to pull you down to their level or convert you to thinking negatively in a way similar to theirs.
To dream of being a vampire represents a selfish need to feed off others.
To dream of being bitten by a vampire represents feelings about other people using you or feeding off you and being unable to stop it.
Vampires may be a sign of dependence, problems with addiction, social pressure, or ambivalence.
A dream vampire might be telling you that you need to start being more independent and relying less on others resources or accomplishments.
To dream of killing vampires represents overcoming dependence on others.
Repeated dreams of vampires hovering over your shoulder and correcting your spelling or suggesting topics for research and expansion is almost certainly a sign that you are writing a blog entry about vampires.
Bottom line for writers:consider whether a vampire is a fit metaphor for your character.
The March 13, 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese led to an entirely new field of research in psychology. Genovese was attacked while walking home from work at 3:20 a.m. in Queens, New York. She was stabbed, sexually assaulted, and murdered over a period of 30 minutes. Subsequent reports said 38 witnesses watched the attack from nearby apartments but neither intervened nor even called the police until the attacker fled. Kitty Genovese died on the way to a hospital.
Two psychologists, Bibb Latané and John Darley, conducted extensive research to examine and try to explain such apparently callous indifference to the suffering of another human being. Over time, these and other researchers teased out several factors that will affect the likelihood of bystander intervention.
Diffusion of responsibility is one of the earliest and most powerful variables identified: the more people who are bystanding, the less likely it is that anyone will intervene. Responsibility is diffused among all.
Contrarily, Philpot et al. just this year published the results examining real-life video recordings from three countries and found that someone intervened in over 90% of cases. Even if the likelihood of any one person responding was infrequent, someone in the crowd intervened.
Emergency vs. non-emergency situations. The following conditions are relevant.
Notice that something is going on.
interpret the situation as an emergency. Others not reacting provides social influence against acting,
Feel responsible: does the victim deserve help, is the bystander competent, what is the bystander’s relationship to victim.
The form of assistance needed (e.g., medical emergency, harassment protection, etc.).
Implement the action choice.
Ambiguity and consequences: ambiguous situations take up to five times as long to respond to, and even then bystanders will often not intervene until after assessing their own safety.
Cohesiveness and group membership: the more cohesive a group, the more likely it is that the norm of social responsibility will lead to helping. Bigger cohesive groups are quickest to react.
Cultural differences affect intervention—both broad/national culture and subculture.
Digital interference is a relatively new phenomenon. With the spread of cell phones and social media, bystanders at a scene are becoming more likely to try to film the incident (whether as “armchair activism” or simply to attract online attention) than they are to intervene or call for help. This has the doubled impact of overloading nearby cell towers so that actual phone calls to emergency services are not connected.
Bystander apathy can be counteracted by raising awareness of bystander effects ad consciously taking steps to overcome it and help; and victims can overcome the diffusion of responsibility in groups by singling out a single member and asking for help from that one person.
Bottom line for writers: make your readers understand why your character does or does not intervene!
Altruism: an individual performing an action that is at a cost to him/herself (e.g., time, effort, pleasure, quality of life, probability of survival or reproduction) that benefits – either directly or indirectly – another individual or group, without the expectation of reciprocity or compensation for that action.
Helping behavior may or may not be altruistic. There are many factors affecting the urge to help, including the following.
1) Kin selection: both animals and humans are more helpful toward close kin that to distant kin or non-kin. Perception of kinship is affected by whether the other looks like the giver, shares a family name (especially if it’s an unusual name), has a familiar scent (in animal groups), etc. Think of kin as the in-group.
2) Vested interests: helping friends, allies, and similar social in-groups (besides avoiding vicarious suffering to the individual) may eventually benefit the altruist. Extreme self-sacrifice may be adaptive if a hostile outgroup threatens to kill the entire group. During the Allied campaign in Italy in the World War II, First Lieutenant John Robert Fox ordered an artillery strike on his position in Sommocolinia, sacrificing his own life to take out invading German forces and allow US troops to retreat safely. He was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
3) Reciprocal altruism: helping others is more likely if there is a chance that they can and will reciprocate. Therefore, people are more helpful it is likely that they will interact again in the future. If a person sees others being non-cooperative, they are less likely to be helpful. If someone helps first, the recipient of the help is more likely to help in return. Think charities that give small gifts of stickers, notepads, or holiday cards when asking for a contribution.
