How do you write a scary horror story?:

Total posts: [24]
1 eldritchseer19th Jan 2013 01:17:11 PM from East to Western Sea
I'd just like some genral advice about how to write some scary horror fiction, so the title is quite indicative of the thread.
I have embalmed thousands of bodies and have yet to see even one erection!!!
I'm not an expert, but I can say two obvious things:
  1. Don't let the audience know too much.
  2. Ask yourself what stories you personally consider scary. Study them. Dissect them. Figure out what they do that earns them that title. The more diverse the pool you draw from, the better.

edited 19th Jan '13 1:24:26 PM by KillerClowns

3 MrAHR19th Jan 2013 02:42:44 PM from ಠ_ಠ , Relationship Status: A cockroach, nothing can kill it.
Ahr river
The scariest things —for me— are thus:

Removing senses (not always literal. The weeping angels who only move when you aren't looking, the gentleman who cause the world around them to become utterly silent so they can't scream. Darkness)

Human distortion (clowns. the gentlemen from above. things that are human, but not quite. Gored humans are silly. A human with only no eyes is scary. Masks are also good here.)

Those evoke actual circumstantial horror, which is different than adrenaline scary (THEY ARE OUT TO GET ME, which also can be sense removal come to think of it)

edited 19th Jan '13 2:45:53 PM by MrAHR

4 SeptimusHeap19th Jan 2013 03:07:08 PM from Laniakea , Relationship Status: Mu
Paranoia Fuel can also be a good feeder for horror.
5 chihuahua019th Jan 2013 04:44:15 PM from Standoff, USA , Relationship Status: I LOVE THIS DOCTOR!
Writer's Welcome Wagon
Also, when a threat is (seemly) unavoidable or unstoppable.

For example, the fact that the universe can glitch out at any time...
6 ArsThaumaturgis19th Jan 2013 07:18:06 PM , Relationship Status: I've been dreaming of True Love's Kiss
Existential elements ("am I real?", "is this the real world?") and careful breaking of the fourth-wall ("look behind you!") may also be effective.

Another thought might be to indicate that something unpleasant — preferably revealed to only limited extent, as mentioned above — is coming up, and then let the audience stew as they draw ever closer to it. (This is perhaps better used in games, however, where you can encourage the player to actively do something that brings them closer to a horrific element — place a goal across a sea of screaming souls, or let them hear a ghost behind them and require for progression that they turn around, for example.)
A Door to the Mists: Traversal, exploration, puzzles, and combat in a heroic-fantasy setting
7 nrjxll19th Jan 2013 07:23:29 PM , Relationship Status: Not war
careful breaking of the fourth-wall ("look behind you!")

I'm going to have to disagree on this one. Virtually every example I've ever seen of The Fourth Wall Will Not Protect You comes across as trying much too hard - it's one reason I consider the creepypasta genre to be by and large a failure. I'm not saying it's impossible to pull off, but it's much harder then seems to be generally believed.

As for positive advice, one thing I'd highly recommend is to make sure your characters refrain from idiotic decisions and/or standard horror cliches - while that's good advice for any genre, I think it's particularly important for horror. Your audience won't be very scared if their primary reaction is "how stupid would you be to do that?".
8 ArsThaumaturgis20th Jan 2013 06:00:02 AM , Relationship Status: I've been dreaming of True Love's Kiss
I'm going to have to disagree on this one. Virtually every example I've ever seen of The Fourth Wall Will Not Protect You comes across as trying much too hard ...

As I said, careful breaking of the fourth wall.

To some degree, however, I suppose that it's a matter of personal responses, which I suspect is going to be the case in all attempts to create something scary: what is scary to one may be narmy to another.

Of course, some things are more likely to work than others; breaking the fourth wall is, confessedly, one of the trickier ones to pull off, I imagine.

... So I half-agree with you, I suppose.

As for positive advice, one thing I'd highly recommend is to make sure your characters refrain from idiotic decisions and/or standard horror cliches - while that's good advice for any genre, I think it's particularly important for horror. Your audience won't be very scared if their primary reaction is "how stupid would you be to do that?".
I very much second this.

For one thing, characters behaving overly foolishly can break suspension of disbelief, and the potential humour in it ("Yeeees, you lot split up! That's always perfectly safe!") can undermine the fear that you're presumably attempting to build.

