5

I already feel right out of the gate that this is going to be a naive question, but I'm going to ask it anyway.

I know that writing horror does not guarantee that you're particularly good at it, and that it takes talent, practice, and study in order to write anything effectively, including a good scare. And I also know that if there were a magic formula out there in the world that people could take and just write the most effective fiction ever from having taken it, everyone would have by now. I get it.

Having said that...I have scoured the Internet for tips and tricks on writing horror, and they all say the same thing: rudimentary, broad-stroked, open-ended, mostly unhelpful articles and lists about "know what scares people" or "get in the mind of your reader." Not to discredit some of the articles, or the people writing them, people need them for a reason, sure (I'm not so good as to say I didn't need them myself sometimes). But I'm tired of seeing the same duplicate lists all over the Internet that don't have examples or any real guidance toward application.

I know psychology doesn't have an answer for literally everything, but I've been going to it of late to try and apply it as much as possible to my writing. I genuinely feel if I understand some of the mental and psychological motivations/underpinnings/what have you of a character, or the decisions they make, I can make them more believable (the jury is still out). So I guess my question is, at the risk of being severely disappointed:

Is there any advice or guidance anyone on the site could give me, ideally someone with a better grasp on psychology and science than I do, on how to effectively scare people with my writing? Forget things like style, I'm talking like proven methods that irrefutably scare people or creep them out?

I realize a lot of horror is subjective: some people hate spiders, others love them; some people are terrified of slasher movies, others think they're not worth their yawns, etc. I'm leaning more towards, say, infrasound, which is at least proven to make people feel uncomfortable. That's not psychological, per se, but it's something more or less provable by science, which is my point. The closest I've come are articles like, "Top 10 Psychological Hacks to Make Anyone Do What You Want Them To," or "How To Trick Someone Into Loving You," click-bait-y stuff like that. But I figured if there were some articles out there like that drifting about, surely there might be someone else out there with wisdom on this particular subject.

I can try to refine the question later, if I need to. Really, any advice would be greatly appreciated, something that isn't, "Check your pacing," or some other stylistic question I've already read a million times before. Please and thank you.

6

I love the question, but a look back at popular media (books, film) over the past few centuries suggests that "scary" may be cultural. There are no trigger words that universally cause the willies in every reader, and I doubt there is a sequence of events that reliably induce "fear".

I also think there are 2 factors involved that unfortunately go back to "style" rather than an objective truth: the reader needs to empathize with the narrative in such a way that they experience psychosomatic anxiety, and this anxiety needs to be maintained (nurtured?) over time, probably with a structure of builds and releases so the reader's anxiety is heightened (if not just prolonged).

Old books and movies that clearly held the same cultural place as modern horror are not very scary today (with exceptions). There are also decades that swing into something else, like Hitchcock's "suspense", and some early Boris Karloff films are more "mayhem" than horror, like being chased by an escaped gorilla (more on this gorilla later). Meanwhile, the supernatural aspect of modern horror was more like a mild ghoststory back then, a bit spooky but nothing that would rip your face off (with exceptions).

So there are trends to what is scary, or "thrilling", as entertainment. And likely not everyone responds to the same things. I don't get off on gore, it's not scary just gross. I also don't get demonic possession stories maybe because I'm atheist, The Exorcist isn't scary just too much pea soup. But obviously these work on some people. So what is universally scary?

