An undead fiend slumbers in her ancient tomb, waiting for a foolish mortal to awaken her so she can return to haunt the living once more. On a dark, stormy night, a mad scientist is playing God, trying to create new life out of a blasphemous mixture of alchemy and science. And somewhere in the void of deep space, an alien horror that should not exist waits and watches with a thousand eyes.
These are the standard tropes of the horror genre.
Not that many people on this site actually know it, but I originally started out writing short horror stories. Some of them have seen print, others were published online in digital format, and still others linger on my computer, waiting to be re-written in some form or another. And while I may try my hand at other styles of writing, I always find myself returning to my beloved horror stories when the inspiration moves me.
But what is horror? How can you write truly scary works? I'm not going to lie to you. Just reading this brief essay probably won't make you into a horror writer, so don't get any delusions that you are the next Stephen King or Clive Barker. Instead, what I hope to do is inspire you to write your own ideas - what comes from within. That is far more terrifying than any ghost, ghoul or long-legged beastie that I could imagine. So if you would like to write horror, then please, read onward.
First, let's start out by defining what horror is in the first place. It's a genre of literature aimed at scaring, frightening and entertaining an audience. It's a very broad category, including everything from urban legends and ghost stories you used to tell around Halloween, all the way up to the classics of Gothic horror like Bram Stoker's 'Dracula' and Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein.' Horror goes well beyond storytelling and literature, though. It also includes countless movies about serial killers, vampires, and other monsters.
As any good, self-proclaimed nerd could tell you, horror is closely related to science fiction and fantasy. In fact, the genres can (and do) overlap to a certain extent. 'Frankenstein,' for instance, was a science fiction story by the very definition of the word! Mary Shelley had Victor Frankenstein using a mixture of alchemy and pseudo-science to resurrect the dead. In a similar vein, the film 'Alien' takes place in space and involves an extraterrestrial life form. Lovecraft used similar ideas in his writings.
One can also find plenty of examples of 'dark fantasy' and 'Gothic fantasy' in literature, film, television, comics and gaming. The Dungeons & Dragons setting of Ravenloft would be a good example of this, being replete with vampires, necromancers, witches and the like.
A bit further afield, horror is also related to suspense and mystery. Although nobody would say that police procedurals like 'Law & Order' or 'CSI' are "horror" in any sense of the word, there are plenty of examples of horror that do rely on serial killers. 'Silence of the Lambs' springs to mind immediately. Not all monsters are literal. Serial killers like John Wayne Gacy, David Berkowitz, Ed Gein and Jeffrey Dahmer were far worse than any fictional vampire or werewolf.
But none of that really tells us what horror is, does it? Horror can have monsters, yes, but nobody in their right mind would say Count Chocula or 'Casper the Friendly Ghost' count as "horror." Nor does horror need a monster to be scary, as we've established that human killers can be perfectly within genre. The same applies to wild animals (like, say, being hunted down by a grizzly bear), natural situations (being lost in uncaring wilderness), or just strange phenomena with no intellect or being driving them whatsoever (a man walking out into a field and just disappearing). And yes, all of those examples have been done in one way or another.
So what is horror? True horror is fear... Fear of the unknown, fear of death, fear of being harmed, fear of being alone, etc. That is what horror boils down to. Horror fascinates us and moves us because it provides a safe outlet for our most primal fears.
And that is the secret to writing great horror.
First, start with what scares you. It doesn't matter if you're afraid of clowns, spiders, water, the number thirteen, darkness or something more exotic. Ask yourself what you are afraid and then think about it for a while. Don't over analyze things, just think about why you feel that way and try and capture it in such a fashion that other people can relate to. Even if we can't understand your fear, at least we will be entertained by it.
I know, that sounds rather paradoxical, but it's a good first step. Scare yourself, then try to scare other people. Exaggerate and distort that fear. Make it into something that is just close enough to reality that it can spook us.
Now, while you ponder over what I've written, allow me to expand upon some further points of interest.
Here Be Dragons
In olden days, when knowledge of geography beyond the major population centers was sketchy at best, mapmakers would mark the unknown corners of the world with the ominous phrase 'Here be Dragons.' Even before that, primitive tribes huddled around their campfires at night, trying to stave off the depredations of nocturnal carnivores. And even today, mothers tell their children not to wander too far when they play.
