What Makes Horror Horrific?

Building off my post from yesterday, I’ve been thinking some about why horror scares us–what it is about it that makes us really frightened. Stephen King wrote a book about a killer clown. Why is it as scary as it is?

Part of the reason I’m thinking along these lines is that I’m in the midst of rewriting THE MEMORY THIEF, which I’d like to have a bit more of a horror flair. I’m not writing the next IT, mind you. But maybe something in the vein of Something Wicked This Way Comes, or The Watcher in the Woods. Even those movies are more than what I’m going for. But I’d like a decidedly creepy tone in certain areas of the book, and so I’ve been looking around to see what’s done to bring on the Creepy.

On the surface, this should be fairly straightforward, right? I mean, you just need to describe gruesome bloody awful scary things. But I don’t think that’s what truly scares us–despite what a lot of modern horror movies these days seem to think. You can’t just slap up a bunch of gore on the screen or across the page and get everyone really scared.

Some of it is setting the stage. I think what’s really scary–to me, at least–is something that somehow connects to me personally. Make it something that will almost certainly never happen to me, and I can’t really be scared. I can build a barrier between me and the thing I’m seeing or reading–disconnect myself from it. Make it something that I could see happening to me, and things change. That’s one of the reasons you see so many of the same set ups for horror movies. Haunted houses–they look perfectly normal, just like your own house. Until . . .  Or people getting lost in the woods. Getting lost at camp. Getting lost in caves. Killer toys. Curses from strangers. Step one for a successful scare is to make your audience believe it could happen to them.

(Of course, as soon as I write something like that, I inevitably start to try and think of exceptions to the rule. Rules are stupid. So let’s not say these are hard and fast “rules” or “steps.” They’re ingredients that can be used.)

Setting the tone is important, too. On film, that means getting some tense music going. Using lots of oblique camera angles (few right angles on screen). That sort of thing. You can’t do that in writing, but you can choose words carefully. A person could be “thin,” or he could be “skeletal.” Stuff like that. At the same time, it’s important to get a lot of the details hammered down and described well. Some of this is setting the tone, some of it is connecting to the audience. All of it’s important.

But there’s something else I’ve noticed. It’s not as scary until you see the characters really react to it. See how they respond. See what actions they take because of it. Again, it’s important to keep things as realistic as possible. Don’t have characters do stupid things in response. Don’t have them react outlandishly. If you’re dealing with the fantastical. the more things you can anchor in reality, the better.

Dave Wolverton taught in his creative writing class that one great approach is to start by having the character think of what scares him. Anticipate being frightened–what the worst possible thing could be for them. And then when it comes, have it be even worse than the worst possible thing they could imagine. Set your audience up for something, and then over-deliver. I think that’s a really good technique.

But I wanted to throw it out to you, the readers (and watchers) of horror and the scary. What makes something scary to you? More than just chilling at the moment–what makes something stick with you days or weeks or years after? Please share. This is for posterity. 🙂

2 thoughts on “What Makes Horror Horrific?”

  1. I’m looking forward to seeing the comments to this one. My agent just gave me my second round of revisions for my YA horror ms. She mentioned upping the horror factor in the opening of the story, so I’m looking at ways to do that.

    One things she said, a horror scene causes a feeling of dread. The reader/viewer doesn’t know what’s about to happen, but they know it won’t be good for the character or the victim. (In my case the MC is the predator, not the victim)

  2. There were some good comments on my Facebook page on this post. I agree that horror’s all about dread, and I’ve found that (for me, at least) the unknown is usually what I dread the most. Once a problem’s out in the open, I can deal with it. When it’s hidden or intangible, I can *really* worry about it. Horror that keeps things foggy is so much more frightening to me.

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