A (partial) list of universal fears

  • The primary fear is likely hereditary and instinctive: the fear of being caught and eaten. This fear works at such a basic level that it can cause paralysis – which oddly enough might save you since predators develop a corresponding instinct to chase what runs away. This is the #1 and it can combine with any other fear for extra hitpoints.
  • That gorilla I mentioned earlier is fear of The Beast. This is the wolf that ate Grandma. A savage that is closer to nature, that operates on pure instinct. Mr Hyde, King Kong, insect swarms, and probably half the antagonists in Grimms' Fairy Tales. We live in a world that has little room for wild nature but The Beast is still around in rabid dogs and bears and dinosaurs from amusement parks. (I'm going to say the fear of snakes and spiders are phobias, so fair game to pile on when monsterbuilding but not the same idea.) Werewolves and Cat People, especially the kind that can't control it. Edgar Allen Poe invented the detective novel when the violent Rue Morgue murderer turned out to be an orangutan.
  • Next is fear of The Unknown/Other. HP Lovecraft, one of the classic authors of horror is not aging well since the majority of his anxiety was xenophobic, today it sounds a lot like racism. The remainder of his horror is the slow "madness" of trying to contemplate things outside of human understanding, an ultimate "otherness" that is so foreign that the human brain will break just be trying to understand it. Today we call trying to understand the unknown "science", and thanks to science even "madness" is not as other as it use to be. Grey Aliens fit here, Beowulf, witches, commies, and other races/classes. Also fear of police.
  • Another primal fear is something like a body anxiety: the fear of pain, of losing a limb, fear of deformity or obesity or getting old. There's also an anxiety about artificial body parts. Men dream they are castrated, women dream about losing teeth (both supposedly represent anxiety). In segregated societies there is a fear of miscegenation, and there is a long history of men who fear women's bodies (with access to clinical internet porn this one may be going away). It probably taps an instinct to avoid a "poor" genetic specimen with a "wrong" body. Tabloids are filled with "plastic surgery disasters" and a current list of which celebrities have become fat or old (how dare they). The fact that we hate the people we use to love may be a hormonal trick to stay in the mating game. Plenty of evidence is starting to show that humans react by emotion and instinct, and then work out a logical justification for their behavior later – read The Righteous Mind for a book filled with research that people have no clue why they are doing the things they do (it is not horror but it is horrifying). Because of hormones (and other not-very-well-understood biological mechanisms) a percentage of mothers experience an intense rejection of their own baby as a parasite, and of course actual parasites are an intense source of body anxiety.
  • Another fear that works on body image but external is the uncanny valley. Robots, mannequins, dolls, statues, and probably skeletons are pinging our recognition centers as human and not human simultaneously. Of course it's even worse when they start moving around. Old photographs are creepy. To some fundamentalists an image of a living thing is haram. Portraits have eyes that follow you. Babies are born recognizing faces, it's not a stretch to imagine that body image is learned soon after through mimicry, if not also instinctual. We see faces and human figures in everything. I think this can broadly include the current cultural anxiety about AI and emergent systems. I think it is an abstracted concept but still Uncanny Valley because it is the fear of an inanimate object having a "soul".
  • Nearly every culture has a traditional boogeyman that is parts human and parts animal or bird Many ancient magical beasts are unnatural combination monsters, often 1-part predator bird, another part fish, another part mammal. This "fear" can't be innate because it requires a catalog of other animals, but they all seem to tap into a sense of the world being wrong, as if the known laws of the universe have been suspended, or perhaps the creature is older than the god(s) that created people. This could be modernized to show that known science does not apply, or the Natural Order has been suspended. Walls bleed. Doors move. Planes disappear in the Bermuda Triangle. Large objects appear without explanation. Towns vanish without a trace.
  • The Last of the universal fears is death, the afterlife, and the undead. This is another one that can't be instinctual because it requires the concept of mortality (elephants and some apes have shown behavior that suggest they know what remains are), but this isn't just a fear of dying it's about cultural ceremonies and customs that deal with death and the physical remains. Graveyards are consecrated ground. Headstones are marked with religious symbols so those loved ones are safe, not like those vampire corpses in Poland. Communicating with the dead is bad, but raising the dead is unforgivable. Ever since Egypt we've heard there's a judgement when we die, meanwhile we've been seeing ghosts at least as long so there are loopholes where you could die wrong.

Pick any horror story or scary thing, and see if it will fit under one (or more) of the above categories.

I'll try Gieger's Alien (the first one). It's got a strong Uncanny Valley in the design, but acid for blood is Natural Order Suspended, it's definitely Other since the origin isn't explained (cough), and Being Eaten seems right at first, but the horror twist turns out to be body anxiety as host for the parasite.

(I'm not sure what Charlie Charlie Charlie falls under, maybe Dead?)

Pick any two (or more) categories and combine them to create instant horror.

There are probably more categories: being left behind, being wrongly accused. These might cause anxiety but not "fear". But now that I have some "primal" fears I can see how they might scale as the story progresses.

For instance if I have a combo: Beast and Being Eaten, well that is not a surprising combo actually but I could plan how to reveal The Beast over time and I also have this undercurrent of Being Eaten that I could foreshadow and use to build up suspense, moral ambiguity, and threat. Maybe throw in the Body Anxiety of losing a limb first.

4

What scares people is the threat of disaster they cannot control, or anticipate, that they are helpless to do anything about. Their fear is of impending loss, which includes injury, death, loss of financial security, loss of someone they love (in particular a child they feel responsible for).

