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*See the original guest post HERE*
Horror, by and large, is defined as a genre that is tailored or has the potential to strike terror and fear into the hearts of the audience. Subsequently, fear is widely recognized as an emotional state of being in which an impending sense of doom or danger is felt.
But what does it truly mean to write horror, and how does one elicit a fearful response using only words?
For starters, it’s important to remember that the amount of fear you’ll be able to spark in your readers will directly weigh on how attached they become to the story and its characters (after all, you can’t put them in any real danger, so the element of foreboding danger must be felt FOR those who are).
And so, as is usually the case for ANY writing project, we must consider our character(s) and, just as importantly but often overlooked, our audience. Every writer should remain mindful of WHO they’re writing for—age groups, genders, races, sexual orientation, and any other such elements—because this can determine a great deal of how to appropriately approach any project (and, for this first step, what sort of character[s] will be most empathized in the course of their journey).
For the sake of this tutorial, we’ll set the target audience at male and female young adults (this will also allow us to weed away the need for excessive gore and vulgarity; elements that are often utilized as crutches in this genre—true horror should never rely SOLELY on such tactics, because it will often indicate that a story is already lacking enough depth to do the job on its own merit).
But who do teenagers want to read about?
Like any demographic, the best approach is to cater to who they are and what they know (adults primarily read about other adults, children like to read about other children, and teens—naturally—prefer to read about other teens). So already we know that we should create a teenage character to carry us through our story. Furthermore, because we’re hoping to get our audience to fear for the wellbeing of our main character (otherwise known as the protagonist), then it helps to understand how gender can play a role in the emotions of our audience. Male readers (by and large) tend to feel a more emotional attachment to female characters (both because of potential attraction as well as a natural instinct to want to protect and oversee the wellbeing of what could be construed as a younger sibling), but heterosexual female readers (though the attraction element still remains for male characters) prefer to see male characters who aren’t frail or easily dominated. While the sexual preference of one’s audience CAN influence these decisions further, the element of a female protagonist in horror still generates the same sense of attraction/drive to protect.
Now we have the nature of our protagonist: a teenage female. So let’s flesh her out:
The techniques for choosing names and appearance are as broad and varied as the writers that utilize them, so for the sake of simplicity we’ll name her Megan Parker (the name of my fiancé & fellow author) and give her the same overall features: blue eyes and light-brown hair with slightly tanned skin.
Finally we have a character that our audience can feel akin to and follow through our terrifying tale with a sense of empathy and awe. Furthermore, now that we have the nature of the character established, we can begin to work outward from that and create a setting and environment based on how others like our character live. While it’s possible to incorporate elements that distinguish and deepen our character as an individual, it’s important to remember that anything that can potentially distinguish our character can just as easily make it that much harder for our target audience to relate to them (definitely something to consider before making them a one-armed, 400lbs, adopted space alien with telekinetic powers).
Now on to the horror!!
While I typically enjoy opening a story with a more abrupt hook—something that will INSTANTLY draw the reader in—the realm of horror is less forgiving about not first establishing a sense of peace. Generally, it works FOR a writer in the long run to establish a sense of calm and normalcy so that when the horrific force comes into play there is a greater sense of comparison and what’s been lost.
So let’s begin by setting some tone and setting to Megan’s night:
The sun hung low in the late-evening sky, bathing the quiet neighborhood’s skyline in a curtain of orange and purple. Blinking against the stunning rays, Megan adjusted the strap of her backpack on her throbbing shoulder—grimacing against what she knew would be an impressive bruise in the morning and cursing Rachel’s cheap shot on her during lacrosse practice—and hurried across the street, barely getting out of the way of Miss O’Riley’s oncoming station wagon. The old woman croaked an angry warning in her thick, Irish accent as she sped by, and Megan rolled her eyes at the old crone and started down the sidewalk towards her house.
Stepping through the front door, Megan was welcomed with a wave of warmth and the smell of her mother’s cooking. Though she still wore the aches and pains from practice, she was unable to hold back a smile as the promise of a hot meal and a hotter shower shone in her near future.
Right off the bat we have an opening that is neither overly saturated in unbelievable pleasantries nor clogged with blatantly dark or depressing elements. The reader has an almost instant sense of who we’re presenting them with without resorting to sloppy means (mention of a sore shoulder from practice tells them she’s athletic and explains why she’s walking home late and the book bag lets them know she’s a student). The time of day is clear without any clunky details, and relatable inserts like the cranky neighbor create a sense of “I’ve been there before” to most readers. Finally, offering what amounts to the “glimmer of hope” by making mention of the warm house and the hope for a hot shower and relaxing dinner create a calming atmosphere that we can soon use against the reader.
