The Hard Work of Horror

Those Spine Tingling Chills Are Earned, Dammit

I often ask my students the following question: "Why do we tell stories?" 

People have been telling stories since there's been speech. Folktales and fables to explain the world and give advice. Creation myths and legends to explain the world and to show us what heroes look and act like.

Horror has probably always existed a style of story telling, from oral to the first written accounts. Stories passed down and around as warnings of dangers real and imagined. Urban legends, a special type of horror, give us a glimpse into the psyche of when they arose. The Hook-man story, of the "They drove away, and when they got home, they found a hook attached to the car door!" variety was an expression of the anxiety of young people going out and getting it on at lovers' lanes across the US.

The world has become much smaller than it was in the past, with people being able to reach anyone across the globe in real-time, in one manner, or another. Phones with cameras are ubiquitous. Science is exploring the inner workings of atoms. Robots are being used for anything you can imagine. Horror, especially fear of the unknown, seems impossible.

In such an enlightened time, how do we horrify our audiences? In a world with so much information, it's hard to imagine being in a world or a place without access to everything you'd need to know.  I'm reminded of a The Player of Games, by Iain M. Banks. The main character leaves his house without his terminal (think super-smartphone of the future,) and is accosted by a dangerous AI. He realizes his mistake: without his terminal, he's cut off from the world. A terminal, in this universe, could save you, even if it meant they had to grow a new body for your dismembered head. You have to have the terminal for that to happen though, and the main character goes from being a member of the Culture, one of the most advanced civilizations in the galaxy, a modified human, back to being a caveman. Alone, and against a dangerous and hard-to-understand predator.

If we can still feel anxiety and horror in the face of a future in which humans and AI lived so closely together, where grievous bodily harm may not, in fact, lead to death, then we as horror authors can create these sensations.

What does it take?

Think about the anxieties and fears of your readers. As always, knowing your audience is a key component of effective writing, and doubly so, for horror. Some of the work is already done for you: people reading horror want to be scared and horrified. Buy-in is essential. Assume your reader is willing to be engaged in your scary story.

However, don't insult them. You need your characters to be compelling. Brain-dead teens being hunted and murdered by a faceless killer works in video games and movies because these are visual mediums. They can build tension through framing, editing, pacing, lighting, and audio cues. You have some of these tools in your toolbox, but you don't have them all. 

You need to get your reader engaged because there are no visual effects to lean on, no sudden screech of a score to startle the audience into thinking they're scared. (Tension and horror are different things, and startling someone is not, in fact, the same as scaring them. Maybe we'll chat about that in the future.)

You need to be as lean as a wordsmith if ever there was one. You cannot afford wasted time or words because the story needs to flow naturally, with mounting horror and desperation. You cannot get lost in the prose because it will sap the strength of your pacing. In my opinion, horror needs to be lean and mean. Stephen King gets away with it, but if you've read IT, you know it drags in places.

Sensory details will also be key. Help us feel, hear, smell, and see what your character is experiencing. 

But most of all, give us stakes. I've struggled with horror writing in the past myself. I have great ideas for scenes, images in my head that make the skin crawl and try to escape, but they don't make compelling stories. Some bad stuff happens, and that's the story. It cannot be that way in good horror writing. Early on, establish stakes so we know what to care about. Are we going to lose a child? Who is in danger? What is in danger? Get us involved with characters, and then make us afraid for them.

Remember: it doesn't matter what you write, you must compel your audience.

Take that goodwill, that buy-in, and get your audience on board. Don't insult them with stupid or vapid characters without good reason. A book is a much larger time and emotional commitment than most movies. You have to be respectful of that. 

This is all hard work, the same hard work any author has to face, I think, but most of all, for us horror writers. You gotta be on point, because horror cannot lean on anything if it's not compelling. You can't rely on world building or intricate systems of magic, or of lofty descriptions of high castles or vast starships. Horror is personal, and you must write it thus. 

Jeff Hewitt