On Horror

Posted: May 28, 2015 in On Writing
Tags: , , ,

“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 worse 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…”- Stephen King

What defines the horror genre? What sets it apart from the rest of speculative fiction?

Horror seeks to generate an emotional response, much more so than science-fiction or fantasy. It seeks to give the reader that jolt of adrenaline, sparking the old “Fight or Flight” response as you grip a bit of dead tree (or processed silicon and plastic) in your hands. The horror writer wants to get that jump, to make you look over your shoulder long after you stopped reading.

So how do you do that?

The first thing is to build rapport with your main character(s). Sure, your monster/mutant/serial killer might get them in the end, but there needs to be some sort of connection built, even if they ultimately end up deserving their fate in the end. If all you do is throw a stock character out into the world and then off them in the next scene, you are missing an opportunity to gut punch the reader, to make them feel the character’s death on some level.

The second thing to do is to build tension. Keep the character in the dark. Hint at things out there, but wait as long as possible for the reveal. This goes to Mr. King’s third item. Terror. The build-up of dread is even worse than the reveal. Horror is all well and good, but the terror is what lifts great writers up from the primordial murk. Try to tap into what fears you have. Losing a child? A parent? A spouse? What keeps you awake in the middle of the night? Why? Get the description of why down on the page. Use more than sight in your descriptions. What does it smell like? Sound like? Taste like? Get visceral, primal even.

Horror is the moment when the character sees what’s been causing the dread. Is it the giant spiders? Or the serial killer clown? It’s the moment of utter realization for the character.

Finally, don’t cheapen the reveal. That’s not to say you have to go and kill all of the main characters (plenty of Final Girls would like to disagree with you), and there doesn’t have to be an unhappy ending.


Make the character earn their happy ending. Force them to confront the terror, the horror, in all of its unpleasantness. Horror can be incredibly cathartic for the reader and it doesn’t have to all end at the graveyard (zombies not withstanding).

Does this mean all horror has to be gory? Of course not. Some of the great horror pieces have little blood spilled on page at all. H.P. Lovecraft for example.

A few final thoughts: horror as a genre is a pretty wide canvas. It encompasses ghosts, cannibals, mutants, and the nice polite serial killer from down the street. It can be about the utter unknown or the terribly familiar. Don’t be afraid to move away from cliche. Think about why your monsters (human and otherwise) do what they do, but don’t be afraid to keep your reader in the dark as to why.

Sometimes fear of the unknown can generate even greater terror.

  1. Cameron says:

    I mentioned to you that I’d been rereading Poe and I’ve since moved into Chambers “The King In Yellow” because of “True Detective.” What gets me about them, Lovecraft, and King is the building dread. The slowly aggregating feeling of inevitability is as much a part of what I consider good horror as the scares themselves.

  2. Jenny Allen says:

    I’m rewriting my central crisis right now, so this post came at exactly the right time. There is a horror element to it, and you’ve given me a few ideas. Great stuff!

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