Tips for Writing Horror – Haunted Words at Halloween

For writers, inspiration often comes out of the blue staring them in the face.  At this time of year, that increasingly involves some form of Halloween horror as seeing some plastic knickknack hanging in a store window becomes the inspiration to try one’s hand at horror writing.  That said, writing a proper scary tale is an art in itself.  How do you take a blank piece of paper (or more typically the taunting blink of the cursor on an empty word processor) and turn it into something to make grown adults tremble? Here are some tips for writing horror.

Three Levels of Horror

According to the acclaimed master of the horror novel Stephen King, there are three levels of horror.  Firstly there is The Gross Out, the lowest level of horror that plays on the visceral fear of brutal bloody carnage.  Imagine hallways dripping in blood, severed heads on spikes and other such utterly unsubtle sights.  It is the natural revulsion we feel when experiencing something that is clearly very bad and threatening.

Above this is The Horror or the graphic portrayal of the unbelievable.  This is when people are confronted with things that are unnatural and implausible.  King himself describes it as “spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around”.  In and of themselves these things are not necessarily dangerous but the sheer strangeness of the situation is often enough to feed the fear even before the monsters attack.

Lastly and the highest level of horror in the eyes of the master is that of The Terror.  This is when the writer is able to instil fear in the reader simply by harnessing their own imagination.  No monsters, no gruesome sights, just the subtle suggestion that things are not right.  The sensation of a presence behind you, its breath on your neck only to turn around and find nothing there. The reader makes it up in their mind, conjuring up images of something uniquely terrifying to themselves.

Bringing Fears to Life

With this in mind, how best can you bring horror into your creative writing?  The reality is, like with every other skill, practice is key.  The most important thing you can do is write.  Keeping with the gross-out theme, imagine that your finished draft is a bloody, butchered body.  Your role as the author is to trim down this mess until you have a more presentable set of chops, ribs or something somebody else might want to buy.

As for what to write about, the simplest way to do this is to draw on your own fears and dark experiences.  Consider what scares you and remember that, given you’re probably human if you’re reading this, other humans also share similar fears.  Whether it’s loneliness, death, dismemberment, loss or otherwise, none of us is untouched by things that frighten us.

One common way to evoke horror is to start with the mundane, the familiar and the safe.  Themes of family or a decent friendly community (at least on the surface) often work well as the juxtaposition between the normal, the wrong and the creeping sense of doom as the protagonist’s world falls apart.

Lastly, don’t let anyone put you off trying to denigrate your attempts to write horror as not real writing or somehow lesser than so-called proper literature.  Fear is at the very root of what it means to be human.  Our ancestors lived in fear of the dark, of the creatures we couldn’t control that hunted us and of a world that worked in ways we didn’t understand.  Fear still lives in our hearts whenever the lights go out or we find ourselves lost or in unfamiliar places. It is the first thing we feel when we emerge from the womb into an unfamiliar world and the final thing on our minds as we face the end of our existence preparing to face whatever comes next.   And that makes it forever a worthy thing to write about.

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