How to Write a Horror Story
I have written a couple horror stories in my time, and while this type of writing comes naturally to me, I know some people have a harder time with it. We can't all be disturbed freaks, after all. So let's go ahead and dive straight into how to write horror. We'll do a basic overview of the common elements of horror and look at some examples. I'll mainly be using movies for this, not because literature can't be scary but because flicks are more universal and so are easier to use as examples that more people will get. We'll also examine a brief piece that we slowly put together through the course of the essay, hopefully demonstrating each section. This also shouldn't serve as a single detailed lesson, just a solid primer for some of the foundations of the genre.
"You can discover what your enemy fears most by observing the means he uses to frighten you." - Eric Hoffer
The underlying theme of most horror flicks is that the horror is centered on something universal to its audience. Horror flicks often refer to cultural fears, which leads to the theme of horror changing with each generation or decade. For instance, in the 1950s, with the onset of the atomic age, the movies turn cautionary, warning mankind about the dangers of radiation and the need to control our destructive urges. Lately we have the zombies, symbol of encroaching death and the mindless "Other," sometimes also referring back to our creeping consumerism.
And although we may be afraid of the same thing, ghosts for example, our culture will alter how we shape those fears. Japan's common image is that of the ghost girl with long black hair-it comes right out of their mythology. America has a love affair with masked killers. Both cultures have demons, but they serve vastly different purposes.
It's important to know what frightens your audience. Pentagrams, upside down crosses and dark cathedrals may terrify one part of the audience, but those won't do a damn thing for other people. Of course some things can cross over, but there's a reason the Japanese ghost girls typically don't burst into backwards Latin.
Let's create the setting of a school after dark. Not an abandoned school, just a plain old school after dark. Why is that so creepy? For one thing, it's a place we usually only visit during the day when there are hundreds of people around. After dark, it's an empty, lonely building of empty rooms, echoing corridors, and the lack of people makes it easy to imagine that something else is inside when the building itself is usually so full of life. Plus the lack of any light reaching through the classrooms into the hallway makes it unnaturally dark inside.
A word about the light-the classrooms will have light since they have windows, but it will be weak light that highlights some parts and casts shadows everywhere else. Plus the desks mean you can have something scurrying around that's almost impossible to see clearly-you only get glimpses between the chairs.
Let's go with a more recognizably American creature, demons, since the majority of Americans have some familiarity with Christian motifs *and* it gives us the ability to steal some of the characteristics of the popular Japanese ghost girls.
As the character moves through the classroom, probably searching for something, they find upside pentagrams carved on one of the desks. A folded bundle of paper that has Bible verses written backwards. A photo of something that's hard to make out, maybe a blurry shot of teeth.
And that's when the character hears footsteps upstairs in the room above them.
Horror usually relies on a sense of the vulnerability of the characters. Freddy Krueger attacks in dreams where he can change the whole world and you're left mostly helpless. Serial killers are super powerful, invulnerable and keep coming back after death. There's no hope of escape. And especially in Jaws, the characters are out of their element against a huge swimming mouth with sharp teeth.
Elements easily used to create that vulnerability include darkness, unfamiliar environments (strange houses, abandoned hospitals, etc.) so that they don't know what's around the next corner, deep water, contagion, and anything else that takes away the character's ability to save themselves. Time limits like bombs on counters are great for this. Something chasing after the character, right on their heels, really ramps up this vulnerability-they have no chance to grab a weapon or hide. They have to run, which gives us perhaps the most primal sense of vulnerability-fleeing death.
The job of horror is to make its readers feel that vulnerability. It puts you in that situation and lets you feel how helpless the characters are. This is why your characters need to be sympathetic-if your reader hates your characters, then your story stops being a horror story and becomes a laugh riot.
Men vs. Women
One of the chief aspects of vulnerability has to do with gender. Women are more often than not the more easily victimized of the genders. Typically weaker, smaller, more prone to being accused of hysterics, "imagining things," and the like, they are the more marginalized of the genders. This lack of power makes them easier to victimize in games, and thus is the reason that a ton of horror characters are "Scream Queens."
By the same token, young men also make easy horror victims. They are similarly vulnerable, usually weaker than older men, and their sense of planning is not always the strongest. They just usually don't satisfy the strong sense of lust that often pervades horror films. Stories with women and younger men tend to be more intimate-close spaces instead of broad threats.
This is not to say that horror cannot involve older males as your protagonists. Often stories that do so broaden the scope of the horror to include vaster threats-Will Smith in I Am Legend has to fight a city full of ghouls. It's set up more like a battle than it is an actual suspense flick.
Of course these rules are not hard and fast. Great stories will take the rules and break them to pieces. But they are good points for the beginner.