4) People are more likely to cooperate on a task if they can communicate first.
5) Groups of people cooperate more if they perceive a threat from another group. In the insect world, this frequently happens when a colony or hive finds safety in numbers while moving larvae, a queen, or the entire group. Ants, bees, termites, etc., form large masses and structures to complete the move.
6) People will help more when they know that their helping will be communicated to people they will interact with later, is publicly announced, is discussed, or is simply observed by someone else.
7) Selective investment theory proposes that close social bonds, and associated emotional, cognitive, and neurohormonal mechanisms evolved in order to facilitate long-term, high-cost altruism benefiting those depending on another for group survival and reproductive success. Humans, like many other animals, care for members of the species who cannot care for themselves, ultimately benefiting the species as a whole.
8) Microbiologists are studying whether some strains of microbes might influence the hosts to perform altruistic behaviors that are not immediately obvious as beneficial to the host. There is a possibility, currently being researched, that the bacteria in a person’s gut could affect their behavior and that changes in the bacterial makeup (such as from taking antibiotics) might result in a change in personality.
Psychology has defined psychological altruism as “a motivational state with the goal of increasing another’s welfare. Some definitions specify a lack of external rewards for altruistic behaviors. Even when not immediately obvious, altruism is often rewarded in various ways (see above). When there is no tangible reward, feeling good about oneself can be rewarding. Regardless of whether an act is “true” altruism, there are many psychological studies that document the conditions under which people are more likely to help.
Helping is more likely when the recipient is clearly in need.
Helping is more likely when the giver feels personal responsibility for reducing the other person’s distress.
A person with a high level of empathic concern is likely to help regardless of how many bystanders are around.
The up-side of helping: volunteerism is strongly related to current and future health and well-being.
Older adults who volunteered were higher in life satisfaction and will to live, and lower on measures of depression, anxiety, somatization.
A 30-year study of the physical health of mothers found that 52% of those who did not volunteer experienced a major illness, compared to 36% of those who did.
A 4-year study of people 55 and older found that those who volunteered for two or more organizations had a 63% lower likelihood of dying. Controlling for prior health status indicated that volunteerism accounted for a 44%reduction in mortality.
Research supports the idea that altruistic acts bring out happiness but it also works in the opposite direction: happier people are also kinder.
When too much of a good thing is no longer a good thing:
Although positive effects of helping were still significant, one study of volunteers found that feeling overwhelmed by others’ demands had an even stronger negative effect on mental health.
While generous acts make people feel good about themselves, it is also important for recipients of assistance to appreciate—and show that their appreciation—for kindness and help.
Research indicates that a conscious focus on gratitude led to reductions in negative affect and increases in optimistic appraisals, positive affect, offering emotional support, sleep quality, and well-being for the grateful person.
Volunteer burn-out is especially common in high-stress positions, such as volunteer firefighters and medical providers at refugee camps.
Altruism is an important moral value for virtually all of the world’s religions:
Jews practice tzedakah, righteous behavior, providing support to make the world a more just place
Daya (compassion) and Daan (chairty) are two of the fundamental teachings of Hinduism
As part of aparigraha (non-attachment), Jains give away possessions and harm no living creature
Many Christian churches still practice tithing, donating 10% of all earnings
One of the five primary tenets of Islam is zakat, giving to charity
Sikhs practice seva, which is unselfish and unbiased aid to all
In Friday’s blog, I outlined the factors that influence/promote liking:
Similarity (the more similar two people are on a number of dimensions, the more their liking endures)
Relationships that offer more rewards than costs
Surprise, surprise: these are the underpinnings of love as well! And although liking and loving share roots, people seldom confuse the two. The difference is largely a matter of degree: love is more intense than like. It’s more personal and more important to one’s well-being.
Love comes in many guises.
Love for dearest friends
Love for family, one’s children in particular
We use the word loosely and often. We love chocolate, theater, gardening—whatever we feel strongly about. But no one seriously confuses these feelings with love.
Although beloved friends and family are direct extensions of liking, romantic love is in a category largely by itself.
A key ingredient of romantic love is arousal. According to Psychologist Elaine Hatfield (1988, and not contradicted since), emotions have two ingredients: physical arousal plus cognitive appraisal. Arousal from any source can enhance any emotion, depending on how we interpret the cause of the arousal.
