How To Write Horror: The Weirdo Argues With Himself
Time to write some horror, Person Who Reads This Website. You want advice? I got advice up the Yin Yang. But, since I’m also a little crazy, I happily counter my own advice in a self-defeating game of Devil’s Advocate! Why? Fuck it, I dunno. I started to think of how to bolster these arguments, and I kept coming up with Yeah, Buts. That means you must be subject to my many minds duking it out across the battlefield that is this blog-o-space.
Think of it like a discussion, except it’s a discussion between some weird dude and himself. He’s got no pants. He’s rubbing his nipples and mumbling something about “vampires.” Just go with it. Wisdom in madness and all that.
Are we ready?
Defining Terms: What Is Horror?
Wait, what? That’s the first question? Shit. I’m already stumped. Uhhhhh. Let’s check out what some of the masters have to say.
“Horror fiction upsets apple carts, burns old buildings, and stampedes the horses; it questions and yearns for answers, and it takes nothing for granted. It’s not safe, and it probably rots your teeth, too. Horror fiction can be a guide through a nightmare world, entered freely and by the reader’s own will. And since horror can be many, many things and go in many, many directions, that guided nightmare ride can shock, educate, illuminate, threaten, shriek, and whisper before it lets the readers loose.” — Robert McCammon, Twilight Zone Magazine, Oct 1986
That’s a good, evocative description, but I don’t know that it really tells us anything.
Let’s move on to —
“Horror is not a genre, like the mystery or science fiction or the western. It is not a kind of fiction, meant to be confined to the ghetto of a special shelf in libraries or bookstores. Horror is an emotion.” — Douglas Winter, Prime Evil anthology
That last one works for me. Let’s go with it.
Which means I’m operating on a simple principle: I don’t want to tell you how to write horror fiction. It’s not that I actually agree that it’s not a genre (it is); it’s that I think writing horror as a genre is limiting. Writing horror cannot and should not be limited to writing genre fiction. Scenes of horror are one tool in your toolbox, and it’s a tool that should get worked across a wide variety of projects. From Fight Club to Pirates of the Carribbean, from Perdido Street Station to Sherlock Holmes, horror is a living, crawling, slithering thing.
I’m not here to tell you how to write horror fiction. I’m trying to tell you how to elicit fear in horror scenes. It’s not a tool you’ll use in every project, but you’d be amazed at how often you need to garner this kind of reaction from reader or viewer.
In fact, let’s assume that one of our goals is to produce a Long Tail of Horror. The Chris Anderson model of the “Long Tail” is obviously about business, but we want to talk about it in terms of creating effective horror-and-fear experiences. We want the experience to go big, but then linger. Effective scenes of horror create a profound effect and a long tail of fear.
Now, for the weirdo on the street yelling at himself, I present to you: five arguments.
The Argument: I’ve said it before, but Jaws is a classic example of this: the mechanical shark didn’t fucking work, and so Spielberg was forced to use the shark minimally — everything in shadow, everything a suggestion of what lies beneath the water. And what happened was that it made people goddamn afraid of the ocean — that fear was alive, like a virus or bacteria passed from viewer to viewer. If we’d seen the shark full-on for the whole movie, I think it would have been far less effective (coughcough Deep Blue Sea hackwheeze). So, that there is your approach. Fear lies in what you don’t show, not in what you do. A face-full of gore? An In Your Face! attitude? Splatterpunk? That’s great. It won’t get you anywhere with the readers, horror-wise. It’s shock value. And shock value isn’t the valuable kind of horror. The real kind of horror is the kind that stays with you. It’s an unsettled dread, a sucking void in your gut that can’t be fed with happy thoughts, a stirred-up colony of worms in your mind and bowels. Hey, look at a movie like Requiem for a Dream. Or Safe. Or The Rapture. Or just about anything by David Lynch. Not horror movies, but movies that linger longer — they disturb, they unsettle, they make you afraid and you don’t even know why. The Long Tail, in action.
Bzzt, Wrong: Shut up, asshole. Elitist prick. That’s a stupid argument. First, notice that all the examples are of movies? Mm-hmm. That’s because this is a lot harder to do on the page of a novel or story than it is in a film. In a film, you can visualize everything in shadow and play tricks on the eye, but it’s hard to go deep subtle with the written word. You want to show, not tell, which still means you have to… show. You have to demonstrate the horror, and that means more rather than less. Plus, you know what? Splatter-gore is great. Some great big awesome writers know how to maximize this for total squick factor — Brian Keene, for one. See, you’re missing out on the fact that horror comes in many shapes and sizes, and one of those factors is repulsion and repugnance. Horror can very much be about shock value, about Holy Fuck Did That Just Happen? Because that’ll stay with people, too. For years they’ll say, “You remember that scene where the love interest’s head exploded and that rat colony erupted from her eggshell skull? Sweet Jeebus!”
The Argument: What scares us most are the things we do not understand. Ghosts would be less terrifying if we understood them, if they could properly communicate some truth about the Great Beyond, if they existed as more than invisible wraiths or gauzy specters. We fear the dark because it’s dark. Because its shadows contain unknown quantities. A subject that produces no easy answers, that leaves too many questions, that cannot be fully seen or fully grasped, is going to be a subject that inspires the “Long Tail of Horror.” Look at a novel like “The Road,” by Cormac MacCarthy. Not strictly a horror novel, but certainly a horrific one. The destroyed world is scary because it is an unknown quantity. We don’t know what happened, we only know that the world as we know it suffered Some Disaster and is now way, way fucked up. We have questions. They go unanswered. This creates gaps, and all kinds of slithering things will crawl in those gaps — when the reader can’t answer these questions, the reader will come up with his own answers. And his own answers are far more frightening to him than your answers as the writer. See, that’s what you’re doing. You’re making the reader do the work and scare himself. In “The Road,” by not knowing what caused the world to end, we cannot know what horrors wait out there in the broken lands. Mutants? Cannibals? Animals? Radiation? Disease? No idea. By not having our choices of fear limited, the reader will go through the whole goddamn catalog, and he’ll zero in on those options that freak him out the most. Perfect. Done. Game over. Let the Great Unknown force the reader to work.
