Five thoughts about writing horror stories

Horror narratives, like any genre, come with their own conventions. What is it that makes horror so frightening?
I’m currently working on two different projects for children and young adults which involve elements of the horror genre. It’s something I’m not entirely familiar with as a writer, although I grew up on a steady diet of King, Herbert and Barker as a reader.

Scary clown
Sssh … he’s right behind you (don’t look!)     (source)

You’ll know, as writers, that most projects involve an amount of research as we struggle for narrative verisimilitude, or the sense that a particular story, like reality, is seamlessly ‘real’. (This verisimilitude is present in even the most unreal narratives, such as fantasy, science fiction – the reality is contained in a stability and continuity of the narrative’s elements such as the rules which govern a narrative’s ‘world’, the motivations of characters and the writer’s use of voice.)
Writing in a new genre is nerve-wracking. I could talk your ear off all day about poetry, literary fiction and magic realism, but suddenly here I am, completely uncertain about what I’m doing, but knowing that there will be genre conventions and tropes which should be respected.
The first thing I considered when I realised my stories were beginning to incorporate horror tropes was of the things that terrified me, and by extension other children, as a child. The second thing was to measure how these fears had changed in the intervening twe—thirty years. (Blimey.) The third thing was to try and scratch the surface of what, exactly, the genre of horror and fear was.
Here are some anchors I’ve thrown out for further thought.

1. Horror is not equivalent to phobia

Although they are similar, phobias are specific to a certain percentage of people, whereas horror is an exploitation of more widespread, dare I say collective, fears. Although horror can wear the mask of a phobia: coulrophobia in It and arachnophobia in, um, Arachnophobia, underneath these are baser fears, i.e. being isolated and trapped by a sadistic and powerful evil force in the former (see A Nightmare on Elm Street, Dracula and The Shining) and evading a antagonist which can kill with one touch (see Slither, The Thing and Lifeforce) in the latter.
These base terrors are things that humans have long feared, often as a way of motivating us to stay out of danger. Our relatively poor nightsight turns the dark into a dangerous place. Powerful animals/beings are to be feared and respected, as they can be dangerous, too; think of the myriad ways powerful people bend, break and ignore laws now, and extrapolate that to more lawless times.
The unknown can be dangerous (although, for example, that didn’t stop the xenobiologist Millburn from trying to pat a space cobra in the movie Prometheus, an action so out of character for a scientist making first contact that it broke the movie’s verisimilitude for many people in the audience). Being isolated, especially in the presence of an antagonist, can be dangerous.

2. Horror is cautionary

In most horror narratives, characters make mistakes which violate what the audience would consider an appropriate response to the situations invoking these base fears. Often, these mistakes can be coincidental, almost minute, but they’re there. The hitchhiker gets in the car with the serial killer. The group of terrified teenagers decide to split up to search for clues about the killer stalking them. The child stoops to take a balloon from a clown who’s hiding inside a drain.
Of course, the more brutal aspect of horror in the real world is that sometimes, bad things happen to people even after they do all the right things. However, in narratives, we can usually pick at least one moment when we say, “No, don’t do that / go in there / talk to him / watch that tape!” I think those moments are crucial to horror narratives. It’s just that, unlike the example from Prometheus, they have to be believable in terms of situation and motivation.
Intelligent characters can make mistakes that put an audience on edge because they do not yet understand the nature of the horror, leading to the classic maxim, ‘Don’t show the monster’. The Thing’s scientists wouldn’t have set the titular monster on ‘defrost’ if they knew its purpose was to consume and replace everything organic in the basecamp. If the Thing (and its intentions) was revealed early, then the story would have been forced into one of two directions: the scientists burn every frozen scrap of the monster into powder (end of story), or they don’t do this and have the audience scoffing at their stupidity (which also kills the story). A otherwise normal Husky chased by suicidally crazed Norwegians, however … it’s perfectly reasonable to bring the dog inside.

