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Yes, I have to admit it. I don't like horror movies because (shocker) I find them scary. Unlike other people in my house, I do not like being scared. Especially right before I go to bed. I dislike going into haunted houses. I also dislike being alone in the dark.

This is not to suggest I'm a paranoid wreck of nerves - far from it. I do have a problem when it comes to writing horror though. I realize that if I'm creeping myself out with my own writing, that's a good indicator I'm on the right track. That's great.

My problem is that I find it genuinely difficult to write horror. I tend to shut the door when I write to minimize distractions. I can get mildly claustrophobic. I find myself glancing over my shoulder as I write. If it gets really bad, I can't focus on the writing because I'm freaking myself out.

Is there anything I can do to help with this? I feel like I could write a really good horror story, if... you know, I wasn't scared by it.

EDIT: Further information:

  • This is not a great fear that grips me all the time. I can and do get past it, quite frequently, in fact. I dislike it whenever I watch a horror movie before going to bed, yes. I stay awake for a few hours, yes. But I eventually go to sleep. I dislike going through a haunted house, but will do so if my friends are urging me to.
  • I do not, as has been speculated, fear death. I am a Christian, and death holds no fear for me. What I fear is the unknown. The darkness can hide anything. When I watch a horror movie, if the 'horror' element is not explained, it's more frightening because I don't know what it is.
  • It should not be assumed that I am forcing myself to write horror, or that I write nothing else. Neither of those things are true. I write Fantasy and Sci-Fi and thoroughly enjoy it. I once wrote a short horror story which really focused on fear of the unknown. I got through it and thought it was quite good, but writing it was difficult. Now that I've written it, I'm curious to revisit the genre, as I have some ideas for other horror stories. That is the only reason I asked this question.
  • Certain answers have suggested that I am afraid of what I write. I'm not, primarily because if I wrote a horror story again, it would be horror fantasy. Generally, nothing in it is going to be real. The atmosphere of the story gets my imagination going though, and I start to feel the urge to keep an eye on dark corners.

After reviewing all of the answers, I would like to bring several to the attention of any future viewers. I found three to be the most helpful:

  • The answer by Mike C. Ford and the answer by Cort Ammon were both excellent. They said the same general thing, but I thought Cort Ammon's answer stayed on topic better.
  • The answer by Deus Ex Machina, which I have marked as the answer, I initially did not like. After some thought, I believe it is the most likely to help me when writing though.
  • I also found the answer by aaa to be good. It was the kind of answer I was looking for and provides some excellent tips for writers in need of an answer right away.
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    "I am a Christian, and death holds no fear for me", good for you, as an Atheist death holds no fear for me either :) – Binary Worrier Oct 17 '16 at 16:54
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    Personally I fear the seconds right before death. – barbecue Oct 17 '16 at 19:52
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    @BinaryWorrier good illustration of the difference between elaboration as part of a question and naked proselytizing :-) – Robert Grant Oct 18 '16 at 5:55
  • Why do you fear the unknown? Because it might kill you? Sounds like fear of death to me. You need to strip away your preconceptions. – Tony Oct 18 '16 at 12:25
  • @Tony Like I've said elsewhere, I fear the unknown because I do not understand it. I'm a designer by nature, and have to understand how things work. – Thomas Myron Oct 18 '16 at 16:41
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Also draw on that fear. I read in Jeff VanderMeer's "Wonderbook" about a concept called "writing from your scar," which could also be applicable to your situation also. Basically, it means drawing on those experiences that have left a scar on you (figuratively). You could apply this to your situation by drawing on your fear, incorporating it into your characters' psyches, instilling microtension into all of their thoughts and actions via this fear vs what they want to achieve. If you can do this, you might be able to use your fear to your advantage. But if you feel inclined to writing what scares you (and I applaud you for this act of literary courage), you must not avoid, but rather explore. Good luck.

