How do you effectively write a good horror story? How do you terrify your audience?

I remember one book I read where the characters spent a great deal of time scrabbling about in underground cave systems. They wished for the sky a lot, and were worn down badly by the experience, lost track of time, were terrified of the dark, etcetera. This clearly frightened the author a great deal, the claustrophobic sense of being underground and trapped. But it didn’t bother me; all my memories of being in caves are great, some of the best times in my life. I couldn’t make it be scary to me. So you can’t scare all the people all the time, I guess.

Some things are universally scary. The injury or death of people we love. The fundamental rules being broken–people coming back from the dead as monsters, evil Things from another dimension breaking through, demonic powers coming after your soul. Things that revolt us because we have good evolutionary reasons for being revolted: maggots, roaches, slimy green foodlike things, worms inside our flesh, torn body parts. Possibly best of all, the Thing That Can’t Be Seen.

I’ve written three reasonably effective horror stories in my life. One was when I was still in junior high, a classic redo of an old theme: teenage fan’s favorite rock star disappears and is later discovered when there’s a really bad smell coming from her closet. One was truly effective upon its target audience: woman discovers successively bigger and bigger cockroaches (described in loving detail) in her apartment until the act of killing the last one, bigger than her, drives her stark raving bonkers. And one, Becka, was effective largely because all the scary parts came right out of my own life.

So I think it helps, when writing terror, to write things that horrify or terrify you, yourself. Not all your audience will agree, but that will be true no matter what you do. Write with great detail, great passion, and don’t be false–don’t hit the gore note, or the revulsion note, unless the story absolutely demands it. The subtle, the not-seen, will be more effective than the revealed face of horror in your story. You must do some of the work, but remember that the reader completes the circuit. What they fear will scare them worse in your mind than in the mirror you hold up.

Word Count: 2015


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Cluskey
    Nov 18, 2008 @ 16:36:12

    Ohh, I’ve found a nice, critical poll about the Question:

    Should terrorists have the same rights in US courts as “normal” criminals?

    I for my own think “yes” but there are a lot of people with different oppinions.

    Look on http://pollunity.com

  2. asherose
    Nov 18, 2008 @ 16:41:17

    Yeah, way to actually read the post, dude.

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