First, a disclaimer: Although horror might be my favorite genre, I’m no expert on it.
In fact, a lot of Creepypasta.com readers would say I’m the last person who should try to teach anyone about it. Two years ago, I wrote a story, a spontaneous rework of a crappypasta, and submitted it to them. When I’d showed it to friends and posted it on critique sites, the response was universally positive, but when it went up on the site, it tanked, debuting as one of the bottom five stories in its history, and only managing to eke up to 5/10 stars after several days.
As for the comments… You can see them. Most of them didn’t bother me too much, since they misinterpreted my intent in writing it, but the one that really caught my eye was the one that described it as a forced attempt to be scary without knowing what that meant. In hindsight, it was spot on. I didn’t know how horror worked at the time; I thought it was like any other type of fiction, but with more bad stuff. I had a lot to learn about its unique plotting, atmosphere, and methods of building tension.
This is probably why it fell flat with that particular audience, despite succeeding with beta readers: it works as amateur transgressive fic, but not when presented as horror, and the realistic feel I tried to give it ended up being its biggest problem. If you look at the plot, it’s just one thing happening, then another, then another, without much continuity between them—you know, like real life. But, also like real life, it doesn’t make for a very good genre story when told as-is.
So, why am I airing out a flop I’m still embarrassed by? Both so you can learn from my mistakes, and as a “before” for the “after” that is this article. Since then, I’ve tried my best to learn the genre’s structure, and part of my reason for writing this was to organize my own notes into something coherent.
The most important thing I’ve learned is that horror seems to follow an identifiable process. A lot of people have given us clues to this: Stephen King shed some light on it when he said there are differences between a mere gross-out, standard horror fare, and what’s truly terrifying. Someone else, although I can’t remember who, said horror hits you in the brain, the heart, and the stomach all at once. Both of these are parts of the “formula,” but now I’m going to try to explain what I believe is the whole thing.
It has four steps. They don’t have to be in this order, and not all of them are mandatory, but every effective horror work I’ve seen does most of the following:
- It gives us something to be scared of.
- It puts us in a paranoia-inducing atmosphere.
- It creeps us out.
- It hits us with a primal fear.
Let’s go over them in detail.
1. It Gives Us Something to Be Scared of
The story tells us, either explicitly or implicitly, what’s going to happen if the protagonist fails and the worst-case scenario comes true, letting it hang over your head as you proceed. This comes with two conditions:
A. There’s a significant chance of it happening.
B. There’s something the intended victims can do to fight it, run away from it, or at least hold it off.
This doesn’t mean it’ll work: in fact, a lot of the scariest stories end with that scenario walking up and pimp slapping the protagonist like they’d never bothered trying to stop it. But it’s important to the structure that they did. If there’s no conflict, no attempt to resist, then it’s just a vignette about someone waiting to die. Even the most fatalistic horror, like Lovecraft and Ligotti, has its characters struggle fiercely before realizing it’s hopeless, even if the reader knew from the beginning.
If it’s inevitable that the end is coming, and we know this throughout the story, that can’t be the main point of drama. It can serve as an excellent way to raise the stakes of another story—like that of someone trying to accomplish something before they die—but it doesn’t make for an effective premise in and of itself.
The stated scenario isn’t always the only bad outcome, either. That’s the whole point of twist endings. Not to mention some writers reverse our expectations entirely, having the hero’s actions turn out worse than the original problem: He who fights monsters becomes the monster. But the basic set of things with which the story can scare us remains the same.
What are they? It depends. Video games have a unique advantage over other art forms here, since they can threaten you with your own death, if simulated, and the humiliation of having your ass handed to you by an AI. Here in the land of non-interactive media, however, we’ve still got three others…
Someone We Care About Getting Hurt
Most people are decent and can empathize with other people, even fictional ones. Horror takes this and uses it against us.
That’s why well-written and fleshed-out characters are crucial, as I didn’t realize when I wrote that pasta. We don’t have to like them per se, but we at least have to see them as human beings, not caricatures, and give a fraction of a fuck what happens to them. If we don’t, we won’t fear it.
But there are a few shortcuts writers commonly take to this.
- One is to put children in danger. We inherently want to protect children and are terrified of anything happening to them.
- Threatening cute animals works for the same reason.
- Another is to make the eventual fate worse: if a character’s subjected to enough pain, we’ll be inclined to feel for them even if they might’ve had it coming. An asshole getting a lethal injection isn’t scary, but an asshole getting flayed alive is, because it’s so horrific that your sympathy for anyone who has to suffer that much overrides your distaste for the character.
On the other hand, some writers purposely make their intended victims stupid and unsympathetic to the point where you want them to die: this keeps the audience from getting too bummed out watching them suffer, and lets the story show terrible things happening to people without losing its sense of fun—but this comes at the cost of its ability to make a genuine impact and to get the audience in the heart. If you want to be purely light entertainment, then I guess it’s fine to do this, since it does work to that effect, but I personally don’t like it. I think it edges a story into “snuff film” territory.