Note for writers: at least part of the arousal from any source (fright, heavy duty workout, viewing erotica, listening to humorous or repulsive readings) will be attributed to a suitable object of affection.
Intense romantic love per se doesn’t last. Romantic love reaches a fever pitch of obsession—infatuation, if you will—early on. This is the period of constant calls, texts, letters (whatever fits the time period), exchanging love poems, giving personally meaningful gifts, etc.. For one thing, it gets exhausting! But a case can be made that continued total focus on one’s partner/mate bodes ill for the well-being of any children they might have.
Men focus more on physical attractiveness. Although interested in appearance, women generally value their potential mate’s status/ financial security over physical beauty. These findings hold cross-culturally and even when someone is seeking a same-sex partner.
Age also matters: men value youth more than women do.
Men are much more willing to engage in casual sex than women are, and their standards for sex partners are lower.
Gender differences in mate preferences may be accounted for by social norms and expectations. The different socio-economic status of women and the level of gender equality within a society is also a factor in what attributes are prioritized when seeking a mate.
I’ll start with the Mating Gradient. As long ago as the mid-1950s, Margaret Mead wrote about the propensity for couples in which the men were older, taller, smarter, better educated, higher earning, and of higher socio-economic status than the women. Decades later, I conducted an experiment in which I had men and women respond to a hypothetical love relationship with either the traditional pattern (as outlined) or the opposite.
As expected, people in the traditional hypothetical relationships were comfortable and positive.
When men responded to a loved one who was two years older, two inches taller, better educated, higher earning, more intelligent, and higher socio-economic status, they were surprisingly okay with it! A typical response was, “If a babe like that loves me, I must be pretty hot stuff!”
When women responded to a loved one who was lesser on all these dimensions, they were generally negative. A typical response was, “I couldn’t respect a man like that. How could I love him?”
One interpretation of all this is that, traditionally, women are supposed to be taken care of by their mates and men are (perhaps) threatened when of an inferior status. But the upshot of men marrying down and women marrying up is that, overall, the least marriageable men are at the bottom of the heap while the most capable, successful women remain unmarried at the top.
Consider the implications of the traditional relationship. Feeling constantly inferior leads to depression and feelings of inadequacy. Feeling constantly superior leads to lack of respect and perhaps a power grab.
There is research evidence that enduring relationships are based on equality. So how can these things be reconciled? One way would be for the man to be “superior” on at least one dimension while the woman is “superior” in one or more of the other areas.
And speaking of the relationship of respect to liking and loving: Zick Rubin introduced the concept back in the 1970s, published as Measurement of Romantic Love in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Rubin created scales to measure liking, loving, and lusting. Each item was rated on a 5-point scale from “not at all true” to “very much true.” Examples of these statements are below:
Liking scale items: I have great confidence in X’s judgment. X is one of the most likable people I know. I think that X and I are quite similar. I think that X is unusually well-adjusted.
Loving Scale items: I would do almost anything for X. If I could never be with X, I would feel miserable. I feel responsible for X’s well-being. When I am with X, I spend a good deal of time just looking at him/her.
Lust Scale items: I can’t stop thinking about having sex with X. The best thing about X and my relationship is that we let our bodies do all the talking. X’s attitudes and opinions don’t really matter in our relationship. The best part of my relationship with X is the sexual chemistry.
We tend to like people more when we are in a good mood, and we like them less when we are in bad moods. As partners stay together over time, cognition becomes relatively more important than passion. Over time, close relationships are more likely to be based on companionate love than passionate love.
Bottom line for writers: if you’re writing a love relationship, be clear on what kind of love it is!
Think about two people: a close friend and someone you are attracted to romantically. How are these attractions alike and how are they different?
Both platonic and romantic love have been extensively studied by psychologists, including myself when I was earning my PhD in experimental social psychology. Though there will likely always be more to explore, psychology has a huge breadth and depth of information available. I’ll start with liking. The information provided here is a summary drawn from Psychology (10th Ed.) by David G. Myers.
Caution: all of this research relies on group data; the behavior of individuals varies widely.
Proximity (geographic closeness) increases the likelihood of
The mere exposure effect: more frequent exposure to anything and virtually any person increases attraction: nonsense syllables, photographs, music, geometric figures, etc., etc., etc.