3. We fear different horrors at different ages

Here are some common fears afflicting adults:

1. fear for the self: a loss of liberty; illness and disease; failure
2. fear for those in immediate networks: a parent’s fear for their children’s safety and growth, fear for family; fear for friends
3. fear for the community: fear for the country, fear for the environment

There are certain things which adults fear that wouldn’t even register with most children. A fear of failure and insignificance in life would be one, because to a child, life seems almost endless (even people in their 20s seem almost impossibly old when you’re a child … at that age, I considered the fact that I’d turn 26 in the year 2000 with something approaching disbelief). And, unless they have the incredibly bad luck to fall seriously ill, a fear of illness, injury and mortality would be another. This disregard for physical fallibility and an inability to comprehend the permanence of death are two things which make child soldiers such a dangerous foe.

4. The fundamentals of horror stay the same

Horror, like any genre, undergoes change according to trends and tastes, but the fundamentals remain the same. Paranormal Activity is the new Amityville Horror, which is the new Borley Rectory. Final Destination is the new Halloween, which is the new Horror of Party Beach. Zombies can be fast or slow, serious business or rather amusing, but they nearly always want to reproduce by eating people. Vampires still drink blood and are most often a metaphor for forbidden, bittersweet desire.
But, as writers, we are taught to fear cliche as the worst of the horrors. Writing teachers endlessly remind us of Ezra Pound’s exhortation to, “Make it new!” (Certainly more so than his feverish work for Mussolini and Hitler during the Second World War.) But the important thing is to not get distracted by a desire to reinvent the wheel, especially if the story doesn’t need it. Humans have been using monsters as a trope or device to take the blame for unexpected and unfortunate events since Ug Jr. took a swim a bit too soon after the Tuesday Mammoth Lunch Special and drowned with the cramps / was pulled under the surface by a water demon. Monsters have kept us out of places where other people didn’t want us to be and stopped us doing things they did not want us to do for a long time now. What else is the Book of Revelation than a 2,000 year-old cautionary horror tale?
Of course, what makes horror specifically scary will differ for the particular person reading or watching it. However, if you craft a story with believable, motivated characters who are actually frightened by what they encounter and forced to deal with it, you will come a long way to crafting a good horror tale, even if you feel the story has been done before. Joe McKinney goes into great detail about how this attention to detail is so important in making horror scary.

5. However, the specifics of horror constantly change

The kind of horror that kids can access has widened with the internet. I’m not necessarily talking about what they shouldn’t access – although it’s naïve to think that some of them don’t access it anyway – I’m talking about new modes of horror like creepypasta (it’s called ‘pasta’ because it’s continually cut and pasted onto messageboards).
If you’ve not had the pleasure of reading creepypasta alone in the house at midnight, start with classics such as Ted’s Caving Page (cavers uncover a hellish tunnel running behind a previously mapped spot), the Bongcheon-Dong Ghost (a schoolgirl meets a terrifying woman on her walk home) and Candle Cove, with an accompanying video (forum users discuss an exceedingly creepy kid’s show). Creepypasta is huge right now, as can be seen from this graph of the frequency in which it is used as a search term on Google:

Creepypasta is branching into many different forms, such as the independent freeware games SCP – Containment Breach and Slender. Judging by the almost universal interest, it’s a mode of horror which is here to stay.
Horror tropes go through cycles of popularity. You’d say that zombies have just about run their course (weren’t fast zombies fun, though, while it lasted?) and vampires are 90% of the way there. Horror also appropriates from other genres: think of World War Z throwing millions of zombies into a standard geopolitical thriller. Horror also reflects current societal fears. We don’t see too many horror narratives centred around nuclear accidents or annihilation these days, but you couldn’t move through them a couple of decades ago, when nuclear paranoia was a very real thing and we all thought we’d end up living or dying in our own radioactive version of Fallout. If your horror narrative feels cliched, ask if it is exploring a freshly exhausted trope, if it can merge with another genre, or if it can act as an analogy for one of the new, real-life fears that we share.
In the next article, I’ll talk about the five things that scared me silly when I was younger.

Proceed to ‘Five things that terrified me as a child’, or return to Re: writing.
Return to Re: writing
If you’d like to ask a question or share your thoughts about horror narratives, I’d love to hear your take on things.

Rhys About Rhys

Teacher, writer, editor, cook: a bit like that nursery rhyme, really.
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