We all have fears. They can be legitimate fears like losing a parent or child, losing a job, a ligament and more. Some fears appear in the form of phobias – fear of spiders, clowns, germs, heights etc. Common fears that are almost universal are the fears of anticipated pain, approach of death, of not being in control, and next to them, the fear of the unknown.
Movies like Scream/Friday the 13th, Halloween etc are scary because you don’t know who the killer is, you don’t know where they are or where they will come from. All you can expect is a knife plunging down.
Movies like Nightmare on Elm Street, Candyman, The Grudge, etc are scary because there’s a supernatural element to the “killer.” You can’t necessarily escape them once they have their sights on you.
Final Destination means you’re definitely going to die soon, unexpectedly and quite possibly, in a horrifying manner. You don’t know where and how death will approach and you can’t beat it.
They are combinations of the unknown, trying to gain control and failing, and the anticipated pain/death. And that’s scary.
The Role of the Author
As much as we all have fears, we do not all have the same fears. Someone could watch the new IT movie and scream the entire time and someone else could watch it unfazed. This is what makes horror such a fickle genre. It is mostly subjective.
When I’m ink-deep in my horror story, there are a number of thoughts that swing through. The main thought is: am I portraying a true reflection of the horror. Here are some factors to consider.
How close to real is the story and characters. Are they believable. What are the possibilities that the story could happen, supernatural or not. Do the fantastical elements make the story ridiculous or a little too close to home.
With that I try and add as many facts as possible. Perhaps reference real things that the reader might come across or may have heard about in real life. Things like:
- It is more effective to sew a human mouth or eyes shut than to use superglue.
- A medical practitioner has the tools/knowledge/skills required to be a proficient serial killer. (Charles Cullen – a former nurse who is the most prolific serial killer in New Jersey history and is suspected to be the most prolific serial killer in American history.) ~ Charles Cullen
- Nurses and paramedics have more paranormal “experiences” than most due to being present when someone is about to die. (Apparently the ghost has even been seen down in the ER, ducking in and out of patient rooms and peeking around curtains.) ~ 49 Real Nurses Share The Terrifying Hospital Ghost Stories
- Most people don’t have foresight before someone close to them dies. Not even twins. (They may be very close, very similar in manner, habits and health, but this doesn’t mean they share some otherworldly connection that the rest of us don’t have.) ~ Can Twins Sense Each Other
- Sleep apnoea may cause people to have waking nightmares where their bodies are paralysed and they feel a presence in the room, or someone sitting on them. Usually an unidentifiable face or shadow is present. Most attribute it to a supernatural presence. It’s not. ~ Is Sleep Paralysis Linked To Sleep Apnoea?
How logical is the story. Do the characters react in a realistic way. Are the events in the story making sense and as close to real as possible. Sure some supernatural elements do not have complete scientific evidence, or anything we can truly attribute them to beyond an unknown force. However, there are physical manifestations that may occur preceding the supernatural, and those can be used to add the “logic” to the story.
As Thomas Busby was being led to his execution, he reportedly shouted that anyone who sat on his favorite chair would die.
Tony Earnshaw was not a superstitious man; he initially dismissed the Busby curse as nonsense and the previous deaths associated with it as coincidences. But then people started dying on his watch. Earnshaw overheard two RAF airmen daring each other to sit on the chair. Both did, and both died in a car crash later that day…
Pain may be in a physical or emotional level. The actual knife plunging into the victim, or the emotional trauma of waiting for the inevitable knife to plunge into the victim. The emotional side of horror is just as effective as the physical. Perhaps more so. Horror is about the terror than it is about the death after all.
Stephen King’s horror focuses on the characters. Invests the reader in their lives, habits, thoughts and feelings until we are almost seeing the world through their eyes. So when the horror hits, our emotions become entangled with the character and we feel it with them.
Clive Barker on the other hand focuses on the sheer physical manifestation of that horror, both in its visual representation (description) and the brutality of it.He takes great pains in cataloging the look of his creations and the horrors they have to endure.
For me it is a combination of the two. There must be some investment into the character. Enough to make you relate to them in some way. Let you feel empathetic to their situation. The emotional trauma they experience combined with the physical torture they must endure.
“Mommy?” Evie turned from the couch, a questioning look spreading across her face and disheveled hair. Her eyes fell on the axe flashing distorted images of the TV screen.
“Mommy!” Fear laced into the voice as her body attempted to crawl into the safety of the leather. Squeaking with her movement.
“I’m not your mommy.” And with all the force she could muster, swung the handle hard and fast towards the girl’s face
~ Faux – A Wattpad Horror
Horror is not Gore – It’s… Paranoia
Many people think horror equals gore. For me it’s not about gore all the time. It is about the characters and the situation leading towards the gore. By the time you as the reader get to that part, where the axe meets the face, you’ve understood the situation.
The horror of relating to the killer.
The horror of being in the victim’s shoes.
Where the dark no longer feels safe and the light can only ease your fears so much. Where every sound makes you shiver. Where fiction crosses over the thin line into reality.
Have you read a book or watched a movie that really scared you enough to be paranoid? What was it? Why do you think it caused those feelings in you? Let’s chat!
All good and interesting advice. I’m afraid of my own shadow and have anxiety so I can definitely agree with the paranoia. I was “teenage-sitting” last week overnight while their mom was away and the 15-year-old wanted to watch IT. The old version, but no. He was trying to convince me it wasn’t scary and I was like, “Nope. No. No, we’re not watching. Nopity nope.” Then he decided to explain to me what happens in the movie. I slept with the light on that night.
Alfred Hitchcock is really the only “horror” I’ll watch. But even his Psycho, I took a shower with the curtain open for a few months. That took me a while to get over, lol.
Thanks! It’s not so much advice as my idea of what horror means to me and how I apply it but yeah, I hope it does help in the end. If you eve write horror haha.
Also anxiety definitely plays a role so you might get freaked out more. I had that when I was younger, and my over active imagination didn’t allow me to watch a horror unfazed. I could only reads books. Movies were a no-no. Now I’m watching all the horrors I missed and more.
Right, but you’re more of an “expert” than I am. 😉
Yeah, it’s funny that you found a way to push past that as you got older. It’s interesting to see how we grow like that.
Definitely. There may come a time in your life when you can do that too and we can chat about horrors haha.
or not… 😛
Most likely not, lol.
A very cool and thought provoking essay. I loved reading this! You provide a lot of insights into the psychology of fear.
Thank you Christine. I appreciate your comment. As a budding horror writer, I try to get to the why of the horror rather than the what. If you can attack the heart and the mind, you can truly put fear through words alone.
Thanks for stopping by.