How can writers work their adult fears into stories to help craft authentic horror narratives?
If we follow on from the maxim ‘write what you know’ and you’re going to write horror stories, then you should write about things that scare you. Makes sense, right?
However, as I work on a couple of young adult projects with supernatural elements, I’m finding it may not be as easy as it sounds. The things that went bump in my childhood nightmares aren’t really that frightening any more. I mean, don’t get me wrong, some of us broke into a completely boarded-up asylum a few years back, and it was skeeze city in there.
It’s just that there aren’t a lot of modern supernatural narratives that scare me, simply because I have a hard time believing in the supernatural, which affects my radar for what others find terrifying. (It’s not that I don’t want to believe; the supernatural as real would be fascinating. But if hundreds of millions of us are walking around with phone cameras in our pockets, where is the evidence of these spooks?)
The cursed video that featured prominently in The Ring and Ringu was unsettling, and Insidious had a couple of inspired moments (like the fleeting glimpse of the ghost boy facing the wall of the laundry as Rose Byrne walks past with a basket in her hands), but other than that, the only supernatural horror I’ve seen recently that made my heart thump from the opening to closing credits was Lake Mungo.
So, if I don’t find traditional horror antagonists that scary, can I adapt them into something that is by incorporating features of my adult fears?
1. Conditions producing antagonistic hallucinations, delusions and illusions that become ‘real’
I experience the common condition of ‘hypnogogic hallucinations’. This alliterative mouthful means that sometimes, as I’m falling asleep (especially when I’m overtired), I hear lifelike voices around me. The sensation is exactly the same as if someone placed my bed in the middle of a party or crowded shopping centre: snatches of conversation emerging from a hubbub of talking. Sometimes, the voices are of people I know, and sometimes, they’re talking about me, but they’re never, ever ominous or threatening.
Compare this to Reddit user yerjam’s experience of schizophrenia:
Eventually a male voice began talking to me. Not all the time, before I started taking meds it would happen maybe a few times a week. He says all sorts of strange and bizarre things. His name is Jack and he claims to be my unborn twin brother. He critiques things that have happened throughout the day like choices I’ve made and my behavior during social interactions. He says I shouldn’t trust people and has named several of my friends as ‘spies’ or ‘agents’ who are out to get me or discredit me in some way.
The marvellous thing about horror antagonists is that we have the choice of disengaging from the narrative that contains them, simply because they are constructs with no immediate reality of their own beyond that which we give them. However, what if this wasn’t true in my case, or yerjam’s case? What if the the antagonistic force actually existed as a separate entity? What if, to paraphrase Jim Morrison, this entity broke on through to the other side and liked things so much here that it decided to stay?
Example: Freddy Kreuger, A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
In A Nightmare on Elm Street, friendly local child-killing revenant Freddy Krueger initially reverses the trope of the supernatural antagonist seeking ingress into our real world, by instead drawing his victims into his dream world while they sleep. The damage he does to them there is mirrored on the dreamers’ actual bodies. Later on in the series, Freddy gains the ability to manifest in the real world.
2. The way that societies can rapidly shift and deform
When Yeats warned, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” he wasn’t talking about pitching a hire marquee without reading the assembly instructions thoroughly. ‘The Second Coming’ warns of a vast societal shift based around mythic symbolism where things get more than a little sticky, and was a perfectly reasonable response from a modernist who’d just seen upwards of thirty-five million people ground into the European mud during the First World War.
We’ve all experienced the frustration of trying to get just one person to change their mind about a simple thing, and it’s easy to make the mistake of scaling this up to some sort of arresting influence on rapid change in a society. We’re herd animals, though. History tells us again and again that some otherwise stable societies can degenerate at a rapid and cumulative pace.
Disasters provide succinct and horrible examples of this. The Station Nightclub fire of 2003 occurred after a band’s pyrotechnics set alight flammable polystyrene soundproofing panels that ran throughout a wooden structure without sprinklers. Roughly two hundred people had a little over five minutes to leave the building via two regular exits and some makeshift escape routes through broken windows. In a drill, with nothing at stake, this is very well what might have happened.
