by Sean Taylor
What’s the scariest scene you’ve ever seen in a horror flick? Why was it scary?
Now I know some of you are going to default to either scenes of gratuitous (now there’s a loaded word if ever I’ve seen one), gore or perhaps others will immediately think of a jump scare, but I want us to think even deeper than that? What scared you even deeper than the moment of the scare? What really stayed with you and made you think twice about taking that dark alley, what caused you to make sure you got home before the woods at the park started to get dark, what got lodged in your brain and made you check the closet twice before being sure no one was hiding there so you could relax and go to sleep?
For me, those are the true scares, the deep frights, the fears that rattle us at our cores and stick with us.
Case in point. Okay, well, two cases in point. Both from my own movie-going experience.
Case 1: Window Scratching
I saw the original television broadcast of Salem’s Lot when I was way too young. At the time, my bedroom was made up of a former back porch and had glass shutters for the walls on three sides. Outside those shutters were short trees with limbs that moved in a good breeze. (Those of you familiar with the movie have already guessed where I’m going with this.)
In the movie, when someone was turned into a vampire, he or she would visit a friend or loved one and scratch outside their window, asking to be let in.
Well, that night, there was a strong breeze, and when the tree limbs brushed against my window-walls on all three sides, needless to say, I was terrified and imagined that vampires were outside begging to be let in to drain my blood. And no, I did not open the shades to check, not until morning light sent the vamps packing.
Case 2: Door Bumping
I was an adult when I discovered the absolute scariest motion picture ever made. For those who realize it, that movie is 1963’s The Haunting, based on Shirley Jackson’s equally “haunting” story, The Haunting of Hill House. That movie had few jump scares and relied more on a constant, building sense of madness to keep the viewer off-center and off-balance.
Lots of folks remember the sudden face at the top of the spiral staircase, but for me, it was the bumps on the door while Nell and Theo hugged each other, huddled in shared terror. In reality, I will most likely never see a ghost, but I will hear lots of loud bumps in the dark, and that’s something that triggers memories of that scene almost every time.
I share these examples to show that the best horror isn't forced or faked or manipulated through tricks, but maintained through the steady use of narrative technique.
What made Salem's Lot scary was how the story affected me. And the same goes for The Haunting. And guess what? Each of those was a terrifying book before it became a motion picture -- and if they hadn't both been so damn scary as books, they never would have been made into movies.
You’re Not in Control, Like in the Movies
Writing scary is hard. Movies have it a lot easier when it comes to horror. They control the eye, and thus, they also control the mind of the viewer.
Writing scary is hard. Books are stuck in one place, but the reader isn’t. Skip ahead a few pages and the suspense can be ruined. Put the book down, and the tension is released. The writer has no control of the reader’s eye, no power to keep them from turning a page... besides those specific to all other genres of writing of course.
Writing scary is hard. It's really hard because it takes an understanding of the human mind, memories, senses, and universal generalities about the human condition. In a story, you don't have the luxury of visual shorthand to creep readers out like directors do in a scary movie.
Jump scares? Nope. Sorry. The reader controls the pacing. And he or she can skip ahead or backward at will. That clutching crone hand can go backward and forward and be skipped altogether based on the reader's whims.
Graphic visual scares? Gore? Sorry again. Unless you're the most visceral writer ever, written gore falls short. And overused, it simply becomes words on a page made less by the sheer volume of them.
So, as a writer, you're stuck with having to be a psychological and writing genius. But how? While I'm far from an expert on horror outside of reading it for years and knowing what I like (as the saying goes), I have written several tales in the genre, from ghosts to monsters to zombies and creepy human beings, and I've learned a few things with each telling.
Thanks for Reading Thus Far; Now Here’s Your Reward
The key to writing horror, as least as I see it (and you’ll find as many different takes on this as you can find authors, I’m sure), is to camp out in the concepts of discomfort and dread. You’re not going to surprise scare a reader. You’re going to slowly overwhelm them with several smaller “uneases” that become a full-blown “creepy” and finally if you’ve done your job right, all-out dread.
Dread is that feeling that keeps a reader’s stomach unsettled, that scene that makes them feel phantom pains in the same limb or joint the killer keeps sticking a pin into, the sum of all the chills up a spine and “what if” scenarios of the mind a reader keeps accumulating during the time it takes to read your tale.
1. Be visceral. But don't mistake visceral for gross. For example, while a limb being removed and force fed to a tied up victim is certainly a compelling image in a story, it may not be as effective as something as simple as a sewing needle being wedged into the soft skin beneath a dry fingernail.
My friend Kimberly Richardson is a master of this technique, as demonstrated in her story “Silk” from the collection Tales from a Goth Librarian. I won’t spoil it, but you definitely need to read it to see perhaps the best lesson on this topic you’ll ever see.
2. Tap into the universal fears. For example, when I wrote "Nymph" for the Gene Simmons House of Horror graphic novel collection (yes, I know that it's not pure prose, but bear with me), I wanted to recreate the sense of being lost in the woods, in a place where you're at the mercy of the natural world. When I was a kid the woods were creepy more often than not, and I had lost that feeling after moving to Atlanta and growing up. But I knew there was something innate, subconscious about being afraid of being lost in the woods, and I wanted to tap into that.
In Robert W. Chambers’ tale “In the Court of the Dragon,” from The King in Yellow, the narrator begins to notice he is being followed by a sinister church organist. Very few people enjoy being singled out, and none I know who like being singled out for a nefarious purpose. Add to that the idea of the messenger of death, and Chambers is able to touch on two universal fears at once in this story.