Let’s move on:
“I’m home,” she announced, setting her gear by the coat rack and slipping off her shoes. From the hall she could hear the sound of activity in the kitchen, and she shuffled across the hardwood floor on her socked feet towards it. “I couldn’t get any lime juice, Mom,” she called out as she stepped through the doorway and onto the linoleum of the kitchen “The corner market was out and I—”
She paused as she took in the scene. Sitting at the table to her right, her little sister hummed and poked away at the family’s iPad and ignoring their mother’s sobs as she leaned against the counter over her cooking.
Megan shifted her focus between the two before finally turning towards her mother.
“Mom?” She frowned when she saw her shoulders tense at the sound her voice, “Something wrong?”
“N-no,” her mother’s voice was shaky and forced, “I… I’m j-just… cooking supper.” She turned then, her face red and tear-stained, “It’ll be r-ready s-s-soo…” she trailed off with another sob and turned back to her cutting board.
Frowning, Megan turned away and approached her sister, keeping her voice down as she did. “Marie, what’s wrong? Did something happen?”
Marie giggled as she moved her finger across the iPad’s screen—launching a chirping bird into a tower occupied by grinning green pigs—before finally looking up at her. Megan frowned, caught off guard by the bright, joy-filled blue eyes of the little girl—eyes that everyone said the two of them shared but, at that moment, she wanted absolutely nothing to do with—and crossed her arms over her chest, eager for an answer.
“Well?” She demanded. Marie giggled again; her eyes, unwavering and unblinking, never shifting from her own gaze. As the unnerving weight of the child’s stare grew too eerie to stand, Megan uncrossed her arms and moved to tug on one of her sister’s pigtails in the hopes of earning a response. “Answer me! Did something happen to Mom?”
Marie’s head cocked to one side as the pressure on her hair pulled at her scalp, but her leering grin and wide, unmoving eyes stayed locked on her. Finally, her small, pink tongue took a slow across her lips before they parted.
“She was cutting onions,” Marie offered with another giggle, “Onions.”
Though Megan was certain that her sister would have returned to her game, she didn’t move. Her face—her leering grin and wide, joy-filled blue eyes—didn’t shift; didn’t offer any hint of change. She simply stared back up at her, head still cocked to one side and her dangling pigtail swaying and brushing her shoulder with each pass.
“Whatever, freaker. Don’t drain the battery on Dad’s iPad. You know he hates that.” Megan cleared her throat and rolled her eyes, taking a step back before turning away and hurrying out of the kitchen and starting up the stairs.
PAUSE! Things are getting a little weird, huh? I mean—sure!—onions are a pain to cut, but something doesn’t seem quite right there. And what’s with Megan’s sister? Granted, kids have their weird moments, many of which come off a little creepy…
But still, this just seems off…
The element of surprise is an obvious tool in creating horror. True masters of the genre have earned their titles by creating a horrific scenario that their protagonists unknowingly step into. Because of this, horror writers begin to operate on a very similar process as mystery writers, where they’re fully aware of beginning, middle, and end of not only the protagonist’s journey through their story, but ALSO the beginning, middle, and end of what’s shaped the environment they’re falling victim to.
A prime example of this is Stephen King’s “The Shining”, where a man who takes his family to a closed inn in the mountains to maintain the property during the winter season comes to find that it carries a dark (and haunted) history. While the story’s focus is on the family and their encounter, there is an undeniable amount of back-story that created the horrific environment that they stepped into.
The same can be said of Alfred Hitchcock’s film “The Birds”. Though neither the characters nor the audience are ever offered any explanation as to WHY the murderous flocks of birds are behaving in such a way, it becomes evident that the winged creatures have developed some new and terrifying habits that make for a truly horrific experience for all involved.
So, while explanations are nice, they’re never required. Let’s see if Megan gets any explanation for her sister’s strange behavior:
Megan was nearly all the way upstairs when she caught her ankle against the edge of the step and fell; banging her knee against the last step and hissing through clenched teeth at the pain. As she pulled herself up with the railing, she heard Marie giggle again from the kitchen. Still gritting against the pain, Megan fought against the urge to let any more pained grunts be heard and limped to her bedroom. Closing and locking the door, Megan finally allowed herself to exhale and dropped down onto her bed.
Ouch! We’ve all been there before, huh? Stairs: the silent killer (and, in this case, another tool to allow the reader to feel connected to our protagonist). And once again we feel a shiver thanks to the increasingly creepy sister. But why is that? What is it about Marie’s innocent antics that are making Megan (and us) feel so uncomfortable? The truth, in fact, IS the implied innocence. The human mind seems innately prepared for that which is blatantly dangerous to be dangerous; if we see a big, angry-looking biker we take a nice, long step around them in the off chance that they might attack. But what about a single child? What about a single child standing in the middle of the street? What about a single child standing in the middle of the street in the middle of the night? Now what if this child seems not only unafraid in this place, but downright COMFORTABLE?
What happens when you take an inherently innocent icon and twist it into something blatantly malicious?
