What good examples of fear/terror inducing techniques do you know?

Off the top of my head I am thinking of:

  • the Apache Indians scalping of dead enemies and hanging them in their horses/spears/belts
  • displaying of enemy heads/skulls in various entrance places

These are mostly associated with war time and done to inspire fear of death on adversaries, but I can also think of obvious others:

  • creepy people in dark secluded places
  • the illusion of a character's complete and non-obvious control of a situation (sort of like Hannibal Lecter when locked away in Hannibal, that captured guy in the beginning of James Bond Quantum of Solace — "we have people everywhere", among many others)
  • the general (very very reprovable) tactics used by Anders Breivik (murdered lots of people in a youth camp and in a bomb attack in Oslo and had a very extensive right wing plan for Europe that got a lot of attention because of his infamous exposure on TV) and his general passiveness over it all
  • the way the earth vanishes in the beginning of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy", leaving the main character (and the reader) in shock

I really hate the neo-Nazi example, but it's in line with what I am searching for. I don't have many restrictions on theme/approach (I think the examples speak for themselves).

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    Note that this site does not allow specialist knowledge questions, which this veers awfully close to, so don't expect details on neo-Nazis and Apaches. Also, more information on the writing goals you have for this fear will help answerers give you better answers.
    – justkt
    Sep 28, 2011 at 16:26
  • i am not expecting details on those subjects, but rather general ideas/themes/situations and why they work. Sep 28, 2011 at 17:16
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    I don't see "list of scary things in writing" as a good FAQ topic. General advice about achieving terror in writing would be more apropos, albeit still in the form of a "please write me an essay on the topic of <achieving terror>" question.
    – Standback
    Oct 1, 2011 at 18:27

8 Answers 8


Ninety-five percent of the time, what you don't see is scarier than what you do see.

Think about The Blair Witch Project, even though it's a movie. You never see the villain. That ending STILL gives me nightmares.

Think about Voldemort and the Death Eaters rousing fear and suspicion among the wizarding world, even before his return at the end of Goblet of Fire. You could never be sure if someone was Imperiused... or a Death Eater... or just dotty.

The fear of the unknown adds an extra layer of terror to any antagonist, so hold back your reveal as long as you can. When the protagonist is facing an enemy and doesn't even know what it is, or if "it" is a "them" or a "who" or a "what" or "how big," that's one less facet your hero can prepare for, one more surprise on the antagonist's side, and that much less control your hero has.


I've been reading 'The Fire in Fiction' by Donald Maass lately. What I found useful was the following tip (paraphrased):

The character must believe the danger is there. If you can build up the character as someone the reader empathises with and can connect to, then when you start to build up their fear, it comes across to the reader. Doesn't matter if the reader doesn't find an enemy head on a pike scary (and these days, many people are so inured to gore and violence a simple description would wash over them) - what matters is that the character is completely creeped out and terrified.

In short, one effective way of creating fear is to tie that emotion to the character whose POV we are seeing the scene from. We as readers are emotionally connected to that person, so even if we're not scared, seeing how scared they are will feed our fear.

  • +1 for the book recommendation... my wishlist keeps getting heavier! :) Sep 29, 2011 at 11:48
  • Haha, they do tend to do that! I want to check out his other book, called 'Writing the Breakout Novel', which seems to be the one that's well-known. He uses excerpts from novels to make his points, which is fantastic.
    – Lexi
    Sep 29, 2011 at 23:07

There are a lot of different ways that people can invoke fear or intimidation tactics, but ultimately you will have to decide what works best for your story. A lot of times a group or individual will carry out some extreme act, and from that point on, just the mention of a repeat will be enough to cause fear. For example, a suicide bomber walks into a crowded marketplace and activates his bomb. From that point on, anyone could call and say that there is a bomb in a crowded location, and authorities are going to clear the place out even though there may not really be one. Depending on how your story goes, this could even be used as a diversion for something else that the instigator wants to cover.