Bzzt, Wrong: Suspense — and from suspense, fear — can come from the answers we provide, jerkoff. I mean, shit, didn’t you just talk about this? The bomb under the table goes off in 15 minutes, the audience knows it, no mystery, the answer is present. The known quantity is what stirs the fear. If I tell you, “This giant fucking centipede lives in the walls of this old house and his favorite snack is human babies,” then when the nice family with the newborn baby moves into that house, you know the fear. It’s the Sword of Damocles dangling over the reader’s head (babyeater), and it works because the reader can see that sword in all its sharp-edged, head-spearing glory. Look at some classic zombie movies. Night of the Living Dead. Zombies exist, and we basically know why (Hell’s full up, fuckers! Welcome to Zombietown, Population: A Lot of Goddamn Zombies!). They’re not running around in the dark. Hell, right there in the opening we see them shambling about in broad daylight. What about Cujo? Big dog, totally rabid, no mystery. What we know is what’s scary. Suck on that, meatbag.
The Argument: This is a subject for a whole big post some day, but the gist of it the argument is this — death as a tool is overused in fiction. Death is a cliffhanger, an act out in a television episode, a climax. It’s losing its meaning. Death isn’t that scary, either. It’s too final. What’s scary is what happens to a character that’s still alive, whether it’s torture or infestation or mind control or whatever. In horror fiction, death is the obvious choice. Go bigger. Get creative. Or go home.
Bzzt, Wrong: You wanna see some shit? Here’s some shit. The kind of shit where I use your own argument against you, douchecock? “Fear is the unknown blah blah blah.” Uh-huh. What’s more unknown (er, less known?) than death? Huh? Huh? Death is like the dark, but multiplied by a bajillionty-thousand-googillion. It is the ultimate unknown quantity. Plus, when a character we grow to love is threatened by death (which to the reader is the equivalent of “being removed from the tale”), the reader knows the fear of loss. Bam! Put that in your mouth and chew it.
The Argument: Don’t try to scare the reader on his ground. You can’t. Do you know what scares Tom Johnson? Malik Washington? Betty Wiznewski? No. (Tom is afraid of spiders, Malik is afraid of terrorism, and Betty is afraid of toaster ovens.) Fear is a subjective thing, just like any emotion — what elicits fear in one will not elicit fear in another. The best thing you can do is write about what scares you. And, by following the other rules here, you will ideally foster the Long Tail of Horror in those who read your work. But don’t expect you’ll snare everyone.
Bzzt, Wrong: Oh, some lazy writer likes his pretty widdle excuses. Yeah, no. Fear might be subjective, but you’re the writer. You’re the king of this castle, and your royal decrees are what become laws in the reader’s mind. It is your job as writer to make your subject frightening. You can make anything scary with a deft touch. Hell, you could make Malik scared of toaster ovens (even though that’s Betty’s gig!) if you write it right. Make them afraid! Bend them to your will! The best writers loop puppet strings around the hearts and minds of readers and then make those fuckers dance. Plus, if you create characters that the readers like, love, or identify with, and those characters are afraid of something, you’ll already done half the work right there. Because what those characters feel, the readers feel.
The Argument: Really? Zombies again? (Or, find/replace “zombies” with “vampires” or “werewolves” or “ghosts” or blah blah blah.) We keep dragging the same ghouls and goblins out of the closet, how scary can they be? Get creative. Get inventive. Fear isn’t about a type of monster.
Bzzt, Wrong: Fuck you, sperm-for-brains. Zombies are awesome. So are vampires and werewolves and ghosts. You want to be King Shit of Awesometown, you’ll write a scene or a book about the ghost of a blood-sucking vampire werewolf who was defeated and forced to come back to earth as a rotting zombie before he was killed again and made into the aforementioned ghost. Bam! … Okay, no, that sounds stupid. The point is, these monster types exist for a reason in our scary stories. You said it yourself about ghosts earlier in this post. Zombies represent foreign invaders or disease. Vampires represent disease, or maybe sex, or perhaps a loss of control. Werewolves could also represent a loss of control, or the primal wild, or man’s worst instincts. By using such “classic” monsters (ideally our own way), we can underline and highlight these themes and use the monsters as a gateway opening toward old, common fears. Zombies are popular for a reason. Vampires are popular for a reason. Werewolves are popular for… well, okay, werewolves aren’t quite as popular. But they should be. Rawr!
Shit, I have no conclusion other than, “I like to yell at myself.”
I guess the point is, horror isn’t One Thing. It’s a tool in your tool-box, but it’s a multi-tool that you can hold in a number of different grips. Like a power drill or a camping hatchet or a roll of duct tape, it has many uses. But you will use it, by gods. Your homework, if you choose to accept it, is to write a scene where horror plays out in a romantic comedy setting. I mean, you don’t really have to do this. I won’t give you anything. No candy. No money. No blog space. You take this homework on, the onus is on you.
Heh, onus. Anus.
Now go earn Daddy an A+, lest he get out the belt again.