The unknown is scary, and that fear extends to our very perceptions of geography. Keep this in mind when you write. If your protagonist is dropped off in a hostile and unfamiliar territory, everything becomes much scarier for him. For example, for many of us city-dwellers, rural settings like those in 'Deliverance,' 'Wrong Turn' and 'The Hills Have Eyes' embody our fears about breaking down on the interstate, miles from any trace of civilization.
Play up on those fears. Exaggerate the dangers of the terrain and make it scary, whether we are talking about swamps filled with quicksand and tropical diseases, unforgiving Arctic wastes, or even the most crime-ridden parts of inner city ghettoes. If you can make it scary, then write about it. And it's even better if you've been to those areas and know something about them.
Despite what I wrote earlier, monsters are still a big part of horror. Everyone knows Dracula, Frankenstein, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, the Phantom of the Opera, King Kong, and so forth. These are undeniable icons of horror, and have been used and re-used in countless adaptations. There are countless movies and books written about vampires, zombies, werewolves, ghosts, sea monsters, and other mainstays of horror.
The trick with using these monsters, though, is to make them unique and original. Everyone knows what a vampire is. It's an undead being who drinks blood, can turn into a bat, and is repulsed by garlic. Right? And werewolves are vulnerable to silver, and zombies need to eat brains, and so forth. The thing is, the lore is so vast that authors can pick and choose which elements to use when writing these more familiar creatures. Everyone has seen Gothed out vampires bedecked in Victorian finery. But vampires in cowboy boots and western wear, or urban vampires with gangsta style are a little more unique.
This extends beyond the superficial. The vampires, werewolves, zombies and so forth that appear in popular culture bear little resemblance to their origins in folklore. In some stories vampires can come out during the day. In others they loose all their powers in sunlight, but are otherwise just fine. And, of course, in many stories they die in sunlight. With that in mind, you can easily change around 'traditional' monsters and make them interesting and different.
Then there's the rest of the world beyond Europe and North America. Other cultures have their own folklore and mythology that is just as rich and can provide aspiring authors with new sources of inspiration. Arabian lore has flesh-eating ghuls and malicious jinn. The Filipinos have the aswang, which preys on children and pregnant women. In Mexico there are stories of witches called civatateo. The Algonquin Indians spoke of the cannibalistic windigo, and Russians have tales of rusalka that pull men to their deaths in the river.
Any or all of these creatures can serve as an excellent source of ideas for writers, especially if you were raised with those stories in your background. But, we need not go half-way across the world in search of horror, because there are plenty of homegrown ideas right here. Urban legends are a form of folklore that has saturated into popular culture. Think about it... the serial killer with the hooked hand, gang members killing people who flash their brights as an initiation, albino alligators living in the sewer. All of these familiar cautionary tales can be used by creative writers.
Once again, these stories should be updated, changed or re-invented to better suit the modern world. Even if a western audience has no awareness of Japanese gaki, Inuit tupilaq, or Balinese leyak, just a few small changes can make it into an entirely different creature. After all, you are (hopefully) interested in crafting your own tales instead of just repeating someone else's.
What Was That Thing
Not all monsters fall into these convenient (albeit admittedly artificial) categories. Some truly bizarre creatures are one-of-a-kind horrors that have no mythology behind them. Think of the Stay Puff Marshmallow Man from 'Ghostbusters' or the giant monster from 'Cloverfield.' That sort of unique, one-shot monster is the sort of thing really creative writers can come up with on a good night. While all of your creations should be unique, creating an entirely new (and fictitious) creature is an especially challenging exercise.
Still, the basic concept is the same. Come up with a creature, write in the details and run with it. What does your monster do? Does it tear people apart at night? Does it take control of their bodies and make them do things against their will? Something else entirely? The only real trick is that you don't have any folklore, mythology or previous stories to inspire you. But then, that's part of what makes it so fun in the fir
When telling a story, the most basic rule is to always be consistent. This is even more true when you are writing fiction. You don't need to spell out what sort of things are going on in your story, but you (as the writer) should have a clear idea of what is happening when you write it. You don't need to tell it to your audience, and in fact, it's far scary if you keep us in the dark. But leaving some mysterious element that serves no other purpose than to get our attention is just annoying. You need to be consistent in your horror.