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    @ThomasMyron: It doesn't, DEM is saying you should embrace the fear, and I'm with him. Write and freak yourself out, your writing will be better for it. Get right into the character and their fear, wear the character like a coat. Then, as soon as your finished, do something completely different to "come down". Play a computer game that totally engages your mind, do something physical and think yourself away from the horror. The horror should become like a roller-coaster, something visceral while your on it, but the come down should be enjoyable because you're leaving the horror behind – Binary Worrier Oct 17 '16 at 16:58
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    My whole question is based on the fact that getting scared distracts me from my writing. I can't write because I'm constantly watching dark corners, so to speak. I would imagine embracing fear would only make this distraction worse, not better. Unless I'm missing the point. – Thomas Myron Oct 17 '16 at 17:50
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    @ThomasMyron: You're about a mile from home, it's late on a dark and windy autumn night, several young men have gone missing over the previous weeks, your car breaks down, your phone battery is dead. You've no choice but to walk the 20 minutes home.You start, and you dread every minute of the walk home, you start at every leaf hitting the pavement, but you keep going, you've no choice, you think you hear footsteps behind you, but you can't see anyone in the darkness, you've no choice, you keep going. You get home, you didn't stop because you're scared, you in and now you feel exhilarated... – Binary Worrier Oct 18 '16 at 14:15
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    (cont) You kept walking because you had no choice. When you're writing you have the choice, you can stop. What you need is stronger self-discipline. Embrace the fear, push through the fear, don't allow yourself to be distracted. You made the walk home in record time, if you can get yourself into the "fear zone" you'll write at a hectic, frenetic pace. You can tidy it up later, but your raw visceral fear will come through into your work. Discipline yourself, don't stop. You know what you're writing isn't real, do some "come down" activities and you'll be fine. – Binary Worrier Oct 18 '16 at 14:20
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    Flaubert reportedly threw up writing 'Madam Bovary.' I kind of agree, embrace the fear, use it. Of course it it's too distracting then that's not useful advice but I think DEM and Binary Worrier are on to something. – Dave Kanter Oct 18 '16 at 20:52
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Seeing an axe murderer at the end of a hallway is scary, but not seeing them and knowing they're somewhere nearby, maybe round the corner, or maybe behind you, is much scarier. This is because, as you said in the question, the fear of the unknown is something that the majority of people have in some capacity.

I wrote in this answer about the scariest scene I've ever read, but that is because the character cannot see what is happening around them, and does not know what will happen if they are caught, therefore our brains fill the space with worst-case scenarios. But seeing the scene from a third person perspective would make the scene look quite silly.

This is what separates good horror writing from bad: Good horror will have us hiding behind our fingers barely able to watch, as we empathize with the fears of the character, whereas bad horror will have us shouting "just get up and run! Don't hide in the closet, the killer will find you! Jump out of the window and get to the police station!"

To make sure you are not drawn into the horror scenario yourself is to eliminate the horrifying aspect: The Unknown. As you're writing the story, think to yourself about the hows and the whys, so that you know more than the reader will. It may even be beneficial to picture the scene in a less then serious way, so long as you don't let that bleed through into your writing, as it will cause it to change from the good type of horror to the bad.

For example, instead of picturing yourself as the character running through the house with a murderer behind you, imagine the house from a bird's-eye perspective, and have the scene unfold like some sort of Benny Hill sketch. This should at least help with the issue of needing to look over your shoulder when writing, as it will be easier to visualize exactly where the character and the thing they are afraid of are, as opposed to "they could be anywhere".

Or take a leaf out of the book of Dead by Daylight and try to see the scene from the perspective of the murderer. They're unlikely to be afraid, so examine the situation from their point of view. Once you've experienced the situation in the position of power, the vulnerable position becomes less frightening.

Alternatively get into the head of the thing causing the fear. Why is this person a murderer? Why did they choose this victim? Why is this big scary cloud monster harvesting souls? We tend to dehumanize things when they're scary, but if a person has a motive, and a backstory, then they are just another person who just happens to kill people. Perhaps it would be possible to reason with them, but the potential victim just never gets the opportunity.


Edit: Adding a summary, all of my suggestions really boil down to the same thing: recognizing that the frightening scenarios are not actually very realistic.