When the scary thing in the story is also something that really happens. This is especially effective when it’s a primal fear. Or when it’s based on something that’s been in the news recently, making the reader already likely to be afraid of it. In other words, when life itself creates a paranoia-inducing atmosphere, sparing the writer from having to build one from scratch.
It also leaves the subject primed for metaphor. That’s why it’s been speculated that whether zombies or vampires are in style depends on the political climate. The golden age of slasher flicks, the ’70s and ‘80s, coincided with the period that brought us the most serial killers in real life. Look at how disaster movies exploded after we began to see global warming as a serious threat. Contrary to what some people claim, not all horror reflects society, but a hell of a lot of it does.
Another version is when we’re told the boogeyman’s real and the story’s just a document of it, like Slenderman. This is just an evolution of the campfire story that ends with, “And he’s right behind you!” but it’s stuck around for so long because it works.
Taking that to its logical conclusion, sometimes the fear isn’t laid out in the story: it just reminds us of what we fear, then lets us draw our own conclusions.
Here’s a song that scares a lot of people:
But why? Sound coming out of speakers poses no threat to us. And it’s instrumental, so it can’t be the lyrics.
…It’s that it reminds us of high-pitched screaming, which we’re hardwired to be scared by, because in our caveman brains it means someone nearby is crying out in pain. And this happens without our conscious mind realizing it, so not only are we getting freaked out, we can’t understand why.
Things that remind us of our fears also scare us, because they signify that the thing we fear is nearby. And if you listen to that song in the dark, it gets even worse, because…
2. It Puts Us in a Paranoia-Inducing Atmosphere
They say the unknown is one of our greatest fears. This isn’t true, or we’d shit ourselves whenever we saw a clear night sky. What it does do, however, is make us very paranoid when we believe there’s something bad in it.
One important element of horror is an atmosphere in which the “something we fear” could happen at any time, or in which you know there’s danger around, but not where. As you probably know, this can scare you more than when the actual thing jumps out at you.
There are plenty of ways to do this: the most common is darkness. Silent Hill did it with fog. Maze-like places with blind corners also work. But it doesn’t even have to be a physical setting: think of the horror an abuse victim undergoes living in an environment where the slightest mistake could set their abuser off for what might be the last time.
Insanity is a common plot device for horror works because it not only makes for an effective “something to fear,” its mere presence makes us paranoid. The mentally ill are sadly stereotyped as volatile and ready to kill at any moment, which is why they’re so often used as boogeymen and asylums so often as settings. A common and more interesting subversion, though, are stories that put us in the role of the afflicted, making the world itself unpredictable by showing it through a psychotic lens. When you don’t even know what’s real, everything’s so much harder to figure out.
Note: Please research mental illness and how it works, then assign a specific condition (or set of comorbid ones) to any character who has it, before you run out and get it embarrassingly wrong. Seriously, it only takes a quick Google search, and not bothering is disrespectful to the people who actually have to suffer through it.
3. It Creeps Us Out
What’s creepy? It’s subjective, but generally, two things:
The TL;DW version is that you get the “creeps” when you see something that might be dangerous, but also might not be, landing you in a gray area where you’re not sure what to think of it. This confuses your brain, making you very uncomfortable.
But what he didn’t mention is that there’s a more powerful version that, to dumb it down some, kicks in when you feel something good and something bad at the same time. The positive feeling could be anything, but it’s usually arousal, nostalgia, or the recognition of something cute, friendly, or familiar. The negative feeling is usually disgust, our sense of danger, or our sense that something’s just wrong.
- This is why clowns scare us. Half of your mind says “this is amusing, we should laugh.” The other asks why this grown man in this freaky costume is trying to lure in children.
- It’s also why kids themselves are such common horror villains. They make our nurturing instincts clash with our sense of danger.
- And why nursery rhymes and childlike music, usually transposed into a minor key, show up so often.
- The whole “ruined childhood” meme is about this: taking things that made us happy in our most impressionable years and corrupting them, turning them against us.
- Not to mention why sexual imagery gone wrong is a common thread in things that creep us out. One part of our brain says “let’s reproduce!” Another says “dude, not with that.”
Stuff We Don’t Understand
Our caveman brains don’t like things we can’t identify.
And if you place one in a paranoia-inducing atmosphere, so that on top of our inability to understand what it is, we know it might kill us… Holy shit. We kick into overdrive, experiencing all kinds of conflicting emotions at once as we try to figure out what to do.
Once again, this isn’t just limited to things that look weird. Which of the following happening in your neighborhood would scare you the most?
- A drug dealer getting shot over a debt.
- One spouse stabbing another in an argument that got out of hand.
- A college student being dismembered while walking her dog in the park.
Answer: The one that would get all the news coverage. The first one is very straightforward, the method of death wasn’t particularly cruel or unusual, and besides, most of us have little sympathy for the pusher. In the second, while the deceased certainly didn’t deserve it and we feel sorry for them, it’s still a clear motive and an all-too-common way to go. But the third…
Who would do something like that? An ex taking revenge? A longtime stalker who finally snapped? A psychopath she offended with a passing comment? And why in such a gruesome manner? Could it actually be the work of a serial killer? Will he strike again? Are you next? These are the kinds of places we go when confronted with a mystery. (And the inability to handle this is what leads people to victim-blame, but that’s a completely different entry for a completely different blog.)