There are so many examples in plain sight, but it depends on how extreme or how mild you want your tactic to be. For example, a radiation sign on a fence tends to keep people outside a selected perimeter. A skull and crossbones on a container or on a door will prevent people from proceeding with whatever they were doing.


First, must wholeheartedly agree with Lauren Ipsum's observation that the unknown works best, and Lexi's point that the character also needs to be convincingly afraid.

Since you mention enemies, I assume you're referring to antagonists. If that's the case, then there are a few devices you can employ.

The first is rumour and hearsay, where other characters reveal the person's character through details that may or may not be true. This demonstrates the person's reputation amongst others, and their obvious fear/revulsion helps create the mood you desire.

The second is to demonstrate the antagonist's inhumanity, lack of empathy and feeling; for full effect, contrast it sharply with traces of humanity (as an example, someone who is a loving father and family man, contrasted sharply by his propensity to torture people to death with a pair of pliers and a blow-torch).

A third device is to reveal the antagonist's actions through the objective third-person narration. In other words, show what he says and does, but don't delve into his mind. This can help create a sense of foreboding and fear while witnessing someone cold and methodical at work. It can also create foreboding since you can show him putting some plan in action (you don't know what exactly) but you know that the protagonist is in danger.

A fourth device is to take something audiences are familiar with, and twist it to an unnatural state. There are many different ways of doing this. At a basic level, point two above is related to this, whereby someone acts contrary to some "norm", and this makes us fearful of them, because they are immediately unpredictable because they behave contrary to what we expect e.g. violent outbursts; pleasure from torture or sadism; or even cold, clinical and logical thinking over-riding normal human emotions. However, there are other related methods. There is also theory called The Uncanny Valley (from robotics) which suggests that when "human replicas look and act almost, but not perfectly, like actual human beings, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers". This sort of fear goes beyond robotics however; consider the appearance of Voldemort - someone that is almost human in appearance, but not quite.

There are hundreds of other examples where the familiar has been transformed into something fearful. Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds", Stephen King's "Pet Cemetery" or "Christine" - all of these took normal, every day things (birds, pets, a car) and transformed them into something malevolent and evil.

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    +1 for "The Uncanny Valley," or as I always call it, "The Polar Express Effect." The SFX in that movie, attempting to make human faces look animated, actually made me nauseated. My skin crawls every time I see a shot from that film. Sep 29, 2011 at 11:50
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    good example, i wasn't thinking of the Uncanny Valley effect in this matter, thanks! :) Sep 29, 2011 at 15:18

It is probably helpful not to think of antagonists as antagonists but rather as people with honest motivations (even if they are dark they can be honest) and a sense of purpose. When we truly understand a hideous enemy then we can feel that sense of intellectual disgust at their quest.

A good thing to give an antagonistic character is an anti-social hunger and a sociopathic ambivalence about fulfilling it. If the enemy is an addict, a sadist or a cannibal it instantly helps to mark them as the other. It is vital that their unnatural hunger should not make them weak except in the fulfilling of it. The rest of the time they should appear unassailable. A drunkard is not sinister unless he is only ever a drunken brute in the presence of those who are weak in comparison.

The antagonist should have some lofty goal, admirable philosophy or natural charisma. There is nothing to provoke rejection more than a good thing perverted. In these instances the antagonist has "heroic" qualities not "sympathetic" ones. Heroes in the classical mode are untouchable so this helps to reinforce the untouchability mentioned in my previous point. The other thing about these qualities is that they are easily perceived as double-edged. Those with lofty goals and admirable philosophies are prey to hubris, those with a natural charisma are open to the corrupt use of their natural likeability.

If the antagonist is organising a campaign against the hero it must be an understandable vendetta. The more the antagonist views the protagonist as an equal the harder terror becomes. Therefore, as already explained, the antagonist must be presented in such a way that they seem superior to the protagonist in terms of raw power on any suitable fronts: money, political sway etc. The problem is then the question of why the antagonist is acting against the protagonist. If the audience do not believe the antagonist has legitimate reason to specifically be targetting the protagonist then they cease to be a threat and become, rather, a complication, or worse, they just seem unrealistic. Whatever is happening, it must be personal, and the antagonist must have every appearance of winning.