Experiencing the horror feels realistic in the moment, because it preys on our deepest fears. But our fears tend to be unrealistic and expanded inside our own heads anyway, being in the actual situation is much less frightening than what we imagine it would be like inside of our own minds.

The more you focus on the reality of the fictional situation, the more you will come to realize how the most realistic frightening situations are actually just fiction invented by our own brains. So then when you're looking over your shoulder and into dark corners, it will be easier to feel like the real fears are just fictional.

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    +1. It likely also results in a better story overall with more depth and less plotholes when it is constructed from a bigger picture perspective. – Philipp Oct 17 '16 at 15:11
  • Hmm. This is some good horror writing advice in general, for sure. I don't think I'm necessarily scared of what I'm writing, more like scared by my writing. If I write horror, it's probably going to be fantasy horror, so I usually know whatever is scary in there isn't going to 'get me.' It starts my imagination going though, and I start to feel the urge to keep an eye on dark corners. I'm not sure if getting in the 'killer's' head will help with that or not. – Thomas Myron Oct 17 '16 at 15:19
  • @ThomasMyron I've edited the question to address your comment. – Mike.C.Ford Oct 18 '16 at 10:53
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There are a couple of ways that might help.

  1. Do not be alone when you write. You don't have to sit in a room full of people. Just sit somewhere (preferably in the park) where there are many people around but not too close.

  2. Do not base you story setting on the location you are in. If you are writing a horror story about something terrorizing people in the park, it is better to sit somewhere else.

  3. If you have to write at home, do it when other family members/friends are around. It helps when you know you are not alone. Opening the door will also help a bit because you know there are people right across the hall. If you concerned about distractions, you can convey that to others beforehand. They will understand.

  4. Write during the day.

You have to compromise on something but I think little distraction is better than sitting alone in fear and able to write anything.

  • Thank you. This is the kind of answer I was looking for. – Thomas Myron Oct 17 '16 at 15:21
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    Perhaps try this approach, and then try the opposite approach (maximising your fear rather than minimising it), and compare the writing you end up with. See which you prefer, and which other people prefer. You might even find the best result comes from editing together bits from both. – trichoplax Oct 17 '16 at 17:14
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    Fear can be very physical and doesn't quite listen to rational or intellectual thought when triggered. This answer is good, just adding things that might help. Drink or eat something warm and sweet/neutral-flavoured before you write. Stay warm. Write in bed if it's evening and keep the curtains/windows closed so you can't look outside. Write somewhere bright and open with people around if it's day. Drink some hot chocolate after you're done and be around positive people and do something cheerful afterwards. Do not reflect on it at night; exercise or do boring stuff like finances. – artemissunshine Oct 18 '16 at 3:08
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This is really a psychology question, so there wont be a one-size fits all answer which a random individual on the internet can provide you. However, one of your quotes suggests to me a direction:

I do not, as has been speculated, fear death. I am a Christian, and death holds no fear for me. What I fear is the unknown. The darkness can hide anything. When I watch a horror movie, if the 'horror' element is not explained, it's more frightening because I don't know what it is.

This is an interesting phrasing, given that many consider what happens in death and afterwards to be "the great unknown." And yet little unknowns like "what's in this shadowy corner" distract you. If I may read into your statement (again, as a random individual on the internet who doesn't really know you), this suggests to me that you don't fear death because you know what comes after.

However, anyone with a little inductive logic can show that this should also be enough to not be frightened of the shadowy corner, but from your question, that is clearly not the case. There must be some other logic which we can apply.

I would postulate that you have a division in your worldview. There are the present things, like what you're writing, what you are having for lunch, etc. Then there are the eventual things, like death and all that holds from your religious beliefs. You do not fear the eventual things, because you can intellectually rationalize that you shouldn't be afraid of them because you know what comes after those eventual things.

However, there may be a gap in your worldview between the present things and the eventual things. For some reason "what's in the shadow in the corner" can't link up with your faith in the eventuality of everything. Thus, the fear of the unknown can manifest in present events.

