A few months ago I wrote an introduction to horror for an online horror competition I was judging, and given the Halloween-y flavour of the month, I thought I'd reproduce it here for all to read. Yes, yes, I'm doing what writers do: saying the same thing others have said using new words. Nonetheless, I hope my take on this resonates with some of you.
Feel free to disagree with me in the comments if you must.
(whispers: not too free!)
Horror, more than any of the other popular genres, provides a literary condiment to add spice to any story. Straight from Wikipedia: ‘The trait of the genre of horror is that it provokes a response, emotional, psychological, or physical within each individual that causes someone to react with fear.’
The best horror fiction speaks to our discomforts, the little shadows and forgotten dusty boxes inside us. This is both its strength and its weakness: writing a horror story about giant spiders will hit arachnophobes extra hard in the lizard brain, squeezing nervous chemicals and playing their fight-or-flight response like a puppet; others may simply shrug and enjoy the story for its speculative or fantasy nature, meaning that for them the horror in your story has failed. The solution seems to be to poke at common human fears, while still doing something original: the trick with horror is finding a balance, addressing the most specific of communal fears, the greatest commonality of core, atavistic human discomforts, while still staying specific enough to be doing something new with your story.
Horror doesn’t, by its nature, demand supernatural overtones, however the supernatural comprises vast swathes of unknown, of uncertainty and by extension discomfort, fear, anxiety: a box inexplicably falling off a table to the floor is far less disconcerting than a box falling off a table to the ceiling.
Similarly, horror can be gruesome and graphic, but it can’t only be gruesome and graphic. Vicious, violent torture will be uncomfortable to read, but hardly scary: after a while we become inured to pages dripping in blood. To be properly scared, we need to walk a tightrope stretching out ahead into darkness, over a big dark chasm of the unknown. It’s not the gore, guts and gizzards that make a story scary, it’s the corner around which the unknown murderer might be lurking.
Pushing the boundaries of the unknown in horror fiction is a complex dance. We scare people with the unknown, we push them off-balance. Perhaps it starts with nothing more than a scratching sound coming from behind a door. The writer doesn’t have to do much here: it’s the reader’s brain spinning horror into being: What is that scratching? That room’s empty, there should be no scratching. What could make that scratching sound? Could it be a some bug? No that’s the sound of nails on wood. What has nails that big? And what is this voice inside my head? The horror writer should be that voice, crafting leading questions out of the fabric of their story, to make the reader’s terrified imagination run wild with questions they don’t even want answered.
Sure, in a real-world situation the reader might start by thinking unscary thoughts like, ‘That sounds a bit like a gecko’, but it’s the writer’s role to prime the reader to expect claws, or to be wary of empty rooms, or to forget that at the start of the story the phone was broken and so their sudden realisation that they just need a phone and it’ll be alright becomes a sudden disoriented oh shit that’s right the phone doesn’t work and then follows that up with a phone suddenly ringing through the halls. The reader, already disoriented and nervous, silently shrieks, BUT THE PHONE WAS BROKEN!
Turning the familiar into the unfamiliar, turning safety lines into garrottes: that is horror.
But answers can ruin the atmosphere: when the scratching sound is revealed to be a 100-foot dragon, the reader isn’t scared but rather relieved: ‘Thank goodness, I thought it was a 1,000-foot dragon’*. Uncertainty is made certain, order is restored: the horror is gone: ‘Sure, it’s a dragon, but we can fight a dragon, at least there’s hope now.’
The trick is to answer enough without answering too much. Revealing nothing is cheating; revealing too much isn’t scary. Make the reader think there is an escape, make them think they have the answer, and then pull it once more out of reach, leaving them alone, balancing on that tightrope, now surrounded on all sides by darkness.
Hey, no one said this was easy.
*the phew-I-expected-an-even-larger-monster example is paraphrased from Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, an excellent study of horror.