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Why Horror Scares Us
do horror stories scare us?
The first thing to note is that not all do and not just
because theyre badly written. Scare is
a word that conjures images of fright, fear, terror and
thoughts like Im gonna die!. All fine,
honourable aims for the horror writer, but what if the
writer doesnt want to conjure up fear? What if the
writer was aiming for something deeper, something more
disturbing, something like
To be horrified is to feel the foundations of your
humanity move in a manner that disturbs your security in,
not who you are, but what you are. Is the human animal
really so vile? And this, it might be argued, is the true
aim of writing horror.
Well, you can argue that if you like, but to do so
unfairly discounts the value of a darned good scare. And
what about a good laugh? Is it fair to laugh in a horror
story? Too right it is. Humour is a close relation to
fear and a common reaction. Can a horror story be written
as a comedy? Of course it can
and done well, you
can dry your laughter tears only to feel your foundations
This is the element at the centre of horror as a genre.
The emotions you target are the darker ones, the ones
that leave your reader reviewing their survival instincts.
Great writers such as Poe, Lovecraft and King all know
this and target them. But why do you put down one of
their stories with that sense of half concealed fear?
Great horror not only targets your darker emotions, it
disturbs them from their slumber, sometimes to awaken
them but at other times, to stir them just enough to lay
like a dark mist across your conscious. Subtlety is often
a more powerful tool than brute force.
It is this emotional disturbance, the residual feelings
that weaken our feeling of safety and well being that is
the fruit of great horror. Shock passes quickly and is
gone. Fear lingers and makes us hesitate before opening
the door. We may recoil at the gush of arterial blood but
when we can imagine that man in the street wielding the
knife, our sense of community has been weakened.
to the Question of why?
I could take you from your comfortable computer, take you
by the hand and show you the man across the street and
tell you he has a knife, but if you dont believe
me, if you dont feel threatened, how would you
feel? Yeah. Id tell me to shove off and do
something useful too.
However, what if I warned you first of the killer
stalking our streets. Gave you evidence that convinced
you that this man is out there, hunting victims, innocent
horror writers just like you. What if I planted a
description of the killer, nothing specific, just a vague
sense that youd know this man in the
instant before he showed you the blade. But the true
cunning would not be to take you by the hand and lead you
outside. No, Id create the need to peer through the
curtains where youd see this man watching, not your
house but you, then when you turned around, youd
find me, with the knife already in my hand.
Horror scares us not because we present the horrible, but
because the writer prepares us for the revelation. The
writer tills the ground, fertilizes and plants the right
seeds. Weeds are removed before they appear and the crop
is nurtured until ready to fruit. But then, at the moment
of harvest, the writer steps aside and allows our
imagination to wield the scythe and collect the rewards.
The scare isnt on the page. Sure, the disembowelled
child and the paedophile are, even what the creep is
doing, but thats not the scare, or the horror. The
disturbance is inside you, in your own emotions. To get
that disturbance, the writer must gain access to your own
Easy enough to do, you say. People have been doing it for
years. Weve even invented a cliché for it: pushing
buttons. It is relatively easy in real life where
we have the full armoury of speech, action, body
language, scent and past history. On the page though, we
are limited to words.
Ever wondered why some books leave you unmoved? Because
all they are is a collection of words. Good books invoke
images, the product of the readers imagination and
that imagination is the worm hole we use to take our
readers comfortable emotional world and to give it
A good writer takes the reader from their armchair and
into a different world. It might look the same, it might
even be the very place they are reading from, but the
writers world is a lie. It doesnt exist
Its not even the writers world. Its the
creation of the reader
well, the readers
imagination. The writer provides a code that the readers
imagination uses to construct a new world. If the code is
strong enough, the reader will enter that world via the
imagination and stay to enjoy the show. The readers
imagination has been manipulated by the writer but the
end product belongs to the reader.
This is why some writers are loved and others discarded
without a thought. The greats, like Dickens and Bradbury,
stimulate our imaginations to produce not only images but
also emotions. Strong emotions. Dynamic emotions that
take the poor reader on a ride over which he has little
control and, worse still, desires no control.
Scare is in the Preparation
And its here that the horror writer tills his
ground. His seeds are not the buds of the scare itself.
The scare is the fruit. The seeds are those scenes and
images that create the circumstances for the scare. Some
of these seeds are planted with the first words of the
story, others in the moments immediately prior to the
scare. Some seeds hibernate for a period, others
germinate immediately. Some grow slowly, others bud into
The writers job is to control the growth of this
crop so that it fruits at the right moment, so that at
the moment of climax, the readers imagination has
just the right images, just the right fears and
uncertainties to taste the fruit and scare the poor
Done well, the fruit leaves an aftertaste the writer can
use to set up and generate the next scare, or the one
beyond that. Take your reader on a roller coaster of
frights and horrors if you like, or strike once then
glide away to leave them in their own nightmare.
Whatever your aim, to achieve it, you must prepare the
soil early. But those seeds must be planted in the readers
imagination and nurtured there. Place those images
anywhere else, such as the conscious and rational mind,
and your scare will fail. You arent scaring your
reader, they do that to themselves, but you get the
credit, and so you should.
Copyright 2004 Richard Spurling. All Rights Reserved.
Richard Spurling is a full-time
writer from South Australia. You can learn more about
Richard's work here: http://www.richardspurling.com
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