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Charlie Brooker on how to scare yourself shitless

We asked the master of modern macabre Charlie Brooker about the art of the unsettling

Charlie Brooker on how to scare yourself shitless

The night is long, your living room dark. Huddled on the sofa, completely and utterly alone, your only solace lies in the cold blue light emanating from your phone, absorbing your attention for hours and hours on end. It feels like a pretty ordinary Thursday night – but it’s not. You have entered a living nightmare.

Or at least, that’s how it would look to the warped mind of Charlie Brooker, whose dark satire of the technology-obsessed modern world, Black Mirror, recently returned for its third series. “I’m not anti-technology, I’m just a natural worrier,” says Brooker between mouthfuls of croissant in a swanky central London hotel. “Often what happens is that I’ll have an idea that makes me laugh. It’ll be, to my mind, quite an amusing ‘What If?’ idea. Then, because I’m a worrier, my brain immediately starts to find worst-case scenarios and I start chasing all the potential negative possibilities down the pipe.” The result? “A position of absolute despair.”

The next time you’re alone with your thoughts, don’t avoid plummeting into this bottomless pit of desolation – fling yourself into it. Because just like your schoolboy self, reading Goosebumps novels by torchlight under your duvet, there are few funner ways to spend an evening than by freaking yourself the hell out.

For inspiration, you don’t even need to use your imagination, simply look at the world around you. “I was born in 1971 and when I was about 12, suddenly the
TV seemed to be full of graphic depictions of nuclear war on what felt like a weekly basis and I expected to die in a fireball. I’m sure that was traumatising on some level. Nuclear Armageddon is still right around the corner, we just don’t worry about it. It’s fallen out of the news cycle. But it’ll come back. I mean, there are like 33,000 nuclear warheads constantly primed to go off. My brain can’t keep hold of that thought without spinning off into despair.”

Like Brooker’s own fears, what makes Black Mirror so unsettling is how rooted in reality its nightmarish dystopian storylines are. Episodes like ‘The Waldo Moment’, about a cartoon character running for election, feel barely removed from the world we already inhabit. Others, such as ‘The National Anthem’, in which the British prime minister is pressured into fornicating with a pig, proved disturbingly prescient. When reality is this messed up, you don’t need monsters and demons to keep you up at night.

“I enjoy stories where I’ve got a foothold,” says Brooker. “If something could happen, that makes it all the more horrifying. We try to make the show plausible on its own terms. Preposterous things happen in it, but we try to bed it in, so it feels grounded, because then I think you relate to it on a more visceral level. Certainly if I’m watching something, I don’t really respond to deep-space sci-fi with green aliens with, um, croissants on their foreheads. I can’t get a grip on that, it’s not anything to do with me. I prefer stuff where you can recognise your world in it. The journalist Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, about real-life social media storms – that’s a terrifying book. That reads like horror fiction in many ways.” After all, what’s scarier to you: the monster from Stranger Things or the possibility of being incarcerated for a crime you didn’t commit?

If you’re unfortunate enough to be too optimistic to see the worst the world has to offer, bear in mind that horror and humour are two sides of the same coin. “They use similar bits of your head,” says Brooker. “Look at something like Fawlty Towers. That is basically a worst-case scenario unfolding each week, when a paranoid, neurotic man with anger-management issues has a psychological unravelling. I mean, he is consistently left in a pit of despair. Because of the way it’s performed, it’s hilarious. But I’m sure there would be a way you could reboot Fawlty Towers as a nightmare.”

Whether your fears revolve around becoming a social-media pariah or contracting MRSA, the zombocalypse or a nuclear holocaust, you can only descend into utter darkness if you start from the lofty heights of hopefulness. “You don’t want a story to be jet black all the time, because that becomes monotonous and predictable. If you give hope, if you say, ‘You’re getting out of this jail... Haha! No you’re not!’ and the door clangs shut behind you, then that’s even worse. I remember watching a QED documentary on the BBC about the effects of one nuclear bomb going off over St Paul’s Cathedral. They went out mile by mile, revealing how f*cked you’d be if you were in, say, Shepherd’s Bush or wherever. And the answer was you were basically f*cked wherever you were. It was a merciless twist, and there’s something about that that appeals to me. I guess it’s the comedy writer in me, because a twist is kind of a punchline.”

Sure, the violent end of humanity as we know it is a terrible thought, but death traps don’t only come in the form of big red buttons. Look no further than the packet of Doritos you’re tucking into in your cosy, centrally-heated living room. “The thing is, I’m neurotic, so pretty much anything and everything worries me. Like, this croissant: I could choke to death on that. I was reading recently that the reporter John Simpson, who’s been to every war zone in the f*cking world, nearly died the other week because he ate some kedgeree and got food poisoning. He was moments from death, and he’s been to Isis-held territory.” Brooker leans in conspiratorially, the corners of his mouth creeping into a half-smile. “There’s always something to worry about.”

Watch all three seasons of Black Mirror on Netflix

(Image: Rex)