One of the most difficult emotions to provoke in writing is fear. When was the last time you flipped through a horror story and were genuinely scared? It is easy to write about tortured groans and rattling chains, the point is anyone can serve gore to the readers, but the art of raising goose bumps is an elusive one. That is why if you can write a good horror story, you can write anything.
According to the undisputed king of the genre – Stephen King, there are three types of terror: The Gross-out, The Horror, and Terror.
“Alone. Yes, that’s the key word, the most awful word in the English tongue. Murder doesn’t hold a candle to it and hell is only a poor synonym.”
― Stephen King
He defines the Gross-out horror as “the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs,” these are the books where the lights go out and when there are stomach-churning details about gooey slimy stuff oozing out of the walls.
Kings says the next type, the Horror, are books with the “unnatural.” These are the types of books with zombies, spiders the size of grizzlies and other horrific creatures. These are the books where, when the lights go out “something with claws grabs you by the arm.”
Stephen King’s final class of horror, which he also the worst one, is Terror. Books which contain scenes where when the lights go off 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..”
Not many people fear death. Only a handful are terrified by ghosts. Most grownups are not scared of murderers, monsters or the dark. That is why if you only rely on any of the mentioned things you will not be able to succeed. You have to understand where your reader’s true terror lies.
“Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.”
― Mary Shelley
Everyone fears the unknown. We fear the things we cannot understand and the best horror writers know it. That is why they take full advantage of this and that’s what makes their work stand out.
A great tip is that when you’re writing a ghost story don’t worry about withholding information. Because readers have their imaginations amped up when reading, use it against them! You do not need to go in details describing the monster or the ghost. Use a few words and because they are already scared, it’ll be enough. This is because whatever you painstakingly describe will not be nearly as scary as what they come up with on their own.
“I have always loved to use fear, to take it and comprehend it and make it work and consolidate a situation where I was afraid and take it whole and work from there.”
— Shirley Jackson
Another weapon in a horror writer’s arsenal is doubt. If you constantly mention the creature/monster/villain, the reader will know exactly what’s scaring them. Doubt makes people uncomfortable, which makes it easier for you to scare them.
Now take a minute to think about how you feel when something is not right. There are so many times you might see that everything seems okay, but something tells you it’s not. Remember that uneasy feeling?
“[Horror fiction] shows us that the control we believe we have is purely illusory, and that every moment we teeter on chaos and oblivion.”
— Clive Barker
According to science, it is a natural extension of our fear of the unknown – a defense mechanism. Examples for using this include characters with slightly deformed features or unnatural movements. Horror writers also use this when describing characters with unexpected behavior. The reason dolls or mannequins are such common phobias can also be explained because of this defense mechanism. They come close to being real, but somehow, in a subtle way, they are not.
You can also mention details that would not seem terrifying anywhere else but in that particular scenario can scare you. For example, imagine a scene when you’re camping in the woods and at night you hear a child laughing.
“Words have no power to impress the mind without the exquisite horror of their reality.”
– Edgar Allan Poe
Another thing most horror writers use is sometimes they phrase something in an odd way. They intentionally break the rules of grammar. However, don’t use this too often or you might come off as illiterate rather than terrifying!
Always keep in mind that fear must be built gradually. You’ll have to take the reader on a journey from the safety of their world to the nightmare you’ve created. This does not mean that you can’t start off with a chilling scene. Just remember to save the best for last.
“When I write, I try to think back to what I was afraid of or what was scary to me, and try to put those feelings into books.”
— R.L. Stine
To make your story truly unforgettable, focus on the end. It has to leave a lasting impression. The truly greats of the genre have used endings with a sinister revelation or an unexpected twist to ensure their books become memorable.
But remember not to overextend the ending. While it may be tempting to explain after the “big reveal,” this can diminish the effect. Have faith in yourself and leave some things to the reader’s imagination. For example, leave some conflicts unresolved or leave some questions unanswered. This will force your readers to think about your story long after they’re done with it.