For over a century, authors such as Bram Stoker and Edgar Allan Poe have been scaring people with truly bone-chilling horror fiction. If you, like me, love to both watch and read horror (whether historical or modern), you will be aware that certain tropes are used a lot in this particular genre (like the absurd splitting-up trope). So how is it that some horrors are laughable and others are downright terrifying?
Today I am going to talk about what transforms a horror story from a predictable chiller to an absolute nightmare. What is it that makes a scary story into The Exorcist (that book will have you jumping at every sound in the night and staying far away from Ouija boards for the rest of your life) instead of Friday the 13th? So here are three techniques to create terrifying horror stories.
One of the things that makes a book chilling is knows that it is plausible. Take The Exorcist, for example. Many of the aspects inside the book (or movie) are feasible to exist in real life. Ouija boards have been known to cause scary things around them. Possessions have been debated for centuries and have been known to cause the victim to do things they would not or could not do. All this makes the story all the scarier, because it is something that could happen to anyone in reality.
The same sense of reality should also exist for the characters. If characters act like real people, taking certain precautions and having strong motivations for stupid actions (like running into a haunted mansion to escape the rain), the reader will be able to identify with them. It will also seem just a little more terrifying when something happens to them, because we do not dismiss them as characters doomed from the start.
This brings me to my second point. The one surefire way to terrify readers is to throw in twists of what they believe to be true. Take Stephan King’s The Shining. What makes it really terrifying about main protagonist Jack’s descent into madness is that in the beginning we trust him. He is a father and husband. He is demonstrated to have a violent past, but one who not think that he could ever try to kill his family. Again, it is understandable that Jack becomes mad, but certainly not predictable.
If an aspect of a story—in this example, a character—changes in an unpredictable way, the writer creates a twist we do not foresee.
Take another example: that of the 1960 movie Psycho. In most senses, it is a typical serial-killer-chasing-victims movie. However, the ending reveals that Norman Bates twisted mother, who we believed all along was the killer, is actually dead all along. Norman is the true killer, dressing up as his mother to create the murders. The ending throws us for a loop, because we did not know how close the killer was all along. The story is scarier because it questions what we believed from the beginning.
The same goes for any movie that employs a scary child to be the villain. The reality is that children are adorable. They may be a lot of work, but they are innocent and pure. So when you create an evil entity in a book or movie to be a child (or possessing a child), it contrasts the reality that we know to be true—that is, children are good.
One of the scariest movies of the 1970s was Jaws. Did you know that the filmmakers created a full animatronic shark which was supposed to show up throughout the movie (not just near the end)? And yet, because it kept breaking down, Steven Spielberg decided to keep the shark out of sight for almost all the movie. This decision was probably the best he and his production crew could have made, as it is the inevitable horror that lurks below the sea that frightens the viewer more than seeing a big shark swimming around. We see the shark’s devastation—blood in the water and victims—but we only see the massive shark itself at the end when it attacks the hunter’s boat.
I am trying to insinuate by this example that there is fear in the unknown. The mistake many horror writers make is by presenting the fearful thing clearly. Part of horror should be the mystery aspect. We should not know what exactly is happening. What we cannot see but we know could be there is so much more terrifying than something we can clearly observe.
If you follow these three techniques in writing horror, you will produce a truly horrifying experience for your readers.
Did I miss anything? What is the aspect about horror stories that scares you the most? Let me know and, as always,
Best wishes in your life full of adventure,