If this is accurate (again, I'm just a random individual on the internet), then you might benefit from creating your own "eventuality" for writing. Focus on something that should be an eventuality that's fully in your control (perhaps "I will feel like getting up from this seat, and all will be right with the world"), and tie that eventuality to your confidence that everything will be all right for other reasons (such as your religious beliefs). You may have to play around a bit with it to find the best anchor for you (by all means, find your own, don't borrow a random internet stranger's!). Eventually you'll find something that's close enough to present events to provide you comfort in your certainty and immunity form the unknown, but something far enough out that you can tie it into your general sense of confidence that you know all that matters.

Of course, I would recommend seeking a happy medium: find something that takes the edge off of the fear of the unknown, but doesn't insulate you from it. The fear of the unknown is a powerful force in the human mind. Why miss out on an opportunity to improve yourself. Stare into the unknown, and smile at it. Who knows, something may smile back.

  • I think I'm following what you're saying... could you give me another example of that 'creating your own eventuality' part? – Thomas Myron Oct 18 '16 at 5:47
  • Its tricky to create one for another person. It should be something that would happen on its own (in my example above, eventually I will get hungry and want food, so I'll get up from my seat), but something you can choose to have happen (under my own free will, I may choose to get up). That way, you have complete control over making it happen, but it also happens if you aren't in control (a dark corner of the unknown). Another example might be an hourglass, which will eventually run out of sand, or you can turn it over. If you say "when the sand runs out, or I the hour glass is turned... – Cort Ammon Oct 18 '16 at 14:45
  • ... over, all of the unknowns from this horror will vanish or be brought into the light." That gives you control over your fear, because you can end it at any time, but it will also end on its own, so you can afford to dabble in the fear, reach out to the unknown, and smile at it. If you don't let some of that unknown in, how are you supposed to write about it? – Cort Ammon Oct 18 '16 at 14:47
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    The end goal is to create a region of time and space where it is safe to be scared -- safe to experience the unknown and let it influence your writing, because you know that that time will come to an end and everything will be well. If done right, you'll still feel that nervous need to look over your shoulder, but instead of having to look, you'll grin at whatever monsters you cannot see behind you, and then pour that emotion into the story instead. As long as you have enough control to keep smiling at them, you're winning. All this approach does is give you some ways to anchor that... – Cort Ammon Oct 18 '16 at 17:03
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    And always remember, of all the things that go bump in the night, none are quite so terrifying as an author that's smiling right back at them, pen in hand. – Cort Ammon Oct 18 '16 at 17:07
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Human life is ultimately terrifying. We are all going to die, and the thought of our own extinction horrifies us. But it is not just the fact of death, but also the fact that death (if it is not premature) is accompanied by a systematic loss of our abilities and of our friends. Man is uniquely cursed as the only animal that knows, from early life, that it is going to die. Much of literature is concerned with coming to terms with this final and unavoidable horror.

What we think of as a healthy mental outlook, however, is one that does not dwell on the horror of what is to come. There are good arguments for this: why let the fear of the horror to come rob you of the pleasure of the present? At the same time, this healthy mental outlook is a kind of delusion. Even is we possess a faith in something beyond death, death itself remains the great unknown and the great horror of our lives when all we have will be stripped away from us. Everyone dies alone.

Horror stories are one way of dealing with the horror of death. They appear to be healthy for some people -- or perhaps at some ages. They help some people process their fears. For others, they are unhealthy, locking them into a cycle of morbidity. What is true for readers must be doubly true for writers, I think, since a writer spends a hundred times longer over a story than the reader does.

If this is even remotely true, the writer of horror has to be willing to go down into the valley of death. Perhaps this is the only way for them to retain their mental health. Perhaps is it an ill-advised indulgence for morbidity. Perhaps is is an irresistible fascination. Or perhaps they should turn at the threshold and take another direction. But I doubt there is anyway to avoid the fear and still walk through the valley of death. If there were, it would be a different valley.

