This morning a thick fog descended on Ottawa. (Fans of politics might say this is its natural state anyway, but let’s not be cynical. Or not very.) It was enough for there to be warnings on the radio about visibility, and of course, traffic accidents. Beyond interfering with the morning commute, though, fog is such a frequent image in fiction that some would call it a cliché. I thought I’d write about that a little today.

I guess the reason why authors, especially of stories meant to frighten or cause suspense, like fog is (obviously) that it hides things. It can conceal a murderer or a hideous monster, and (as we see in Ottawa again today) it makes travel difficult or dangerous. You can’t see where you’re going, and may have to stop, or risk getting lost.

The idea of travellers getting lost in fog and thereby ending up stranded in some perilous situation gets used all the time. One of my favourite Doctor Who serials, Horror of Fang Rock, even has the TARDIS fall prey to this, landing the Doctor at an isolated lighthouse and (naturally) in the path of an alien threat. Anyone can get lost in the fog!  Obviously this works fairly well for an author in creating a contained setting where you can restrict the characters who are involved (other people can’t show up because of the fog) and provides an answer to the question of ‘well why don’t these people leave/call for help?’ Can’t. Cut off by the fog.

Beyond serving a writer’s purposes pretty well, there is something evocative (almost typed ‘atmospheric’, ho ho ho) about fog. I’m sure at this point some of why we find fog creepy is that it is such a staple of horror movies and Halloween imagery; it is shorthand for ‘this is a spooky place’ that most everyone in a Western audience, anyway, would recognize. But how did it end up that way? Why does fog creep us out?

I think it goes back to concealing things. We’re a very visual species. When we can’t see what’s out there, it’s bothersome. Landmarks and landscapes you’ve passed a thousand times become uncertain places. What is that thing down the street? It looks like it has arms and a head and oh it’s just the bush that’s been there as long as I’ve lived here. Given uncertain input, our brain tries to fill in the blanks, and find a pattern – sometimes it jumps to alarming conclusions. I’m not sure if that’s some primal instinct to identify threats in time to Run Away – better to run when not necessary than wait and get eaten – but it’s far from unusual to have your brain ‘play tricks’ on you in the dark, or in the fog.

If you’ve been out in thick fog, you know that it messes with your hearing as well; your brain is struggling to interpret perfectly ordinary sounds because you don’t have the visual cues to go with them. Creepy. So this works in creating a setting where people are on edge, and also helps get your reader or audience on edge a bit – they know what it is like to be in the situation. (To what extent this is now undermined by how threadbare fog as a device has become is a tangent I am not going to go down, today)

There’s probably something going on with when fog happens, as well – night or early morning. When it’s dark, which doesn’t help with the visibility thing. When you’re not very alert. When, perhaps, you’re not supposed to be out. When, perhaps, dangerous things are out instead. Things that like the fog, and the dark.

In the end I think it’s really about control. As much as we are a visual species, we also like to feel in control of our situation, to know what is going on, to be able to do as we wish, and to be able to see what is coming. Fog takes all those things away. Most people find it quite disturbing to not know how a situation is going to develop, to feel like they can’t influence it or affect it, or to be helpless to act. That’s what fog can do. Maybe it’s even worse, in our hyper-connected age, to have something that takes some of our connectivity away, even slightly.

As I write this, the sun is breaking through and presumably normality will shortly resume. That’s one of the other things about fog, or at least the fogs that appear in my part of the world. If you just wait until mid-morning or so, the sun always wins and they go away. May all our fogs lift so easily.

That’s more than enough of me pondering at you. I know I have teased you about this before (master of suspense, me) but I do think I shall have something interesting to announce later in the week.

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