The implied fate of the protagonist must be made clear. Meditate particularly on the possibilities of a "fate worse than death". If it is not made plain what will happen to the protagonist while they act in defiance of the antagonist then people won't feel the tension. Threats to heroes in writing are most often to do with attacking that character's identity. If you threaten to break a PI's fingers that's a complication for the PI, his fingers will work again at some point to the required level. If you threaten to break a surgeon's fingers that could be the end of his career, a clear threat to the surgeon's livelihood and identity (it must be plain that the surgeon enjoys her work). Threatening a protagonist's loved ones is always a low trick that proves effective.

Marrying evidence of intellect to evidence of brutality is always a winner. Look at the archetypal Batman foe, The Joker. The coupling of a quick wit and a sadistic temperament make it seem, to get Freudian for a second, that the id and the super-ego are united in attacking the ego in a pincer movement. Antagonists that combine possible genius with ugly bestial urges are always the most theatrical of the species. Going to extremes, however, can always help us to later approach the same matter with subtlety.

Fear must be accessible. Trying to manufacture a scare from a complex image, such as a statue of a kangaroo with a red ribbon tied around it is doomed to failure. However, simplistic cues such as an eyeless doll with a crack in the skull, are easy for an audience to visualise and therefore more likely to have an impact.

With that last point it is always important to use such cheap tricks sparingly. It is mainly the ugliness of the perverted appetite coupled with the dangerous beauty of raw power that will push the buttons most readily.

  • good answer! i particularly like the concept of a "fate worse than death"...it's really in line with the sort of techniques i was thinking. Can you provide any lesser known examples than the murdering of loved ones, extreme suffering, etc? Sep 29, 2011 at 15:18
  • Never underestimate threats against kin. It's primal, and the threat doesn't have to be death. Find and read Vol I of Piers Anthony's Bio of A Space Tyrant: Refugee one of the most sustainedly brutal pieces of literature I've ever read. Aside from this, more surreal, is an attack on identity, brainwashing, psi-ops, convincing some of elaborate and malevolent illusions. Also the concept of denied access and false memory e.g. Dark City: How do you get to Shell Beach? This is the main other technique for creating mysterious menace.
    – One Monkey
    Sep 29, 2011 at 16:31

Broadly, the first thing that pops to mind is a cascading series of events demonstrating the antagonist's power and the protagonist's weakness:

  1. Protagonist believes he or she has a solution. That could be a method of escape, or a way to counter the antagonist, or some other plan that will move them toward resolution. Protagonist executes this plan.

  2. Plan seems to be working until a critical point when it's revealed that the protagonist's "solution" was really the product of manipulation on the antagonist's part. We (and the protagonist) see that not only has ground been lost because of the time and energy wasted on the plan, but that the antagonist is thinking n steps ahead of the protagonist.

If possible, it should be a surprise to both the viewer/reader and the protagonist. When this sort of sequence is executed well, there's a wonderful sinking dread that sets in at the moment of realization.

When executed poorly, it can feel predictable or contrived.


If you are looking at the specific devices look at look at the medieval torture devices. Skinning, salting, burning, bronze cow, crucifixion, impaling, gutting, keel hauling etc.

If you are looking for techniques there are many ways to create suspense and horror. For example, shifting the pace at a key scene to add additional details about something would leave the reader in suspense and anticipating the continuation of the story after the descriptions. Leave the reader hanging this way but not too many times.

Or using the lull before the storm kind of technique where the hero is doing an everyday thing when something extraordinary takes place suddenly. For example, In the original Bram Stalker's Dracula there is a simple scene where the hero is settling down in the castle and the author is providing descriptions and the reader is lulled into a sense of normal, when the hero opens a window and sees the creature clawing its way up the wall of the castle and entering into it through a window below. simple then shocking.


Try tackling some appropriate pages from TV Tropes, and just branching out from there.

That should give you about a gazillion times more examples than you'll know what to do with. :P

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