The answer: you remove the audience from their comfort zone.
You create a monster.
The reader can tell that Megan is now seeing that her sister—somebody that the reader must assume she has known for Marie’s entire lifetime—is not behaving in a way she has before. We have begun to introduce a foreign element to our protagonist, and the fear and confusion she is now feeling becomes the readers’ own.
So what’s in store for Megan (and our audience)? Let’s find out:
Though a hot shower sounded like nothing short of Heaven, the soft warmth of Megan’s bed made pulling herself away from it unthinkable. Instead, she lay—promising herself that she’d get up soon enough—and embraced the comfort. Between her tolling lacrosse practice and her still-pounding heart from Marie’s horrifying stare Megan wasn’t surprised that the moment of peace was as glorious as it was, but the memory of her sister’s strange behavior.
Groaning, Megan flipped over on her back, promising herself that she’d get up in ten seconds. Finally working up the resolve, she dragged herself into a sitting position and let out another sigh. The image of her sister’s cold-yet-joyful eyes shone in her mind once more and she shivered, wanting a hot shower more than ever.
“Jeez! Creepy little—”
Her head turned at a meek whimper and she eyed her closet door—decorated and adorned in magazine cutouts and pages from CD jackets—and frowned. Had her mother gone snooping in her room and locked the cat in the closet again? Hearing the scared whimper again, she sighed and pulled herself up and moved across the room to free the cat.
Nice little moment to catch your breath there, huh? This momentary interlude in the rising terror represents the proverbial calm before the storm. In all things horror—books, movies, comics, etc—there is almost always a moment between the first established sign that something may be wrong and the inevitable plummet into terror. Though to many this pause/hold might seem unnecessary, it’s important to remember that a story operates on a system of rise-and-fall; the degree to which a reader can feel the outcome of the conflict is to proportionate to how much they feel has been lost. Much like a roller coaster, you can’t expect to drop any further than you’ve first been lifted, and if it takes one step to move the audience into the chaos then they’ve only had a chance to put one step’s worth of investment into whatever you’re preparing them for. It is in this way that horror separates itself from many other genres, which can succeed—and often outright flourish—from being dropped into the action from the get-go. Where a reader can be given a sense of romance from page one with a passionate scene and then led into the story thus far with some tactical flashbacks afterwards, a horror story that starts out with all the potential scare-elements revealed from the get-go will rob you of much of the leverage that enables you to strike fear in the first place.
Does this mean that it’s impossible? Not at all; I actually advocate to all my literary apprentices that ANYTHING can be achieved in writing, it’s simply a matter of understanding the HOW and, most importantly, the WHY. If the decision to open a story with the grand reveal right in the beginning is made, one must be prepared to know HOW they’ll still offer the reader a climactic plot as well as understanding WHY they chose to make that decision (is there an unknown detail that, on its own, is more shocking than the overall outcome—are you setting us up for the next “Luke, I AM your father” moment?—or is it simply a dry gimmick that will ultimately force you to scrap the piece and restart from scratch?)
In many cases, horror is like cutting onions: cut through the layers and pray you can see through the tears to know how it ends:
Marie let out a shriek as Megan opened the closet, and as the stunned teenager fell back at the sight of her terrified little sister the sound of their mother’s shriek carried up the stairs.
Megan fought to catch her breath, looking over her shoulder towards her bedroom door and considering checking on her mom, but finally decided to calm her sister down first.
“Dammit, Marie,” she scolded, starting towards the closet and helping her to her feet, “You scared me half-to-death! What are you doing in there! What’s with you toda—” she stopped herself, narrowing her eyes. “Wait… how did you get up here from the kitch—”
“IT WASN’T ME!” Marie sobbed, burying her face in Megan’s shirt, “IT WASN’T!”
Megan frowned, “What are you talking about? What wasn’t—”
“It… it said it would kill me!” Marie’s wide, terrified eyes locked onto her own.
Her eyes…
Her eyes!
Nothing like they’d been downstairs…
“It wasn’t me…” she whimpered again, “That… that thing downstairs.”
There was a brief scuttle against the bedroom door, and both sisters cried out as they turned to face it as the knob rattled in the frame and twisted sharply; breaking free and falling to the floor as the door swung inward and knocked it against the wall.
The familiar leering grin and wide, joy-filled blue eyes of not-Marie filled the doorway as she stepped inside. Megan gasped and fell back as Marie whimpered and backed against the wall, searching blindly with her hand for the opening of the closet.
“Onions!” Not-Marie croaked as her grin grew wider and wider. “Oooooooonions…” a low, throaty sound echoed from her gullet; her throat convulsing and distending as every step she took towards them was met with a sharp twist of her joints. Her shoulders sagged as her forearms snapped and bent, forming another set of elbows that allowed her elongated, blood-soaked fingers to drag across the floor. Her legs popped and shifted, allowing her to cross the rest of the distance in one long, bobbing lurch.