This applies to all other aspects of writing as well. Keep a consistently dark and ominous mood when you are writing horror. Surprise endings can be fun if they are executed properly, but far too often it just annoys your readers. If I am reading a story about a zombie apocalypse, I don't want some sort of deus ex machina at the end that involves an alien invasion. You can mix monsters, elements, and genres, but do so in a way that doesn't break the mood. Otherwise things just get kind of silly, and you don't want that.
Scream Queens and Token Victims
Another subject that I feel I should touch upon, however briefly, is character development. One thing that sets apart horror from other genres is the potential for relatively high casualty rates. In fact, its so common that the phenomena has become something of a trope or in-joke, with many movies using stereotypical 'stock characters' who are slowly picked off, one by one, until only the main protagonists are left. Examples of this are so numerous that it barely merits any mention.
Like any stereotypes, there is some grain of truth in this, but it's also a very dangerous trap to fall into. Especially for writers, who have to ply the fertile depths of the imagination instead of relying upon bloody visuals like film-makers do. If you want a death to be meaningful - to shock and disturb your audience - then you have to either make it really gory, or make the character someone interesting enough that the audience cares about them. Or, better yet, both.
On the other hand, you also have your stereotypical stock characters... Big breasted scream queens, brooding Goths, grizzled survivors of the zombie apocalypse, token minorities, nerds without 'street smarts,' dumb jocks or frat boys, and so forth. These are characters who are practically made to be thrown away, aside from the stereotypical grizzled monster hunter/survivor/loner type. They usually wind up going out in a blaze of glory, taking the monster with them in the process.
Just to surprise your audience, I say switch things around a little. Write standard 'stock character' types with interesting backgrounds to set them apart. A frat boy who enjoys chess and can quote ancient Greek poetry, or a big breasted scientist, or a token minority character from a comfortable suburban background. Those are different enough that your audience might actually care about those characters. In fact, they very well could become protagonists in their own right, and the (supposed) 'hero' becomes monster fodder.
Do Your Homework
Let's face it, there have been a lot of horror writers before you. Do yourself a favor and read some of their works. Steven King, Clive Barker, H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allen Poe, Ambrose Bierce, Robert Bloch, Chuck Palahniuk, Anne Rice, Poppy Z. Brite, Bram Stoker, and a dozen others. All of them wrote things which you should be reading, and enjoying. Don't try to copy their style. After all, you want to find your own voice. Instead, try and figure out what about their writing moves and inspires you. Appreciate their work for what it is and you will be good.
Don't limit yourself to books either. Even as much as I may decry the decline in literary interests here, I am not going to act like some sort of elitist snob either. There are plenty of comics, movies, video games, television shows and other media that convey horror just as well as any writer. In fact, many of them are adaptations of books or stories written by the authors above. Universal and Hammer influenced how entire generations saw classic movie monsters, not to mention the way that Japanese films have re-interpreted monsters. And then there are great shows like 'Twilight Zone,' 'Outer Limits,' 'One Step Beyond,' and 'The X-Files.'
Do yourself a favor and reacquaint yourselves with classic slashers like Jason, Freddie Krueger, Michael Myers, Norman Bates, Pinhead and (for the more recent generation) Jigsaw. They won't hurt you... much.
The Unknown IS Scary
One final thing to bear in mind, which I've repeated many times throughout here, is that the unknown is scary. Use that to your advantage. Simply saying that a vampire kills someone, or that a man is really a killer. But keeping your audience guessing is much more fun, both for you and the reader. In fact, a really creative author can be so ambiguous as to have nothing really happen in his story, while still making the reader question it. So by all means, keep us in the dark. Use descriptions to set the mood, but not to reveal what is really happening, right up until the end.
After all has been said and done, you should be able to use these simple pieces of advice to inspire your own horror writing. Hopefully you've learned something about the fine art of scaring people. I look forward to seeing your stories, so please let me know if you found this (all too brief) essay helpful.