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  Why Horror Scares Us
by Richard Spurling

Why do horror stories scare us?

The first thing to note is that not all do and not just because they’re badly written. ‘Scare’ is a word that conjures images of fright, fear, terror and thoughts like ‘I’m gonna die!”. All fine, honourable aims for the horror writer, but what if the writer doesn’t want to conjure up fear? What if the writer was aiming for something deeper, something more disturbing, something like … well … horror.

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 quiver.

Emotional Disturbance

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.

Back 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 don’t believe me, if you don’t feel threatened, how would you feel? Yeah. I’d 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 you’d ‘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, I’d create the need to peer through the curtains where you’d see this man watching, not your house but you, then when you turned around, you’d 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.

Where’s the Scare?

The scare isn’t on the page. Sure, the disembowelled child and the paedophile are, even what the creep is doing, but that’s 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 secret centre.

Easy enough to do, you say. People have been doing it for years. We’ve 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 reader’s imagination and that imagination is the worm hole we use to take our reader’s comfortable emotional world and to give it a prod.

Other Worlds

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 writer’s world is a lie. It doesn’t exist … in reality.

It’s not even the writer’s world. It’s the creation of the reader … well, the reader’s imagination. The writer provides a code that the reader’s 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 reader’s 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.

The Scare is in the Preparation

And it’s 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 full fruit.

The writer’s 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 reader’s imagination has just the right images, just the right fears and uncertainties to taste the fruit and scare the poor reader silly.

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 reader’s imagination and nurtured there. Place those images anywhere else, such as the conscious and rational mind, and your scare will fail. You aren’t 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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