Familiarity increases attraction
We prefer the mirror image of our faces to the one other people see.
We prefer others who share some facial characteristics with us.
We seem to be hard wired to bond with the familiar and be wary of those who are different.
After familiarity, physical appearance is the most important factor in attraction
Physical appearance matters to both men and women, although women more likely to say it doesn’t.
Physical appearance predicts how often people date and (no surprise here) how popular they feel.
Attractiveness affects how positive a first impression is
Good looking people are perceived as healthier, happier, more sensitive, more successful, and more socially skilled
Attractive, well-dressed people make a better impression in job interviews
Attractive people tend to be more successful in their jobs: income analyses show a penalty for plainness and/or obesity
In a study of the 100 top-grossing films since 1940, attractive characters were portrayed as morally superior to unattractive characters
Based on gazing times, even babies prefer attractive faces to unattractive ones
But there are limits to the attractiveness effect
Attractiveness does not affect how compassionate we think someone is.
Physical attractiveness is statistically unrelated to self-esteem
Attractiveness is unrelated to happiness
People generally don’t view themselves as unattractive
Attractive people are more suspicious of praise for work performance; less attractive people more likely to accept praise as sincere
Culture and beauty
Beauty is culture bound: think piercings, tattoos, elongated necks, bound feet, dyed or painted skin and hair, ideal weight; body hair, breast size
Cultural ideals change over time; for example, consider the feminine ideal in the U.S.: 1920s was super thin and flat chested; 1950s, the lush Marilyn Monroe look; currently, it’s lean but busty
Those who don’t fit the ideal often try to buy beauty: Americans now spend more on beauty supplies than on education and social services combined, not to mention plastic surgery, teeth capping and whitening, Botox skin smoothing, or laser hair removal
Men in many cultures judge women as more attractive if they have a youthful, fertile appearance (the latter suggested by a low waist to hip ratio).
Women are attracted to healthy-looking men. When ovulating, women are more attracted to men who seem mature, dominant, masculine, and affluent.
People everywhere prefer physical features that are “normal”—i.e., not too big, too small. Average is attractive.
People prefer symmetrical faces—even though virtually no one actually has one.
Across cultures, women are 2-18% more likely than men to say they “Constantly think about their looks.”
Women have 91% of all cosmetic procedures.
Women recall others’ appearance better than men do.
Similarity is greater among friends/partners compared to randomly matched pairs
Opposites virtually never attract
The more alike people are, the more their liking endures: similarity breeds content.
People like people who like them
True for initial attraction
Self-fulfilling loop: A likes B, who responds positively, making A like B more, etc.
Especially true for people with low self-esteem
The effect is enhanced when someone moves from disliking to liking us
The reward theory of attraction: we like people whose behavior is rewarding to us, and we continue relationships that offer more rewards than costs.
BOTTOM LINE FOR WRITERS: if you want to write a realistic relationship, follow the principles above. If you choose to go against the norm, take care to make it believable to the reader.
Writing from life isn’t a novel idea. Indeed, there are whole books on the topic. For many (if not most) people, writing from life conjures thoughts of memoir, autobiography, or biography. But opportunities to mine your life to enrich your fiction are virtually limitless. This blog explores ways to tap into your life experiences. It’s a long but not exhaustive overview. Here’s hoping you’re inspired!
1) Maybe the most obvious: you lift a character whole cloth from an acquaintance, friend, family member, or neighbor. Virtually the only thing you change is the name. (You may want to get permission or change just enough so that you can still show your face at parties.)
2) Choose a habit, quirk, characteristic gesture, favorite word, etc. from someone you know (maybe yourself) and make it a character note. This could be a private, unmentionable behavior (see my recent blog on the topic) or it could be quite public (think Rafael Nadal touching forehead nose, and both ears before every serve). My story “Solid Line” (in “Chrysalis Reader”) drew on my husband’s habits of food shopping and breakfast cooking (alternating eggs and cereal six days a week, pancakes on Sunday).
3) Choose one or more factually true things about a real person and graft them onto a fictional character/story. For example, my story “Family Man”(published in Distillery) started with three true facts about my father: he had great eye-hand coordination, was stationed in Texas with the Army Air Corps in WWII, and he was a winning pitcher for the Old Timers Softball League in his later years. In “Belle” (Compass Rose), I used my maternal grandmother’s true story of having thirteen children to craft a fictional piece in which the character leaves after naming the thirteenth and heads west.