The cheap and easy means of creating vulnerability. Life sucks for children-little to no power, controlled by every adult, etc. When a monster attacks, they're not only the least capable of defending themselves, but they're also wonderfully bite-size snacks. Seriously, a monster comes in, sees them, and instantly thinks "Fun Size" crunchy delights.
Very few horror films will actually kill the kids. They'll threaten them, but they won't out and out kill them. That's begun to change, but usually kids are a cheap shot. Still, there's some good shock payoff for killing/injuring the kids, but that can make the fic run into the same problem as killing off an unsympathetic character. Very often kids are annoying as hell, and they're hard to write naturally.
Let's return to our example of the dark and empty school. To make this easy, we'll go with a young teacher who's stayed too long grading papers and preparing for the next day that everyone else is gone and it's dark. She quietly gathers her things, all too aware of every noise she makes in the silence, and locks her door. And then she looks down the hall at the far classroom.
It's the last room in the hall, separated by the others by the bathrooms, another hall and a storage closet. It's all by itself, belongs to another department even, and she's never seen the teacher who works there. But she often hears things about that room-strange things. "The teacher inside has dolls, miss, big ones, the porcelain kind." "The teacher talks to the dolls, miss." "Sometimes they say you can hear them talking back."
And she's curious. She starts toward the room, looking over her shoulder to make sure no one's there to watch. It must be her guilt that made her think someone's watching her. She reaches the door and looks inside. A little moonlight and the light from the streetlamp outside shines inside, giving her a good view of what is clearly an art room-there are big tables for projects, some paintings on the walls-
-the door creaks inward as she leans on it. It wasn't closed properly. Startled, she steps back, then bites her lip. This opportunity is too good. She goes inside.
Suspense - The Slow Burn
Also known as "Don't Show the Monster." Blair Witch Project does this extremely well. We hear the monster, the screams in Josh's voice when we know he's dead, the little twig figures hung around their campsite and the bundle of Josh's pieces that show us the monster has been lurking right outside the tent-we don't see the monster, so we can imagine a whole host of images that will be particular to each audience member.
In other words, let your audience scare themselves. They'll do a far better job of it themselves than you ever could because you cannot give everyone their own personal bogeyman. The quintessential example of this is the original black and white film The Haunting. You never see the ghost. You never really know what is thumping down the hallway, trying to open the door, growling and raging just out of sight. This heightens the character's vulnerability-that it's right therejust on the other side of this weak door, and we can hear and even feel the sense of its presence, and our own imagination fills in what could happen if it does get in. There's no way to escape. They can only sit and hope the door doesn't give, and in the meantime the room is all shadows with minimal light and the house itself is strange and unknown.
Just an addendum-you can break the "don't show the monster" rule if you have an awesome enough monster. Michael Myers from the Halloween films is the best example of this. It's such a blank face that not only does it allow the audience to project their own fears onto it, but it also hits our uncanny valley (I'll talk more about that later). It's a great mask and showing it does far more than keeping it hidden would.
That's the main rule-do what's more frightening.
One other thing to remember in this. It's a fine line. Don't drag things out too long. The monster in The Haunting is frightening because we don't see it, but if the attacks lasted longer than a minute or so, we would get bored and want to see it break in. A longer scene is not necessarily a more frightening scene. It runs the risk of being boring or ridiculous the longer it goes.
Very few stories can stand a long heightening of tension-you usually have to alleviate the suspense with something humorous so your audience again doesn't get bored or the suspense loses its effectiveness-but there is one movie that comes to mind that manages it brilliantly. The original When a Stranger Calls manages, for the first twenty minutes, to increasingly ramp up the tension as the babysitter receives a couple of creepy phonecalls telling her to check the children. As more calls come, as she calls the cops, as you sit there with her waiting for the cops to call back, you feel that same sense of loneliness and the increasing sense of vulnerability and the fear that something is going to happen, and soon. And then the call comes and you have the payoff, but even with the payoff, you're looking around the empty corners of the house with her, looking at every single spot the killer could come from, and you're right there with her as she's trying to get out of the house. The last bit of safety is pulled out from under you-the house itself is the place of danger. Maximum vulnerability, maximum helplessness. That sequence is often listed among the top frightening films, and specifically those twenty minutes.
Now inside, the teacher looks around. She can see the whole classroom now, the blackboard, the main desk, the-
-she startles back again, slamming herself against the table behind her. There's someone at the desk, someone impossibly still with no face, no hands, even, and it's glistening...
The lack of a reaction makes her calm down. She looks again. It's not a person, it's a sculpture made out of tape. It looks like a mannequin with no details. It's propped in the corner by the desk, probably just a kid's project or the teacher's example. She breathes out in relief. No wonder people say things about this room.
