I mentioned last week that I didn’t know how to write a horror novel. I’ll try, eventually. I love horror too much to never try.
But I’ll tell you what I do know. I know what scares people. Years of reading and watching, endlessly devouring the horror genre have taught me what works and what doesn’t.
It’s not blood and gore. It’s not the monster lurking in the dark. It’s not spiders, deep caverns, escalators or under-cooked chicken. (All fears of mine.) This is what people really fear. And if you can stay away from the knife carrying psychopath and steer toward more psychological horror, you’ll write a pretty good horror story.
My husband doesn’t watch horror movies much. But I talked him into watching one. I’m not going to tell you the name because I’m about to trash it hardcore.
It’s about these women who go spelunking in a cavern. This is a scary as hell premise for me, I’m super claustrophobic. Then, something starts killing the women off one by one. What is it? It’s gruesome and jumpy. It does everything I want a horror movie to do. I was on the edge of my seat, waiting to see what was killing them.
Finally, we saw the monster! And I started laughing. It was floppy, pale, not scary at all.
To be fair, though, I don’t know what would have lived up to my expectations. Not knowing what happens, what was killing these women, was scary as hell.
Stephen King feels the same way, by the way. If you’ve ever read Dance Macabre, he clearly said that you should wait as long as possible to show the monster. Because we’re all scared of what we don’t know.
The ‘bad death’
This is another lesson I learned from Mr. King. No one’s scared of dying peacefully in bed, with your husband of fifty years sleeping next to you. We don’t fear the heart attack that makes it quick, right after a BBQ celebrating your 87th Fourth of July.
We fear the car accident that grinds the victim’s body up before they die. We fear the house catching on fire, burning the homeowner alive. We fear a death full of pain and fear.
Losing the ones we love the most
I don’t fear dying. I fear my husband dying. I fear my mother dying. I fear my children dying most of all.
Many of us see death itself as the end of a journey. Some of us, like myself, believe that there’s a reward for a life well lived waiting for us. So our own death isn’t as frightening as living on after the death of our loved ones. I fear the day that I have to continue on after I bury my husband. I can’t imagine what I would do if I lose one of my kids. That’s what scares me.
It’s not just the deaths of our own children that we fear. We don’t like to see the innocent die. I think that’s why it’s so common for guilty people to suffer and die in horror movies. We want to think that the good will be rewarded and the evil will be punished. Because we generally feel that we’re in the right, that we are innocent, it makes us feel far more vulnerable to see another innocent person suffer.
This one makes my skin crawl. But it’s realistic. Terrible things don’t just happen to the sinful. Terrible things happen to everybody. Even the innocent. Even children. And that scares the hell out of people.
This, I think is the fear that’s at the core of our soul. We fear having control of our lives taken away from us. We fear being unable to control our own lives. We fear not being able to protect ourselves. We fear that no matter how good we are, how hard we try, how much we work, we’re going to fail. We’re going to suffer. We’re going to lose.
It’s not true, really. There are a lot of things that we do have control over. But if you’re writing a horror book, you should make your character as helpless as possible. It works better when you have a competent character who should succeed with no problem who finds themselves failing anyway.
So what do you think? What really scares you?