Halloween is just around the corner. Or maybe it’s hiding in the closet or under the bed. It might be sliding from shadow to shadow as you wander wearily to the bathroom in the middle of the night. My bet is that it was watching you from the window, probably ever since you got home this evening. Did you lock the doors up? Do you dare go check?
Whatever your relationship with Halloween, no one dislikes a good horror story. Everyone likes to be scared. It’s fun when you’re a kid, it’s fun when you’re an adult. The question becomes “what is scary?” There’s no shortage of Stephen Kings and Dean R. Koontzs and Clive Barkers, but is this stuff scary anymore? How many times can King tell a story about a haunted car? Three to my best estimation (Maximum Overdrive, Christine and I’m sure there’s one more…) The trend in “scary” has changed from that tingling uneasiness you get when walking in the woods alone at sunset, to scenes of gruesome torture and mutilation. Mutilation is not horror. Mutilation is a car accident or an artillery shell. Torture is not horror; it is a debased form of intelligence gathering.
So what is scary? Well, it’s not vampires anymore. They’re too clever and charming, their fashion sense is overwhelming and with such perfect smiles, how could they instill fear in anything? Werewolves too, have fallen to the wayside on the highway of terror. Ghosts, while unsettling for most are recycled and trite. Zombies and some of the more gruesome undead seem to be holding out cultural attention. I personally have read a dozen books that treat the topic with excellent insight as well as innovation. Ever since the 2003 release of 28 Days Later, we’ve seen the Zombie sub-genre blossom like a yellow-musk creeper in corpse pile (old school D&D reference anyone?). Now that zombies are fast, can run and chase you, and want nothing more than to devour you, to eat you alive while you struggle vainly to protect your exposed flesh from their rotting, chipped teeth, they are a bit more frightening.
The denizens of the underworld, demons and devils, always occupy a special place, a shadowy corner in the recesses of the minds of the pious. But is it the threat of eternal damnation or the threat of a being whose very existence is anathema to your continued survival that is scary? I guess we should check in with William Peter Blatty for that one.
When I talk with writers about horror, about mustering up strange fears that often the audience didn’t even know it had, I always start with a conversation about what the writer finds frightening. Serial Killers? Ghosts? Snakes? Once that determination is made, I ask them when they realized they were afraid of this thing. Sometimes they don’t know, and that’s okay. Sometimes they know exactly why and what happened. Often it’s a situation that would scare anyone. There is the heart of their horror story, I tell them.
Like all fiction, the drama and tension needs to be ratcheted up, wound as tight as possible without breaking the wire. Not all at once (or maybe, I mean if you can pull it off, right?) but a gradual increase of psychological pressure on the characters will seep into the reader. Tension and anxiety make even the most basic and normally ignored fears seem like massive spiders lurking on the ceiling of the room you just entered, or moving silently up behind you, each one of their lifeless, glassy, eight eyes seeing you not as human being, but as prey…
Where was I?
Oh yeah, tension. Beyond tension, there must be an element of the surreal; nothing overt, but everyday people don’t find out that Michael Meyers (the one with the knife, not the ogre one) is their brother. The situation can start out normal, in fact should, but we’re not scared or at least less so in familiar surroundings. So move your characters from their comfort zones and your audience cares about them, they will travel to that strange place with them.
Many would argue that the final ingredient in any horror experience would be some blood and perhaps guts. I disagree. A splash of blood for color perhaps, but true terror, real, deep, hind-brain fear can paralyze the audience in a well-lit room or a sunny day. Don’t forget to invoke the senses. You’ve put a beloved character into a surreal series of events in a strange and disturbing place, so be sure to remind us that. Does the wind smell like decayed leaves, something left over from autumn, a strange reek that clings to the sickly trees? Is the moonlight piss-yellow or alabaster white? Is it my footsteps making that crunching sound? Or is it someone else’s? How does it feel to be shaking, sweating, hungry and tired in blistering heat or cold rainy wind? What are those strange noises? Are they… just birds?