Our Wonderful Obsession With Horror

What is it about horror? We’ve had it as part of our lives since… well, forever. I mean that literally. Look at the first recorded art — cave paintings. They weren’t about that one time when Cavedude got a shiny rock from Mrs. Cavedude, or about the time they had a nice romantic night away from the Cavekids, or that one time when he had a really good day where nothing much happened and there was no fire from the sky or T-rexes eating his foot or anything like that.

No, they were about Death. And yes, I meant it with a capital “D.”

They glorified animals (man among them) killing and being killed. Blood was central, and copious.

Many of the animals also feature incredibly large genitalia, which is kinda horrific for different reasons — but I digress.

Point is: we are born with a seed of horror inside. Born in blood, our first sounds screams of terror — ironically, as we leave the darkness and first experience the light. Horror is our first emotion on this earth, and the roots of that terror never quite die. We grow, and fear the night… because, at first, we don’t even have the required knowledge to know this terrifying, lonely time will ever end.

Then we learn the night does end, but now we wonder what it hides.

We grow, and fear of the dark — of what lurks within its shadowed depths — transforms to fear of the “rational” world: what if I lose my job? What if she leaves me? What if I someday die?

The last is silly, since death is sure to come to all of us. But still, many of us have that reality as a central — terrifying — theme in our lives.

What if?

What if?

What if?

Horror flogs us through life. Terror beats with every pulse of our doomed hearts. And what do we do about it?

We watch Insidious. We read Pet Sematary. We view art and media that can only be viewed as disturbing, terrifying.


We spend our lives hiding from the darkness, turning on the light before we take that first step into the basement (and who among us hasn’t had that fear, if only for a moment, that THIS will be the time something is down there, that THIS will be the moment we feel the claws and are dragged down to devil-only-knows where?).

And then, after turning on all the lights, putting the cops on speed dial, and carefully laying a golf club and some holy water next to our bed (just in case!), what do we do? We flock with friends to a darkened theater, to experience just what we so carefully avoided.

People of contradictions, people who yearn for light, for hope… but who also find themselves sometimes — strangely — at home in the dark.

And there, I think, lies the answer: we are people. People of hope, of despair, of light, of dark, of joy… and horror.

Every one of us has an innate fear of doing wrong, seeking wrong, being somehow… wrong. And horror feeds those thoughts, those concerns. Sometimes for good, sometimes for ill.

But what all horror does — at least, when it’s doing its job — is it holds up a mirror. Not to our evil, not to the terrors that hound us through our nights and lives. No, it holds up a mirror to our whole selves. To the entirety of our humanity. To our hopes, to the fears that can dash them.

And, in the very best cases, to the redemption that we all seek.

I’m not talking about redemption in the religious sense — or at least, not necessarily. Though any careful readers of many of the masters — King and Koontz in particular — will note how often their plots climax in the infinite moment where people realize there is a greater power, or where God Himself all but steps down from his throne to save the main characters: to vicariously save all of us.

No, what I mean when I say horror is about redemption is something more basic. Less nuanced, but perhaps as critical as any strictly religious belief or dogma. The word “redeem” has its roots in Latin — “imere” which means “to purchase.” And all horror is about the purchases we make in life — for good or for ill.

When we make bad choices in a horror novel or movie, we tend to purchase an equally — or more — bad ending. The masked man hacks us in two. The cunning killer eats our face. The prophetess (that link to God again!) touches us and makes us dwindle away to nothing.

And when we make good choices we tend to purchase survival, a future. We earn a state of grace — which itself has interesting roots: it means grace, kindness, respect.

Respect. Respect for ourselves. Respect for the world — not taming it, but being carefully aware that there is more to the universe than us, that there is more to life than life itself. We know there is danger, we respect its power. But therein lies that grace: respect is something we grant to an equal, not to a superior. Respect is something that nods to the value of another thing, but does not scrape or beg or plead.

We read horror to be reminded that there are choices. That there are other choices being made at the same time, and some of those will lead to our harm. That our further choices determine how we are affected. And that, if we make the best possible choices, we will achieve a state of harmony, a sense of balance.

A way to cope with our own humanity.

We are born to blood, but yes, we are also sent directly into the light at that same moment. That first breath is to scream, but that first breath is also to live. There is an equality, a duality, an opposition present in every moment of life.

There is love… but people grow apart.

There is help… but people also make war upon one another.

There is hope… but the monsters do lurk. And have their own dark hopes for us.

And so we read horror. These sensibilities pervade the best horror, and manage to teach us neither of false perfection nor of base damnation. They show us both.

And then let us make a choice.

So why? Why do we love horror so much?

The answer, in sum, is simple: we love horror because the greatest horrors are us. And we need to be reminded of that fact from time to time so that we may also become more.