These fears can be exacerbated by constraints enforcing their lack of control: being tied up, being trapped. Not being sure if their protections will work. The tornado is here, it seems it is trying to kill us, and the doors of the storm basement are rattling so hard the hinges are coming loose.

The plane is going down, and there is nowhere to run or hide, you have no control. The pilot isn't talking. You may be dying in minutes, and you can't do a damn thing about it. And your child is screaming in your arms, and you can't save them, either.

Women (and men, in prison for example) fear being raped, it is an enormous loss to be violated, to have taken what should only be given by your own choice, to be forced and be helpless to do anything about it.

Although it may not be the stuff of horror novels, people fear loss of financial and physical security, being robbed of everything, losing their home, their job, their healthcare. This terrifies people enough they spend large amounts of money every year on various forms of insurance, to guard against the losses. Still it is fear driving them; but insurance is a way to control that.

People are afraid of power, the physical power of assailants and the more abstract social power of bosses, police, politicians and the military (their own or another country's) to force them to do things, give up things, or become slaves. If you think about it, the number one reason people buy guns in the USA is not for sport, it is for fear of being attacked or conquered and having no control over their destiny. When they are out practicing, they are imagining "the bad guys" coming for them, because they are afraid that will really happen someday. (Maybe it will, I'm not judging, I'm describing their fear.)

For a horror story, you need the generic advice: Likeable and relatable characters, so the reader cares what happens to them. That's the setup, then they are doing something NEW but that they think is innocuous (a party, a tourist trip, a new job, a plane ride, a cruise, etc).

Then you drop them in a nightmare scenario over which they have no control. They need to be trapped, in real danger (which you can prove by sacrificing some), unable to do anything about it, and imagining all the terrible things that will happen to them, and seeing some of those come to pass. Your readers are terrified because the stakes are high, and because they like the characters the readers are afraid of what the characters cannot control, the characters they like may not survive the ordeal you have thrust them into.

Take away their control of their situation. Apply constraints so they are prevented from calling for help (no phone service), going for help (the boat is broken), running away (they are on a damn island!), or finding anything that would help them (they search the house and barn and find nothing).

Now you might want to keep something clever in reserve so a few of them defeat the evil and survive, that is part of being clever in writing your novel. But to make it scary, the audience must be able to imagine themselves in this situation (depends on the demographic you wish to target), feel as helpless as the characters (but beware, the helplessness must be plausible, and you must close all plausible routes to escape or control), and your characters cannot give up; they must be trying like hell to stay alive (and you will likely have to kill a few to prove the threat is real).

2

Unfortunately while I don't have real science to back me up I am going to try using personal experience and understanding of psychology. There are many types of fear, used in many mediums. The cheapest one is the jump scare. This is trying to trigger someone's fight or flight response. To do this it takes two steps. The first is to put the brain in alarm mode. Make it create as much neurotransmitter as possible to allow the jump-scare. This is kind of like if you look at pictures of flees and suddenly get all itchy. Your brain sees insects to creates neurotransmitters to make itching more likely. In the case of a movie just threatening a jump scare primes the viewer. The thought that something may leap out makes the brain release the chemicals like the picture of the flea. Then you do the actual scare. A rapid change of visual, and auditory. The transmitter is there so neurons easily jump their messages causing an Adrenalin dump. Congratulations you are scared.
Unfortunately while books can do the first part, they can't achieve the second. You can prime your reader all you want. Tell them something horrible is coming, but you can never startle.

So what can you do? As a writer for that raw cheap fear the best you can do is undermine the feeling of safety. Human beings, like any mammal, create mental safe spaces. This is where we live, and people we know. In these spaces we do not need to make danger checks all the time. We know no one dangerous is in our house. We know our wife is not just going to stab us.
Undermine these beliefs. Tell the reader that you don't actually for a fact know anything outside of your line of sight. You don't actually know that the person in the other room is your wife, and not a monster wearing her skin. It's not hard. I bet just reading that has made someone's skin crawl. The brain is now going into a higher alert. It is forces to reevaluate it's safety just because it's now processing it. There lies the other fear. Collapse everything the reader knows, and tell them that anything is a threat, and if done at all well it will provide tension for at least a while.

As I have mentioned, both of these are the cheap thrills of horror, not the deep personal horror other answers on this site discuss.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.