Miss O’Riley groaned at her own good deed as the detective started over with his questions. Only an hour earlier, she’d overheard the sound of the Parker family’s girls screaming and phoned in a noise complaint. Had she known that their cries of bloody murder had been literal she might have rethought the call and waited until morning.
“No good deed…” She muttered to herself.
The detective looked up, “Ma’am?”
Miss O’Riley shrugged off the officer’s curiosity and shook her head. “Look, I don’t know anything about anything. I was just settling in for a round of Jeopardy and those damned kids started howling,” she groaned again. “I figured they were having themselves a good, ol’ fashioned sister-spat—y’know, kids bein’ kids and whatnot—and thought having the cops show up at their door would scare some decency into them.”
“So… you didn’t know that they were being attacked?” The detective tapped his pen on his notepad.
“Oh heavens no,” The old woman insisted, “This is a peaceful neighborhood. Nothing like”—she stared over the detective’s shoulder at the kaleidoscope of flashing red-and-blue lights on the side of her neighbors’ home—“Well, nothing like this ever happens. I mean, I haven’t locked my doors in…” she blushed, seeing the detective’s eyebrow shift, “Well, in a long time. If I’d have known they were in danger I wouldn’t have dozed off like I did after I called you.”
“You fell asleep, ma’am?” The detective frowned, “With the kids screaming?”
“Boy, when you get to be my age you learn to fall asleep in a hurricane. Mighty fine sleep, too; probably woulda slept through all that banging at my door if it hadn’t been for the smell.”
The detective’s hectic scribbling in his notepad paused then and he looked up, “The smell, ma’am?”
Miss O’Riley nodded and wet her dried lips, “Oh yes. Damndest thing! Right before you fellas came to my door I thought I smelled freshly-cut onions.”
Good ol’ Miss O’Riley! Who knew she’d come back around to make an appearance, huh? For this wrap-up I decided to offer a bit of a few different techniques that I’ve found work best in the genre:
For starters, the “Oh sh**” moment. The readers had enough information to readily know that there was no way that Marie could’ve made it up the stairs and past Megan without her seeing, so the realization that she was in the closet had a chance to click in their minds moments before Megan’s panic-stricken mind was able to grasp that what had been staring her down in the kitchen had not been her sister, which allowed for the dawning of possibilities to plague the mind. In many ways, ending a story on the “Oh sh**” moment offers a reader’s imagination to run rampant with untold possibilities (but doing that would have been less fun for me as a writer and, let’s be honest, slightly unfulfilling for the reader).
Then we had the “Sh** hit the fan” moment. Between Mommy’s screams downstairs and the chaos at the door—enough to rip the handle free, huh?Somebody wanted to get inside in the worst kinda way!—the reader is forced to understand that whatever we were dealing with from the “Oh sh**” moment was not only dangerous, it wasn’t finished. Again, we easily could’ve ended there—let the doorknob hit the floor, door fly open, and the creepy face of not-Marie occupy the readers’ sleepless night—but, again, we wanted to have a little extra fun.
So then we had the “Sh** just got (un)real” moment. As though establishing that the girl downstairs wasn’t Marie wasn’t enough, we had to go the extra mile and establish that she wasn’t even human. When dealing with inhuman visuals, the best advice is to work with what scares you. Personally, the idea of seeing an already-creepy little girl giggling and croaking as her body pops and distorts into something else is the sort of thing that’d keep me awake for a few straight weeks as I rocked about my padded cell in a straitjacket, so I figured I’d share in that lovely visual (still like onions, though). And, again, we could’ve just as easily ended there, but… well, you know.
Finally comes the aftermath (what I like to call the “What was that sh**” moment; anybody who’s read my short horror prequel “Forbidden Paints on a Wicked Canvas” would recognize this technique). Basically, this allows the writer to summarize and create a sense of closure to an event that wouldn’t have been as clean if “watched” while it had been happening. Furthermore, because a great deal of horror forces the audience to step outside the perimeters of reality, offering a taste of the “real world” getting a glimpse at the aftermath—creating a scene of “Oh, I’ve seen something like that” in their minds—instills a sense of potential (and, in a genre when personal fear is the end-goal, getting a reader to believe that—just maybe—what they’d read could happen allows that extra lingering moment of dread keep hold of their hearts).
On one final note, it’s been said that no true horror story has a happy ending. The market to scare people isn’t built on wrapping things up in pretty, clean packages; it contradicts everything that you create from start-to-finish. This isn’t to say that a horror story isn’t a horror story if everybody in the world isn’t gutted and maimed by the end, but if you’re going to scare people with horrific element then it’s always more fun if they can close the book feeling like it’s still out there.
Just keep that in mind the next time you smell onions 😉

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