1) Draw on a familiar neighborhood for the setting of a story or scene.
2) Take details from a place you have worked, lived, or visited often. I wrote “The Old Home Place” based on the hardscrabble farm where I visited my paternal grandmother for two weeks every summer.
If your setting is as important as a character, you will need to return to it often and provide lots of detail. Otherwise, don’t dwell on it, but use it to describe color, furnishings, feel, etc.
1) Give your character a familiar object to love or abhor. Think skull, Tiffany vase, worn baseball glove, cast iron skillet, whatever. Consider whether the character inherited it, received it as a gift, or chose it for him- or herself. “Pictures Not Displayed” (Storgy Magazine) is fiction based on a box of photographs I found under my mother’s bed after she died.
2) Give your character a collection of objects. Here again, it could be anything—teacups, cloisonné napkin rings, antique farm implements, fake Christmas trees. If you choose a collection you are familiar with, you might also want to incorporate some of the characteristics of the collector.
3) Consider objects around your home that could contribute to your plot: be damaging or even lethal (think beyond knives and pokers), be used in defense or attack, or used in unconventional ways (think cast iron griddle used to hammer a nail).
1) Use repeated events to establish the rhythms of a character’s life. For example, attending every home game, square dancing, hang gliding. In addition, sometimes very different repeated events can be combined to form a new whole. Think holiday traditions, anniversaries, birthdays.
For example, I’m a devotee of massage. In “Beautiful Bones” (Connecticut Review), I combined the behaviors of many massage therapists with a formerly abused widow getting a massage during a hurricane and becoming paranoid about the massage therapist killing her.
2) Sometimes an event sticks with you just because it’s quirky. Once I was visiting family over Christmas and my granddaughter, who was enamored of special effects makeup at the time, had received a kit as a gift. Simultaneously, she was looking up imaginary diseases for a writing project with friends. The upshot was that she made up herself, her mother, and me to look like three generations suffering from hanahaki disease and I wrote “Lethal Love” (Good Works Review), in which suffering unrequited love resulted in growing flowers in your lungs and throat.
3) Perhaps more often, it will be one time only events that have made a huge impact on you. For me, driving from upstate New York in winter in a whiteout led to “White Out” (Happy) involving a case of road rage that never happened.
When my husband had eye surgery, I used descriptions of his treatment, treatment, restrictions, and the aftereffects to write a magical realism story, “Her Husband’s Eyes” (Midway). After the surgery, a superstitious wife thinks her husband’s eyes are haunting her. My exposure to Chinese culture via a trip to Singapore and Taiwan resulted in “Good Works” (descant).
4) Use a single event that isn’t quickly over to display coping skills. For example, having breast cancer. “Beast and the Beauty” (Clare) was a magical realism story spawned by radiation therapy following surgery, in which a woman suffering radiation poisoning turned to alternative healing methods.
1) Draw on how you were taught values, your moral compass. For example, in “The Pig Sticker” (Chelsea) when Uncle Earl calls a dirty rag doll “Nig” Mommy tells him not to talk trash in front of her babies. Of course, sometimes the lessons are much more explicit, as in being told throughout childhood that your word is your bond, or being exposed to church doctrine. Consider how you came by your values and whether those lessons relate to how your character came to his/her values and morality.
2) Sometimes attitudes transfer in elliptical ways. In my family, “waste not, want not” was a maxim. Several friends and I agreed to share our Lady Finger mold, fish poacher, turkey frier, and other seldom used cooking equipment. That led me to write “The Darwinian Co-op Lending Library” (Clackamus Literary Review). I created a post-modern library in which people could borrow everything from Valentine’s decorations to turkey basters to a husband and children for the holidays.
This is perhaps the richest minefield of all. Remember emotional reactions in as vivid detail as possible, both your physical feelings and behaviors. Rememberwhen you felt joy, guilt, loss, bereavement, excitement, embarrassment, regret, inadequacy, love, sexual arousal, awe, helplessness, fear, being tipsy—any emotion at all.
If your POV character is experiencing this emotion, describe how it felt. If otherwise, staying in the POV character’s head, describe what the POV character can see, hear, etc. of emotional character”s behavior.