Another master of this technique is Neil Gaiman. What’s worse for a child than to have your own mother against you? And yet, that’s the premise for his newly classic Coraline. Is there any more universal fear than being hunted by those who are supposed to protect you?
3. Discover the specific, individual fears make a person tick. For example, in my zombie tale "Posthumous" (from Zombiesque by Daw/Penguin Books), it's not the decaying body of the zombie that makes her creepy. It's her determination to save her marriage, her blind, unwavering determination to do so regardless of the consequences to anyone else. Incidentally, this is something I learned from the writing of C.S. Lewis, that the great goods also have the capacity for becoming the greatest evils.
Stephen King did this well in the story “N.” Bear in mind that I have OCD and I constantly rearrange books on a coffee table, look for even numbers on everything from the radio volume to the number of french fries I eat at a time. Yeah, I know. Weird. But look it up online. I’m not alone in this. So when King asked what if those crazy little habits are the only things keeping a terrifying other universe from invading our own, that really resonated with me.
4. Unleash your horrors on ALL the senses. Don't let just sounds and sights convey your protagonist's woes and horror. Go deeper. Is that smell like the burn ward at a hospital? Does the touch of the killer leave grease and sweat on a victim's neck? Does the hooker's kiss taste like she's been eating rotting meat? Engage all the senses that can convey fear and discomfort.
As simple as this should be to writers, it’s perhaps the most underutilized. It merely requires us to shift from the “first gear” of what we see and hear to the higher gears that are stronger and more efficient.
Jessica McHugh, a fellow writer I’ve met a few times on the convention circuit, really, and I do mean REALLY gets this one. If you can read her work without really feeling the tightening in your gut (even to the point of wanting to empty your stomach sometimes), then you’ve got a mind and gut of steel. Don’t believe me? Then try to sit through this one turned audio at The Wicked Library podcast: Extraction.
5. Use sounds that bother the reader, not just the characters. You can make up words that sound like stuff. The official literary term for this is onomatopoeia, and it works because it plays games with the reader's ear, whether they hear the sounds spoken aloud or not.
For example, in my steampunk horror tale "Death with a Glint of Bronze" for Dreams of Steam II: Brass and Bolts, I hit the reader right off the bat with the "crick-cracking of the neck bone where it attaches to the top of the spine." But the following sentence continues the idea, simply by using sounds that create a stop and reflow, like restricted breathing might sound: "Then there is the delicious constriction as the breath slowly ceases its movement through the windpipe."
6. Don't try to be "horror movie" scary. Aim for "imagination" scary. Go for the stuff that no movie could ever film, you know, the kind of sick, warped, crazy stuff that could only take shape in someone's imagination as they read. For example, does anyone really know by reading Lovecraft's stories what an elder god truly looks like? We have ideas, but that's all. We have the accepted image that has become synonymous with the tales, but let's be honest -- does that fully match the horror you imagined in your psyche when you first read the words of Lovecraft's description? On a similar note, isn't your personal nightmare of Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky far creepier than any of the drawings you've seen of it?
Ray Bradbury is the master of this kind of scare, and he isn’t afraid to leave the action sequences “off panel,” preferring to let the characters fears become the readers’ fears. One need only read Something Wicked This Way Comes or his short story “The Veldt” to see this master at play.
7. Make your setting as important as your characters. Setting is perhaps the most effective weapon in your arsenal as a writer when it comes to horror fiction. Choose the right setting and you’ve already done half the work. Why does Stephen King trap people on islands so much? Isolation. An island is a cage full of open doors that don't matter.
Why is Gothic fiction (even Gothic romance) so creepy? It’s those castles and mansions. Empty spaces and echoes. Secret rooms.
But let’s think a little more contemporarily too. Movie theaters with the lights out. Joe Hill covered that to great effect in the story “20th Century Ghost” from the 20th Century Ghosts collection. From the same collection, “Last Breath” captures the eeriness of dirty, unkempt roadside attractions during long car rides on family vacations.
But Wait! There’s More!
These techniques aren’t just for horror. A little bit of scary can often improve even the best love story, or perhaps a dramatic literary book.
Don’t believe me?
Okay, smarty-pants. I’ll prove it to you.
1. Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier -- What makes this book memorable? Is it the forlorn new bride left mostly alone in the big house (shades of The House of the Seven Gables, anyone?)? Is it the lingering tension that her new husband could be a killer? Perhaps it’s the big, creepy, gothic type mansion with rooms she’s not supposed to visit. Is it the way Du Maurier forces the reader to use his or her imagination just as the protagonist does? Why, yes. Yes, it is. And guess what? All those are elements of horror. The key fear: those who are supposed to protect you turn against you.
2. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton -- Let’s look at setting first. The frozen, rural town. What is more isolating, more soul-crushing to someone whose biggest goal is to live vibrantly? The sense of oppression doesn’t let up from the moment Ethan kisses Mattie. Tension mounts as they try to break out and find freedom, but fate has other plans, and ironically it’s the setting itself that becomes the “monster” that kills their chance at happiness. The key fear: failure to find happiness, and becoming the very thing you hated in the first place.
4. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Ronald Dahl -- Who's creepier than Dr. Victor Frankenstein? Willy Wonka. It's like Friday the 13 for kids in this book. Who gets knocked off next? Sure, they make it out (kind of) okay, but wow at the horror in here. Mauled by squirrels, shrunk, juiced, almost drowned in chocolate, etc. That Wonka was one whacked-out mad scientist. Key fears: how about squirrels, getting shrunk, drowned, and juiced? How does that grab you?
Okay, Bye-Bye Now
That's all I've got to give you, but if you can learn to do even those seven things well, you'll never hurt for a job writing truly frightening horror stories.