The best horror drives us into the Pit. It cuts away all that we think we are and leaves only what is the essence of our soul behind.

And then shows that that soul, that most basic identity, is enough to climb back to the light again.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Life Advice

Writing Terror That Chills

Fear is like laughter in that both rely on a good setup, then providing the unexpected.

They are also both about delivery. Ever heard a good joke that was killed by someone who had no sense of timing or who let the setup go on far too long? Terror is the same way.

What do you want to write about? A serial killer? A ghost? A ghoul? A girlfriend? Though all can be inherently scary, you as the writer must do two things in order to create terror in your reader. And that’s the goal: it’s not about how scarY your writing is, it’s about how scarED your readers are.

1) Create people that you care about

How many of you have gone to a “horror” movie that consisted of attractive people with no redeeming facets whom you were supposed to care about just because they were sexy/good-looking/unattainably attractive? And how many of you were actually scared during that horror movie (insert crickets chirping here).

This is because for horror (or suspense, or thrillers) to really work for as broad an audience as possible (there will always be people who like gore for gore’s sake, but you want to sell to more than them, right?), you must care what is happening to the characters. If a serial killer is stalking your protagonist, but no one cares, you have failed in your attempt to write a good work of terror. And the best way to insure that no one cares about the scares is to make sure that no one cares about your protagonist. In other words, suspense, terror, horror, fear, they all rely on your reader investing enough in someone’s survival or well-being to care when said survival or well-being is challenged. Sex appeal may cut it for the average twelve year old at a cineplex, but the average reader is a) a bit more challenging than that and b) (let’s face it) not able to see the hotties onscreen. So you have to either make your protagonists likable and/or sympathetic, or create antagonists that are so interesting that they could be hunting cardboard and you would still be interested. Ideally, you have both great and likable protagonists coupled WITH an antagonist so clever and devious that you aren’t sure who to root for.

2) A guy walks into a bar… or is it around a bar? Or was it a day spa? A dude ranch?

Your setting conveys a lot in terror. In fact, there are some kinds of horror where the setting almost becomes an entity in itself. In Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, for instance, the house itself (or at least, the ghosties in it) becomes a character. Ditto the hotel in King’s The Shining. These are two extremes, but in all terror writing the antagonists and protagonists do not exist in a vacuum. They live in real spaces and concrete places. It is the horror writer’s responsibility to make those spaces and places mirror the terror that he or she is hoping to invoke in the minds of the audience.

In other words, your  writing should a) create a concrete sense of where the action is happening, and b) use proper descriptives that back up the terror of the events that have unfolded, are unfolding, and/or will unfold in those places. I’ll elaborate:

a) Create a concrete sense of where the action is happening

Terror is generally an internal reaction to an external stimulus. So in order to create terror you as the writer must create an external reality. Two guys walk up to each other and one knifes the other is a horrifying event, but it lacks depth. Two guys walk up to a bar and one guy knifes the other tells you a bit more. One guy walks into a bar, waits at the end, and the other slinks in behind him and waits in the shadows until his prey walks into the bathroom and then strangles him with a phone cord is far better.

You see where I am going? There must be enough detail for the reader not only to care about the characters, but to get the sense that the antagonists choose settings for the events to play out that are themselves reflective of the struggles that will occur in the story. Why else do you think that so many horror books happen in snowstorms, or in rain, or during blackouts? These are all externalizations of the terrible acts that will be happening in the story. Each extra layer of information that you can provide which supports or reflects the action will provide you with another layer of depth that your readers can grab onto subconsciously, in effect reinforcing the terror that you are creating.

b) Use proper descriptives

Let’s go back to our two stabby friends for a second. Look at these three sentences.

A man knifes another man.
A man stabs another man.
A man hacks another man to pieces.

Each one conveys a different sense, a different tone, and you must always be careful to pick the kinds of words that will, again, echo the tone that you are trying to create in your book. Nor is this confined to describing the actions. The settings should also contain such layering. Consider:

Lightning lit up the sky.
Lightning slashed across the night sky, leaving a scar of thunder in its wake.

Which one of these sentences seems like a better “scary” sentence to you? Any and all adjectives, adverbs, and other descriptors should be used to buoy up and reinforce the feelings of horror that you are trying to create. This is why no one should ever walk anywhere in a horror novel. Skitter, perhaps. Run, maybe. Jerk about like an electrified marionette, definitely. But never just “walk.” Walking is boring.

I had a writing teacher once who said he only had one rule: “Bore me and die.” Nowhere is that more true than in writing terror. Be sure that your characters grab your readers from the beginning. Reinforce their fears with settings and scenes that mirror the main conflicts between protagonists and antagonists. And always remember that each word should be, for lack of a better word, terrifying.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Writing Advice