  • I'm a Christian, so I have no fear of death. What I think my fear does boil down to is fear of the unknown. I don't know what's in the dark. I can't tell what's beyond the door. It's an unreasonable fear that can't really be beaten by any logical argument. The horror stories I am dealing with do not concern death much; rather, they explore the psychological fear of the unknown, often brought on by senses. Like my own fears. – Thomas Myron Oct 17 '16 at 5:08
  • I've edited to OP for clarity. – Thomas Myron Oct 17 '16 at 5:25
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    I'm a Christian too, and death scares the bejeebers out of me. However much confidence we may have in what happens afterwards, death is still the great unknown. Indeed, fear of the unknown is the fear of death. If the unknown did not hold the danger of death, why would we fear it. We are a species obsessed with safety. Why? Because we know we can die. Perhaps the reasons you turn away from the fear of the unknown is because it is really the fear of death and as you approach it, this becomes more real. (This, it seems to me, is the essence of what horror fiction does.) – Mark Baker Oct 17 '16 at 11:46
  • I must politely disagree that what I fear is death. You might be close though. I fear what I don't understand. If I knew there was a ghost nearby, I'd be scared out of my wits, because I don't understand fully what it is. It's not the prospect of dying that frightens me. I know what happens and I'm at peace with it. I like to design things and know how they work, so not knowing that about something I can't explain I think holds a special fear for me. – Thomas Myron Oct 17 '16 at 15:34
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    @ThomasMyron Whether you agree that you fear death or not, there are still things which are harmful to you on a physical or mental level, and that is what the fear of the unknown boils down to--the instinct of self-preservation. When you unwrap your Christmas present, you do not fear the unknown, because you do not expect the surprize gift to be harmful (unless it's that very possessed doll), when you step through a door into an abandoned warehouse, and it shuts locked behind you, leaving you in the dark, your mileage might vary significantly. – Lew Oct 17 '16 at 17:33
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Name/Define the fear and you get chance to avoid it

I think using own self for measuring level of horror is not always the best if expecting/hoping for same effect for other readers. Or is it a goal actually for Thomas?

So to be able to keep horror/fear/fright out, it should be defined: What is it, and what effect is harming Thomas' nerves. Every single thing that can be described will have features. Associating features to that fear make several step out from the state of unknown. Features can be addressed, avoided or even stand up against. Depending on the story, the nature of features and Thomas, tools like reality-check, story goal priorization, temporary or permanent elimination of fear source can be effective.

Let me know if we should work on this with further Q&A.

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What I fear is the unknown

This implies that you need to do 2 things:

  1. Plan the structure of the story better. This way you know what is going to happen. You know the ending. For example, if you think of the film Alien, it is much less scary if you have a running commentary of spoilers from someone who has seen it before (e.g. if you don't like gore, look away now!) The real horror of the movie is the unknown
  2. You need to depersonalise the object of the fear for yourself (not your audience though). Going back to the film Alien, the actual alien on screen is terrifying. But if you know it is actually an actor in a suit, then it becomes far less frightening
  • I know the structure of my story down to the scene. I can't get much more detailed without actually writing it. I think I failed to explain that I'm not scared of what I write, but rather by my writing. I know nothing in my story is real, but it gets my imagination going, and I feel the urge to watch dark corners. – Thomas Myron Oct 17 '16 at 15:23
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I little trick i sometimes use if my own writing gets "too close" for comfort (and i mainly write horror):

Be your own comic relief. Maybe in your story, the murder is slowly creeping closer behind his victim, and the reader can see that in the mirror, but the character can't. He is helpless, unsuspecting. Slowly, the horrible murder clown gets closer - and trips over his feet, falling down, hitting a cupboard, on which there is a vase, that falls down, and hits him on the head, knocking him unconscious.

Remember that you are in power. you are in control of your story, and your own story can only frighten you if you let it. From time to time we need to remind ourself of this. And if knowledge isn't enough, we need to prove it to ourselves, by destroying suspension, and making the "scary stuff" do "silly stuff". After you cooled down, just delete the funny scene and continue with the suspense... :)

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