In honor of it being Halloween I thought it appropriate to look at what truly disturbs us – what keeps us up late with ALL the lights on? I love to read intelligent thrillers and horror novels. Give me something truly disturbing and I’m happy. Call me crazy.
Even if you’re not a fan of horror, building compelling suspense and conflict into your plot is important to modern readers. But what scares you? What gives you the shivers? What elements of fiction make stories so frightening?
I enjoy the classic horror: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Prometheus Unbound (Frankenstein), Dracula, there are so many. Classical gothic writers understood that the people of their time were terrified by the unknown and capitalized on their fear of the unexplained. Instead of using explicit violence, they shrouded their antagonists in mystery–a shadowy figure far off in the distance. They gave their monsters a solid dose of humanity. Study their economical word use, using context and connotation to bring added meaning.
Establish what is normal
How do you know something is off if you don’t know what’s normal? You have to establish what normal is before you can scare your readers. This is a great clip from an old movie adaptation of Frankenstein. Watch how ‘normal’ is established by meeting Maria and her kitty as she says goodbye to her father – then the monster arrives. It’s the kind of scene that you continue to watch, but with one eye open because ‘this can’t end well.’
What is truly scary?
Now, I’m not a hack and slash horror fan. Movies where the main plot is about killing large numbers of people with as much blood and gore as possible aren’t my thing. Not that those situations can’t happen – but I don’t walk around everyday wondering if I’ll be a serial killer’s next victim. What gets me are stories that are more plausible and everyday. There’s nothing inherently frightening about an empty school, an abandoned playground, or a tricycle tipped over on the side of the road – but there is something out of place that has me leaning forward. I don’t like this…
Tell The Truth
I recently read an acceptance speech by Stephen King from 2004. In his speech, he talked about how all of fiction is a lie – as writers we’re asking the reader to take that willing suspension of disbelief with us and buy into the world we’ve created however similar or different from our own world it may be. But, you must tell the unvarnished truth within that lie.
“Remember that the truth lends verisimilitude to the lies that surround it…How stringently the writer holds to the truth inside the lie is one of the ways that he can judge how seriously he takes his craft…I’ve tried to prove myself with every book and find the truth inside the lie.” – Stephen King
If you’re facing a knife-wielding attacker how would you react? If someone’s chasing you at night, be honest – are you more likely to run into the forest or a crowded street. When writers force characters to do things that no sane person would do in that situation, it undermines the terror. If you’re piloting a plane that’s about to crash into the ocean, what would your last spoken thought be – a heartfelt plea to your spouse or an expletive?
The Monsters of Today
While an attack of killer tomatoes, a green blob, or a giant ape might be entertaining on some level, they’re not truly frightening. Really, how likely is it to find a killer tomato? But a stranger offering a nine year old a chance to see a new puppy and leading her off the playground – that’s real – that’s straight out of the headlines. A hijacked plane, a man forcing his way into a young woman’s apartment, a gang murder, a skull found in a farmyard – we know these things happen. They’re real. That’s what makes them truly frightening.
“It’s reality’s ‘what is,’ not the imagination’s ‘what if’ that can transform horror premise into horror story. It takes reality, heaps of it, to create and populate a story realm that gives the reader the frights royale.” -Mort Castle
“Horror is not a genre. It is an emotion.” -Douglas Winter
I’ve watched a few hack and slash horror films. Yeah, they’re gory and gruesome and disturbing – but am I truly frightened? No. Because I don’t care about the people who are dying for the most part. Make me care about the character first – get me invested emotionally in the story. That’s how you scare readers to bits. So much of horror is perception and anticipation.
Would Misery have been as disturbing if you didn’t care about Paul Sheldon? Or related to Annie Wilkes – in some small way? That’s what horror does best – helps us see the monsters in ourselves.
There’s A Line…
I have to say that the most disturbing movie I’ve watched recently was The Killer Inside Me starring Jessica Biel and Casey Affleck. It’s a drama, I believe, not even horror – but it garnered a physical reaction in me. After watching him pummel the woman he claimed to love to pulverized bits (modern movie makeup can be frightfully realistic), and him rape a two year old, I honestly thought I was going to be sick – literally, and turned it off.
As a writer, I have to tell the honest and unvarnished truth about my characters within the world I’ve created – but there are places I’m not willing to go – things I won’t write about. If you’re squeamish writing about certain things, don’t start characters down a path you won’t travel with them. Choose a different story, a different character, a different genre.
What story recently kept you up late with all the lights on? Why? Do you have a favorite horror story or thriller?