The thing to keep in mind here is that you can transfer an emotion to a very different situation/even. For example, if you’ve experienced the death of a loved one, those feelings can be written into your fiction as a character’s reaction to the death of a spouse, a sibling, a parent, a friend, even a beloved pet.
Bottom line for writers: your life is gold. Mine it!
When someone says something that isn’t true, it’s a lie—except when it isn’t!For writers, any untruth can be a tool for building character, plot, tone, etc. I can think of three situations when an untruth isn’t a lie.
1) The person telling the untruth is incapable of discerning what the truth is. Very young children will often lie because there is no real difference between fantasy and reality in their mind. The cardboard box really did become a rocket ship. A mermaid and a kracken really did come to play in the bathtub.
Depending on the age of the child, this may extend to what seems to adults to be attempts to get out of trouble or deflect blame. Because a child’s sense of reality is not concrete, what an adult sees as a lie a child may simply see as very effective wishful thinking.
Children may also respond with the first answer to come into their mind that they think an adult wants to hear. This is true both for extremely young children who simply try to give an answer they think the adult wants to hear and for children who have trouble concentrating or remembering, such as those with ADD or ADHD.
Dr. Kang Lee, a psychologist at the University of Toronto, sees lying as an indicator of developmental status. I’ll skip the research methodology and simply cite the findings. When asked whether they had peeked behind a screen: of those who had peeked, 30% of two-year-olds, 50% of three-year olds, and about 80% of eight-year-olds lied about it.
2) The person telling the untruth suffers some form of dementia. For example, an obvious case would be a woman in a memory care facility who tells visiting relatives that she baked a chocolate cake and everyone at the party said how good it was, and Paul Newman came in through the window and danced with her.
Another version, often harder to detect, is the person who has temporal confusion. For example, a man who says that his son came to see him yesterday and it was actually last week. (Think false alibi!)
3) The speaker believes something is true that isn’t. In other words, the speaker is mistaken. It could be a misunderstanding of something seen, read or heard—but it could also be that the speaker was intentionally deceived so that s/he would spread a lie.
Which brings us to real lies as opposed to untruths: to make an untrue statement with the intention to deceive. But writers, go beyond the direct lie and use, half-truths, exaggerations, or pertinent omissions.
Not a rare behavior for people or characters. Indeed, Kendra Cherry writing on verywellmind.com pointed out that actual research about lying is relatively recent, and data replications are hard to come by, but some surveys suggest that as many as 96% of people admit to lying at least sometimes.
In 1996, Bella DePaulo, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, published the results of a study in which 147 people between the ages of 18 and 71 kept a diary of all the falsehoods they told over the course of a week. She found that most people lie at least once or twice every day! Over the course of a week, people lied in approximately 20% of social interactions lasting 10 minutes or more. They deceived about 30% of those they interacted with one-on-one.
Although she didn’t find gender differences in number of lies, there were relationship differences. Parents and teens interactions are often deceitful: “College students lie to their mothers in one out of two conversations.”
Little white lies. These lies are typically meant to do some good—or at least do no harm. For example, complimenting a friend’s shirt when you really think it looks dreadful. Coming late to a meeting and saying you were held up by an accident on the interstate when you really overslept.
Although pretty much everyone is told from a young age that it’s always best to tell the truth, the fact is that telling the truth (about oversleeping, for example) may be punished (for example, by a poor performance review). Thus, society often encourages or even rewards lying.
Some lies may serve as a social lubricant. DePaulo (above) found that 25% of lies were “fake positives” intending to make the other person feel better about someone or something. These were 10 to 20 times more common than lies in which people pretend to like someone or something less than they actually do (fake negatives).
But beware: according to Wanda Thibodeaux on Inc.com, telling lies to spare someone’s feelings is not good in the long run. Yes, we do take the liar’s intention into account, but it also raises doubts about whether a person willing to lie to us actually has our best interests at heart. These lies can cause doubt, uncertainty, suspicion, and trust issues.
White lies made up to excuse being late, unprepared, unwilling to do something, etc. bring into question a character’s ultimate trustworthiness.
Also, telling little white lies can desensitize the liar, making it easier to tell bigger/more serious lies.
