Put up some coffee and grab a notebook.
You’ll need both to tackle this 8500 word article, but if you have the courage to do it, you’ll be writing some of the best horror you’ve ever written in your life.
Horror covers a lot of territory and can be broken down into a number of subgenres, each with distinct considerations. I have a passion for most of them, but I’m not going to try and tackle all of them here.
For the focus of this article, we’re going to discuss what I consider the quintessential horror story, which stems not from the origin of horror itself, not from Walpole, Shelly or Poe (all of whom are profound in their influence), but from Stephen King, Clive Barker, John Carpenter; primarily stories from the 70’s & 80’s that directly gave birth to horror as an industry we recognize today.
Horror is such a fundamental part of being human (chew on that for a while), we all know what it is, but sometimes it’s a bit hard to articulate into words. The most commonly held definition of horror is that it’s story that scares or elicits a sense of dread.
While both true, I expect a little more from horror fiction, I think it’s deserved it as a genre, and like to define it as;
Expectation of an unimaginable worst case scenario.
Notice I did not simply say, “Expectation of a worst case scenario.” If it’s simply a worst case scenario, we know or presume what that scenario is… if it’s an UNIMAGINABLE worst case scenario, that means we as readers, recognize that we don’t know what it is. That the scenario about to unravel before us, while clearly bad, is beyond anything we can expect.
This expectation of the unexpected is where true horror lives.
Genuine Horror always surprises us, subverting and exceeding our expectations far more than we could have imagined.
In other words, we know going in, the vampire story is going to have vampires drinking peoples’ blood, and the zombie story will have lots of zombies being shot in their heads and burned alive (well undead), but we expect that these things are going to happen in a horrific manner we haven’t seen before.
After all, nothing is ever quite as horrific once it’s been seen.
It is the fiction that breaks beyond what we expect, that enters new territory, that truly terrifies us.
Which coincidentally, is why so many works of horror fiction fall flat, because they simply never go beyond what we assume is coming in one way or another… or have simply seen many times before.
Hold these truths tight when you develop the core concept to your story.
Either innovate with something completely new, OR, if you go down a familiar path, bring a fresh new take on it. Doing the same that’s been done before, in horror, is the fast track to an ineffective forgettable story.
The king emotion of the Horror story, of course, is fear.
You may find it valuable for your horror writing to understand why readers find fear so alluring. We all know fear is a primal, maybe THE MOST primal emotion of them all… but why are we so drawn to it in fiction (well, at least some of us, my girlfriend hates horror flicks–it’s something I still cope with daily.)
Back on point.
Personally, I believe that human existence has always existed intimately with danger. For most of our species’ history, there were surely more questions than answers to much of this danger. So unexpected death and the unknown (to which we use our imagination to somehow make sense of things) are hardwired into the human condition.
Today, most of us live fairly safe lives, under the impression that humanity has a lot of, if not most of, the answers.
Again this is only my personal interpretation on the subject here; but I think this disconnect leaves us with a macabre sense that something is lacking or missing from our lives.
Of course, nobody I know on Facebook, wants to be eaten by a large predator… And I’d guess throughout all of human history, the folks who did get eaten by large predators, were pretty upset about it.
But the point is, by exposing ourselves to this missing element, perhaps it helps us feel “more complete.” I think Nine Inch Nails might have said it best; “I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel, I focus on the pain, the only thing that’s real…”
Taking a journey into horror fiction presents one other very important element on a fundamentally psychological level.
Only by facing fear, do we find courage.
We can tell others and ourselves all day long how courageous we are, but until we’re actually tested and live through something, it’s all talk.
So not only do horror stories give us a connection to a dangerous horrific side of life, most of us are no longer attached to, but it gives us a chance to prove we have the courage to face that dangerous horrific part of life… and survive.
In my travels, I’ve found that horror fans are always more adventurous, willing to try new things, accepting of challenges, and at the end of the day, some of the most courageous people I know.
We can’t proceed any further without mentioning the second emotion closely tied to the Horror genre;
Since disgust often travels hand-in-hand with Fear when it comes to horror, I refer to it as the Queen emotion of the Horror story.
Disgust is more closely associated with anger than fear.
Disgust supports our macabre sense of Fear as we discussed above, in the sense that by seeing it unfold before us, we are immediately reminded of our appreciation for our safe lives.
“Ok, danger, death, and unknown… I see you… and, now that I think about it… I’m good. Sitting behind a computer desk all day not getting my head smashed like a rotten grape, yeah this life is fine.”
Disgust removes any romantic element of death.
As disgust triggers closer to anger, when we are totally disgusted, we want it to stop with more urgency. That is to say, if you read a slasher story, and every time the killer killed someone the writing cut away and left out the gory descriptions, you might grow a little distant or indifferent… but when you see and experience the grotesquerie first-hand, an urgency develops for it (and by proxy, the source responsible for it) to be stopped.
While torture porn, splatter films, and hard-core gore stories are always thrown in the horror genre, I would make an argument that disgust alone does not make a horror story. While disgust is potent, useful, and supportive, fear makes horror. Period.
Alright campers, we’ve got a fundamental understanding of what horror is and the underlying emotions that control it.
Sharpen up the machetes; grab your crucifix and let’s breakdown the essential elements into writing stories that will scare the shit out of your readers.
It’s near impossible to have an effective horror story if the protagonists aren’t scared themselves.
Always remember that readers empathize and live vicariously through the characters. If the characters are not afraid, if the cast shows courage, no matter how effective your atmosphere and no matter how hard you hit the other elements discussed in this article, your readers will not feel fear–they will be bolstered by the confidence and courage the characters exude.
This concept leads us to our golden rule;
Where the MAF performs violence, we generate fear and horror.
Where the Hero performs violence, we generate action/violence.
So while, of course, your heroes may express moments of courage, especially toward the end of the story, in the third act where they move toward conquering the MAF, the more you push the source of violence onto your heroes, the further away you move from horror to action/violence.
For maximum fear transference to the reader, keep your heroes terrified as much as possible, and where they find the courage and confidence to stand against the horror, never let them do it with 100% conviction. Instead, even when they find courage, make it clear, they are still terrified, using every ounce of strength to stand strong despite their intense fear!
Survival horror is a subgenre first coined from the Resident Evil game series (as far as I recall offhand), where the protagonist is trapped alone in a mansion and left to face an undead horde with extremely limited resources.
In truth, ALL horror is about survival.
We’ll talk more about this in “stakes” later, but make no mistake, in genuine horror stories the character’s always face a struggle for survival.