In actuality, most people spent two minutes trying to work out whether the smoke and flames were part of the show, then moved en masse to the narrow front entrance. Somebody screamed, someone else pushed, panic spread, and the doorway funnel was immediately plugged with a scrum of fallen bodies. Exactly one hundred people died, trapped behind with nowhere to go.
We live in a world where specialism is rewarded. It is increasingly difficult to make a decent living as a jack or jill-of-all-trades, and our connection with the land, with its inherent lessons on satisfying basic Maslovian needs such as the production of food and shelter, is being lost as we urbanise. Our agency of survival has been sacrificed for increased productivity, which is fine as long as the wheels keep turning. What happens if and when they stop?
Example: the roadagents, The Road (2006)
The Road is a love story written for Cormac McCarthy’s son, John, who was born late in his father’s life. In it, a child just like John and his father dodge around packs of debased cannibals in a ruined America almost stripped clean of food. Crucially, the roadagents coalesce into a constant antagonistic presence that is lacking in John Hillcoat’s screen adaptation.
Immediately after the unnamed cataclysm of McCarthy’s book, people tried to help each other. But then: “within a year there were fires on the ridges and deranged chanting. The screams of the murdered. By day the dead impaled on spikes along the road. What had they done?”
3. Man-made viruses and bacteria
A man-made virus which escapes to wreak havoc on the world is a staple of horror and apocalypse narratives like The Stand, 28 Days Later and 12 Monkeys. A reasonable person, without so much as a tinfoil trilby nearby, might even wonder whether there are places deep underground where people in spacesuits are breeding diseases like tiny, tiny Pokemon that want to kill you in a variety of horrible ways.
Of course, that’s crazy talk. Biological weapons are banned by the Biological Weapons Convention. Most of the world, with the exception a few African nations and Israel, agree that it’s pretty poor form to expose people to things like anthrax just to prove a point. (A bacteria causing boils, haemorrhaging, internal necrosis and the ever-popular death, as compared with exposure to Anthrax, which usually results in a sore neck and mild tinnitus.)
However, what about those pesky provisions to the Biological Weapons Convention which allow nations to develop weaponised strains of diseases so that they can learn to treat the diseases they have created in case they are ever created as weapons by someone else? Excuse me? No, that makes perfect sense in a Strangelovian kind of way. So, presumably, does trying to find out how quickly an aerosolised version of the Ebola virus can clear your research lab of unwanted rhesus monkeys. (The answer: extremely fast.)
We may be living in a time where we know how to manipulate diseases without necessarily knowing how to cure them all. Worse still, we’re in the very real situation where certain people may be wondering how to get these diseases to target certain genetic profiles and not others – a kind of viral or bacterial eugenics.
Now, that sounds really crazy, even to me, and I’m madder than a box of frogs. However, in 1979 reports surfaced of scores of fatalities caused by an accidental release of anthrax from a weapons stockpile in the Soviet Union. When the news reached NATO governments that the dead were overwhelmingly men, the first reaction was that this gender disparity was a result of bacterial engineering.
This wasn’t the case. The dead were mostly men because the workers in the factory over the road from the anthrax stockpile were mostly men (in Soviet Russia, zoning laws dispatch you). However, the fact remains that the overwhelming assumption was of a laboratory experiment gone wrong. Am I the only one sightly worried by the implications of this?
Example: Colonel Kurtz, Apocalypse Now (1979)
Apocalypse Now doesn’t have much to do with viruses and bacteria, and many people would say that it’s not a traditional horror film, either. (I would argue vehemently that most war narratives belong in the genre of horror, and if you disagree I’d ask you to read Surviving the Killing Fields and My War Gone By, I Miss It So). But, let’s go tangential.
The man-made ‘virus’ in Apocalypse Now is not a virus, but the insanity pervading the atmosphere and leaping from person to person throughout the film. Madness is the narrative’s prime antagonistic force; Colonel Kurtz is merely its personification.
Proceed to ‘Six things that terrify me as an adult, part 2’, or return to Re: writing.
What are your fears as an adult, and have you seen these reflected in a horror narrative? I’d like to hear your responses below.