People lie for the same reason they do everything else: a lie is the best perceived alternative at the time. Thus, lies are a means to an end, and those ends can be broadly grouped into four overlapping categories; to get what they want, to take the easy way out, to avoid criticism, to build a positive self-image. The likelihood of lying increases when someone is “pushed into a corner” or needs to react quickly.
1) To get what they want. This could be almost anything. In relationships, it might be to attract a partner, to hide cheating, to get a partner to agree to sex, to avoid an argument—and these are just a few possibilities.
In the workplace, lying to get ahead, discredit the competition, get even with a colleague, take credit for someone else’s work, cover up procrastination, avoid being fired, etc.
In any relationship, people lie for quick financial gain, to avoid taking responsibility or unwanted chores, to be liked/popular, or nearly any other objective that the liar sees as more important (at the moment) than the truth.
2) To take the easy way out. This overlaps with the good Little White Lies above, not wanting to deal with hurt feelings, for example. It also includes plagiarizing and making up data in a research project.
3) To avoid criticism. When people aren’t comfortable with some aspect of their behavior, character, or past they are prone to deceive in any of the ways mentioned above (lie, half-truths, exaggerations, intentional omissions). Closely related to inflate one’s image, to cover up for a mistake, or to excuse doing something wrong.
4) To build a positive self-image. Basically, this is lying to oneself. The liar wants something to be true and pretends that it is until eventually s/he believes it. Making excuses for behavior or thoughts or wishes that at some level are unacceptable to the self.
Other reasons people lie
One lie has led to another, especially good for writers. (Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.—Walter Scott)
To be malicious and hurt other people
To take control of a situation
To hide a disorder such as an eating disorder, compulsive gambling, alcoholism, etc., which goes beyond avoiding criticism
It is integral to certain occupations
Pathological lying. A person who feels compelled to lie, and will do so with no apparent benefit to self or others is a pathological liar. This is often part of a diagnosis of a mental health disorder:
Antisocial personality/sociopathy (no regard for right or wrong, no remorse, often become criminals)
Borderline personality (varying moods and behavior, often impulsive, conducive to unstable relationships)
Factitious disorders (acting as if s/he has a physical or mental illness but does not)
The severity and frequency of lying, and the reasons for lying are what point to a psychological problem.
How to tell when someone is lying. (As summarized by Kendra Cherry, above.)
Folk wisdom is wrong. It says that liars tend to fidget, squirm, avoid eye contact or have shifty eyes when lying. Research indicates that these are virtually useless as indicators. (Looking away, for example, is more likely to indicate the person is trying to access long term memory.)
Some of the most accurate (although still weak) indicators of lying:
Being vague, offering few details
Repeating questions before answering them
Speaking in sentence fragments
Failing to provide specific details when a story is challenged
Grooming behavior, such as playing with hair or pressing fingers to lips
More active ways to uncover lies
Ask the person to tell the story in reverse. Increasing the mental load makes lying more difficult—although telling a lie is more mentally taxing than telling the truth anyway.
Trust your instincts. We may have an unconscious, intuitive response to lying that gets drowned out if we spend too much time focusing on the non-verbals stereotypically associated with lying.
Consider an individual’s tells
Successful card players learn to hide when they are bluffing and to identify what the other players do when they have good or bad hands. The same might be true for your characters. Does she blush? Does he stutter? Does he rub his chin? Does she bounce her knee? Does your character have a poker face? And if so, is s/he on the side of good or evil (so to speak).
Bonus info about lying
The closer the liar is to the deceived, the more likely the lies are to be an altruistic (fake positive) one
Women are especially likely to stretch the truth to spare someone’s feelings
Men are more prone to lying about themselves: conversations between two guys contain about eight times as many self-oriented lies as they do falsehoods about other people
Bottom line for writers:
Lying is rampant, so there ought to be at least a little of it in your story
Lying can abet virtually any goal
Lies can be of virtually any size or seriousness
Pay attention to age, relationship, and gender differences
When Jesse Sheidlower wrote this book, he was the Editor at Large of the Oxford English Dictionary. The book was published by Oxford University Press, one of the most prestigious academic presses in the world. The 49 pages of front matter and the 269 pages in the body of the book deal exclusively with the F word. Seeing this started me thinking. Ultimately, I concluded that the F word is one of the most important words in the English language. And therefore writers should consider its many uses.