Now that the fear is gone, however, she gazes around the room once more. What dolls? She thinks her students were just making fun of her now, playing a trick. There are no dolls. There's just the tape mannequin, the desk and, in the corner of the room, the closet just like hers.
She blinks. Only this one has a statue in front of it. It looks like a blob of rock, and she walks over to it, examining its smooth face. It looks like an egg. When she leans around, however, she finds that it's the back of a statue of Mary. It's pressed right up against the closet like a doorstopper.
That's when the closet door begins, ever so faintly to knock against the statue.
There is a subsection of horror that I like to term depression horror. A lot of people don't find it depressing, but there is a type of horror that is only going to work for part of your audience. It's the "hell is other people" horror that you often find in works by Stephen King. The Mist is one such film. There are monsters outside in the mist giving us tantalizing glimpses of what could be so bad that the two soldiers commit suicide, and in fact a young single mother ventures outside to try to reach her children. Instead of following her through the mist and past horrible monsters, however, we are stuck inside the quick-e mart with a growing cult.
I could easily let this devolve into a rant, so to be brief-go where the sense of horror is the greatest. Allow yourself to be unique. Try to write what is unfamiliar rather than sticking to the safe route of stuff you've practiced over and over again. And realize that when you kill off your characters to develop a sense of overwhelming despair, you've lost your sense of vulnerability and fear. Despair is not fear. If you want to go for despair, that's fine, but it's a different kind of horror, one that is very simple and easy and gives little back to the audience except a one-trick pony.
Finally a note about animals in horror stories. They usually serve as first victims, easily sympathetic and also easy targets. If there's a dog, cat or bunny in the story, you can predict that they will be the first to die. The key point of that is that horror not only develops a sense of vulnerability, but you also don't want it to be predictable. If you can predict the killer, you can plan for the killer. A predictable killer also becomes boring for the audience as they remember other similar killers and patterns of films.
And then the teacher is caught in the act by the art teacher, who was just inside the bathroom, and who now yells at her, chases her out, tells the principal the next morning, the principal chews her out, she's badmouthed throughout the school, she loses her job, she grows depressed and hangs herself.
Yeah, these stories suck. Moving on.
Lastly we have the uncanny valley, so named by a Japanese roboticist who noticed that robots with a couple human characteristics like a mustache or vaguely human shape were considered cute and charming, but too close to being human and suddenly they were creepy. The human eye is fine tuned to distinguishing human characteristics, and something that's too close to human but not quite is going to trigger out "kill it with fire!" button.
Disfigurements, fairly or unfairly, fall within this valley. Mental psychosis or sociopathy is uncanny valley. Broken, stilted walking also makes a person no longer a person-that's why the ghost girls in the Ring and the Grudge have distorted movements. The classical monster just takes this uncanny valley to an extreme. In truth, it doesn't take much to make a person no longer a person. Subtle changes go a long way-a mouth that's too wide, eyes that are all black.
This is when that bit about their "vulnerability" goes right out the window. When a kid can turn their situation around and become powerful, they usually turn evil with it. Kids are almost automatically uncanny valley. They're shorter versions of people whose brains work in ways that are sometimes completely incomprehensible. This is when it's acceptable and even encouraged to kill off the evil child-Samara in the Ring may be a kid, but she's evil and she's the threat.
Rewind before the depressing horror crap. The teacher is still at the closet door, which has begun to tap against the statue. The knocking is faint, and the teacher wonders what the heck is closed inside. Why isn't the closet locked? Why use this statue? Is it an animal? There's no other sound, no growing, no crying, nothing. She starts to back away.
As if sensing that she's moving away, the knocking grows heavier. It shakes the statue. She backs away faster, then turns and runs to the door, which is now locked. She bangs on it, tries to yank it open, then gives up and heads for the windows. The latch is high up and she has to stretch, barely reaching it with the tip of her fingers. As she's undoing the stiff latch, her fingers slipping once, then again, she hears the statue fall.
She looks over her shoulder. Mary rolls away from the closet door, coming to rest facing the teacher. Mary is weeping blood.
The closet door has stopped shaking. Now it slowly falls open...
The overall sense of horror is a combination of all of the above. Horror draws up fear and presents it to the audience in a slow, steady and careful reveal. It's deliberate. It's the slow lifting of a curtain over something monstrous, and the last couple of inches before the creature is revealed is the most tense, the most terrifying. There should be no rushing through a scene. Horror demands mastery of pacing and an almost poetic touch with the less showy techniques of fiction. Rely on insanity, haunted houses and the threat of death, and you'll have all the elements but none of the feeling.
Use a light hand. Give your audience some hints, an image or two they'd recognize as dangerous, a threat that they never have to see, and then slowly lead them along through the story. Nothing ever has to jump out of the closet. Whatever it is will be far scarier in their head than anything you can ever show them.
Thanks for reading, and I hope this helped.