This is also why it’s commonly said that the less you see of a monster, the scarier it is. Once you’ve seen it, you understand it, you can start to figure out what it’s capable of, and you’re no longer faced with a mystery. You’ll also notice that horror monsters that have been around forever—vampires, zombies, werewolves, and the like— no longer scare us. We’ve gotten so familiar with them that we now want to have sex with them.
4. It Hits Us with a Primal Fear
Remember, fear is just a self-preservation instinct. We’ve repurposed into a form of entertainment, but it’s still that. And this might be too bold a statement for me to make without much to back it up, but I believe all of it boils down to the fear of pain: physical, mental, or emotional.
Religious horror is based in the physical pain of eternal torture and the shame of being rejected by God. Psychological horror is based in the mental suffering that comes from having your brain itself turn on you, distorting your perception of reality and changing who you are as a person. Many of our day-to-day fears are based in the anguish of losing loved ones, being abandoned or betrayed by the people around us, and facing the inevitability that one day we will die, and in enough time, be forgotten.
(And it’s coming way faster than you thought.)
But closest to the core are our primal fears: the ones that let us know a bear is about to eat us and we need to get away from it as fast as possible.
The three simplest ones are:
- Gore. This means it just killed someone else, so it’s probably still around.
- Loud noises. It’s roaring. It must be pissed.
- Being Startled. SHIT FUCK RUN
But there are plenty of others, tied to our survival instincts in different ways. For example…
- The threatening animals themselves, like spiders, snakes, rats, and large predators.
- Things with sharp teeth and claws.
- Being eaten.
- Other hazards, like fire, acid, and poison.
- Inability to breathe.
- Witnessing others afraid or in pain.
- Dissonant and minor-key sounds, especially ones we don’t recognize.
- Having our personal space, or our bodies themselves, invaded.
- Being watched.
- Being snuck up on.
- Losing brain functions.
- Being trapped or paralyzed.
- Mass destruction.
- Human cruelty.
- Facial expressions that indicate someone’s about to hurt us.
- Things that look rotten, tainted, or otherwise likely to make us sick.
- Disease itself, and people infected with it.
- People or other living things that have been mutated, rearranged, or generally messed up.
- Mangled or impossibly-proportioned faces.
- Distorted voices.
- Things moving in unpredictable or unnatural ways.
- Things moving that shouldn’t at all.
Many of these have lost their impact through overexposure, though, which is why they’re not very effective by themselves. When a work uses these alone to scare us, we call it cheap, because it is. It’s not horror, it’s just yelling “Boo!” But in conjunction with the rest of the process, it’s the crucial final step. Interestingly, though, it seems the further you can get from the source, the smarter the writer looks, and in many cases, the more it scares us. Here’s that Stephen King quote in full, in case you didn’t watch the Vsauce video:
The 3 types of terror:
The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it’s when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm.
The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it’s when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm.
And the last and worst one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It’s when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there…
The main difference between them seems to be the distance from the primal. The gross-out shoves it in your face, the horror shows you it, and the terror merely alludes to its presence.
How It’s Done: Broodhollow
Creator Kris Straub takes the steps out of order, but he takes them.
First, cognitive dissonance is employed throughout: The normal art style is very cartoony, but the nightmare-inducing elements are drawn in almost photorealistic detail. And the titular town, like many in horror, is a quaint little village that just… Feels “off,” somehow.
That’s also the first step it takes towards making us paranoid. The other happens simultaneously, with the main character having problems with hallucinations, meaning that scares can pop up with no explanation or warning. These mainly involve skeletons and blood—primal fears—and they’re always half-hidden in darkness, making what they really look like somewhat of a mystery. And he’s clearly paranoid himself. In fact, he even references the environment’s role directly early on, explaining how he goes out of his way to cut down on the amount of unpredictability in his surroundings.
Is something out to get him? We don’t know at first, but it’s heavily implied: We’ve seen a lot of this comic’s imagery before; the nightmares, the Stepfordy town, and the abandoned building full of antiques (and dolls!) that happens to be the site of a death; and we know they’re never good signs. It’s further hinted-at when multiple townsfolk insinuate that our protagonist is going to be staying whether he wants to or not. Then, when they hold a festival to excise malevolent spirits, it’s an almost sure sign that we’ll be seeing some of those in the future.
I could go on, to the hole-faces, Iris’s amnesia, and Wadsworth’s slow descent into madness, but I won’t. That’s the gist of it. Plus, you should read it for yourself, anyway. It’s good.
And That’s Pretty Much It
There’s a lot more to horror than this: lighting, the specifics of sound design, what makes a creature scary… But I think that you can figure all those things out by analyzing how they trace back to this set of basics.
This is almost as long as the dialogue guide, so thank you just for taking the time to read all the way to this point. I’d really appreciate any feedback, or ideas for potential improvements, from more experienced horror writers, so if you know one, share it with them, and if you are one, let me know.
See the list in the intro.
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