One indicator of importance is the number of euphemisms coined to express the F word without tipping into the vulgar or obscene. A woman born and reared in North Carolina once told me that when a Southern Lady wants to say the F word, she says “Fine!”
That one wasn’t familiar to me, but we’ve all heard many others. These are what is sometimes called a “minced oath.” Here are some examples:
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
Fark (not to be confused with FARC, which might add unintended political themes to your work!)
I could keep going, but the internet would eventually run out of pixels…
Although listeners know exactly what the euphemism stands for, many feel that the impact of the euphemism loses much of the cathartic value of the original and may come across as tepid, ineffectual, or just plain namby-pamby.
William Shakespeare was one of the most creative users of minced oaths and euphemisms to describe everything from copulation to defecation, writing some of the most vividly imaginative phrases to avoid the censorship of the age. Juliet may have had the sheath to make Romeo’s dagger happy, but no children’s ears had to be covered.
Of course, this still wasn’t clean enough for Dr. Thomas Bowdler and his sister Harriet. In 1818, they announced the publication of a G-rated book of Shakespseare’s work, in which “those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family.” The Family Shakespeare didn’t sell particularly well (and was a pretty short book), but “bowdlerise” became a term for overdone, fussy, prissy censorship.
Note to writers: consciously decide whether to use a euphemism or the original. There is a time for vulgarity and a time for bowdlerising.
The F word is so prominent in English that the basic entry for fuck in Slang and Euphemism runs a full half page, followed by 60 entries directly involving the word, and surrounded by acronyms that take the place of actually saying the word. Though the origins are unclear, it dates back at least to 1475.
Basically, it refers to a sexual act, an act of copulation. It’s universally characterized as obscene or at least vulgar. However, over time, much of the resistance to the original word has been diluted by long and frequent use.
And it is arguably the most versatile word around. In modern usage, the F word and its derivatives (such as fucker and fucking) can be used as a noun, pronoun, verb, adjective, conjunction, interjection, or adverb.
A sexual act in its most straightforward form, as in “Let’s fuck.”
Transitive: John fucked Mary.
Intransitive: Mary was fucked by John.
To cheat or mistreat someone, as in “She totally fucked me.”
Referring to the act itself, as in a specific event being “ A great fuck.”
Referring to a partner, as in “A great fuck” referring to the other person involved.
Referring to an incentive or strong feeling on any subject.
Note to writers: make sure the context clearly specifies ambiguous meanings.
Used in place of his/her, as in “Tell the fucker at the end of the bar that I buy my own drinks.”
A modifier to a verb as in
2. A modifier to another adverb, as in “The Broncos played fucking well out there.”
3. A modifier to an adjective, as in “Fucking beautiful.”
A modifier to a noun, as in “That was some fucking speech!” or “I had a fucking good time.”
Connecting two parts of a sentence, as in “I left, fuck the boss’s order.”
Exclamation or intensifier: fuck can express innumerable emotions. Most often, as a single word, it expresses joy, despair, surprise, or anger.
But fuck can intensify virtually any emotion, depending on surrounding situation or text.
Ignorance: Fuck if I know.
Trouble: Mary returned and I’m fucked now
Fraud: I got fucked in the real estate deal.
Aggression: Fuck you!
Displeasure: What the fuck do you think you’re doing?
Difficulty: I can’t understand these fucking data!
Incompetence: You fuck-off!
Stupidly or incompetence: You really fucked up that negotiation.
The F word has a long and varied history. Though its origin remains somewhat obscure, it most likely derives from an early Germanic root, such as peuk (to prick), fokken (to thrust), or peig (hostile). Though linguists can’t seem to agree on the etymology, most agree that “fuck” has been a vulgar or taboo word for most of its very long history, which contributes to the difficulty of tracking down its history as it was not officially used or written down often.
It has a Wikipedia entry that runs to 19 pages, which goes into the history and gives examples of modern usage in politics, marketing, and literature. And as the Urban Dictionary says of it, “The only fucking word that can be put everyfuckingwhere and still fucking make fucking sense.”
Bottom line for writers: The F word is useful, versatile, and becoming ever more acceptable. But should you decide to use it, use it sparingly as the narrator, and limit it to one or a few characters. It loses its impact with repetition (see The Wolf of Wall Street).