I’ve written a few horror novels, and I’ve read quite a few too. Plus, I like to think of myself as a bit of a horror movie aficionado. There’s a huge difference between reading horror and writing horror, though.
I think that all great horror comes from personal fears. I think about things that scare me, and then I can convey that to the reader and produce an actual sense of fear as they feed of my own fears. Look back at moments when you were actually afraid, and try to figure out what made you scared. Maybe it was not knowing where someone was and fearing something bad happened to them. Maybe it was a sound outside of your house and thinking that someone, or something, was out there. Take all those fears write them out.
I had a buddy named Gord, and the thing about Gord was that he was always up to something. One time when my parents were out of town Gord came to their house on the acreage. We went and bought cheap kites and way, way too much string. We flew them off of the deck of their house, and mine flew all right, but ended up plummeting to the street and I had to sneak through a few yards to get it back. Gord’s flew really well. We went through his whole roll of string, and then, since mine wasn’t flying well, we tied mine to the end of his and kept going. The kite was higher than I’ve ever seen a kite fly! At one point in the day an eagle circled it a few times! It was really fun, but then the sun started to set, so we started reeling the kite back in, but as it got dark out, and out on the acreage it got really dark at night, we could no longer see the kite, just the string in the blackness of the sky. We laughed at how creepy it was, and imagined something coming down with the kite. It wasn’t horrifying or anything, and there were no decapitations or axe-wielding maniacs, but there was something oddly unsettling about the string pulling and tugging up into the darkness. I used that feeling for a chapter in The Goat Man of Inverness.
I don’t have any phobias. I love all animals, including spiders, snakes, and whatever else people are afraid of. I have a normal reaction to heights and enclosed spaces, which is a reasonable fear. I do kind of have a fear of being in an enclosed space while the water rises and I have only a little space to breathe, which is often exploited in spelunking films, so one day I’ll have to use that to fuel some writing. If the author has a fear of something, though, then the reader gets dragged along on the ride even if they aren’t afraid of that thing. If someone is afraid of rats and writes a rat book, you can feel their fear even though you don’t mind rats. The fun of reading horror is that feeling of fear while in a safe location.
The greatest fear, I think, is of the unknown. I hate horror movies where they show the monster right at the start. I want to see glimpses of things, shadows, and I want to be confused. In Cloverfield you didn’t get to see the creature in its entirety until well into the movie, even though it was gigantic. In the 2017 film The Ritual you see the creature, but it’s so confusing you can’t quite grasp it until late in the film. The same can be true in the written word. Don’t describe the antagonist right away. Make the reader imagine what is going on, only give them tiny crumbs of information and let their imagination run with it.
Playing upon societal fears, or upending societal norms, is another great way to incite fear. I think the Exorcist did so well because it drew upon religious fears. The same is true for killer clowns or demonic children. It’s taking something that is supposed to be good and turning it evil. That said, if I see another horror film where they start singing a nursery rhyme I think my head will explode.
Marty Chan talked about writing scary stories to a class, and he said that it’s best to keep your characters alone. I usually partner up characters so that I can create dialogues, as the old gem of ‘talking to yourself’ is tired and worn out, in my opinion. That said, he’s right. If you are alone things are much scarier than if you have someone to help you. I get around this by having characters together, and then somehow they are alone. Maybe one is killed, or maybe they just disappear and the main character doesn’t know what happens to them. I get my dialogue in, and then as the tension amps up the dialogue stops.
My favourite horror stories also have unique characters. I love that in The Haunting of Hill House, Eleanor is neurotic and thinks everyone is out to embarrass her, she’s angry and defensive, and she has an odd history where rocks rained down on her house once (which she still thinks was the neighbours throwing rocks at her house) and a guilt complex over her mother’s death. That’s a character who knows fear! If you’re writing a story with spiders in it, have the main character be arachnophobic. If you’re writing about a creature under the sea, give them a memory of their own father’s death by drowning. Put the worst person for the job in position where they have to survive against their greatest fear.
After that, just use all the literary tools that are already at your command. Use suspense as much as you can, use foreshadowing and plot twists, and craft your descriptions to fit the mood you are trying to achieve. Play with the fear, draw it out as long as you can. Horror is a cat and mouse game with the reader, so stalk your prey. Then, pounce!