For another, horror elements that can be scary even when characters are acting competently are likely to be scarier than those that rely on less effective characters: the monster that can fight a professional soldier is more impressive than the one that kills an unskilled person, the nightmare that can unhinge the most stable mind is more disturbing than one that brings low someone with an already unhinged mind, for example.
A Door to the Mists: Traversal, exploration, puzzles, and combat in a heroic-fantasy setting
9 Prime_of_Perfection20th Jan 2013 07:35:59 AM , Relationship Status: Maxing my social links
Where force fails, cunning prevails
A book I can suggest to you is "Write Scary Scenes" by Rayne Halls. This ebook can be found on and it's very cheap. It's very straightforward too, which include chapters like "Flavors of Fear", "Sounds build suspense", "Choosing a Location", "Total Isolation", "Keep the Clock Ticking", and so on.

edited 20th Jan '13 7:38:31 AM by Prime_of_Perfection

10 JHM22nd Jan 2013 09:44:10 PM from Neither Here Nor There , Relationship Status: Showing feelings of an almost human nature
Thunder, Perfect Mind
Gird your loins, people...

OK. As someone who reads a lot of horror fiction and writes it on occasion, I have very particular thoughts on what constitutes good horror, or at least the kind of horror that I like, and what makes that sort of fiction scary. Not everyone is going to share these opinions, but that's fine. After all, I'm not speaking for them; I am speaking for myself, and only for myself, telling you what I think is scary.

So here we go.

To my way of thinking, the horror story is fundamentally a tragic art. It is one of the few surviving common modes of fiction left that, to be truly effective, ends on a down note by default. Consequently, horror fiction also has an inherent touch of fatalism in it: The feeling that what might happen, however slight the chance, will, and that will be that.

An anecdote to keep in mind when speaking of fate in the context of horror is the scene in No Country for Old Men where Anton Chigurh tells the gas station owner to call his coin toss. When the man says that he put nothing up, Chigurh's response is, "Yes, you did. You've been putting it up your whole life; you just didn't know it."

Like the tale of Acheron in Greek myth, many a horror tale is predicated on the notion of "accidentally" stumbling upon—or being stumbled upon by—something that one shouldn't have, particularly something bigger than oneself, and being either destroyed or transformed in a distinctly negative way. Does this automatically mean death for the protagonist? Not at all. Meeting one's fate does not preclude survival, and the transformation need not be physical or even immediately noticeable. The sole imperative is that something has changed within the protagonist.

To this end, the element of the weird is very potent. By "weird," I don't simply mean "strange," but the quality of unknowable strangeness. A levitating blue pyramid that goes ping! may be strange, but it is only weird (in this sense) if there is something fundamentally, unsettlingly enigmatic about it—a gaping void where an explanation should be. Even ostensibly mundane things or people may be made weird or agents of the weird in the context of a horror story, assuming that their raison d'ętre is left a sinister blank. The aforementioned Anton Chigurh is a fine example, as is Coppelius in Hoffmann's "The Sandman"; both are to all appearances perfectly human, and yet something is off about them in a way that is never explained to satisfaction.

I have a lot more to say, but it's 12:45 AM here and I'm beat. I think I'll continue tomorrow in another post. Stay posted, if you're so inclined...
11 Noaqiyeum24th Jan 2013 07:44:14 PM from the October Country , Relationship Status: Showing feelings of an almost human nature
The it-thingy
I'm inclined. Pray, go on?
Anyone who looks dangerous is dangerous.

Anyone who doesn't look dangerous is dangerous and sneaky.
12 JHM24th Jan 2013 10:00:04 PM from Neither Here Nor There , Relationship Status: Showing feelings of an almost human nature
Thunder, Perfect Mind
All right, then; I shall do so!

The next thing to consider is the matter of pathos. For a tragedy to work, the audience must be emotionally invested in the core conflict; without a connection to the fates of the protagonists, the ultimate outcome of the work has no meaning. The same is true of horror: If the reader does not feel the fear at hand to some degree, the point of the tale becomes moot. Yet this does not necessitate the reader identifying with the protagonist. It can, but it also may not.

To explain this, I will make the very general observation that there are two fundamental varieties or schools of horror fiction. Neither is exclusive of the other, nor can any work in either camp truly exclude all traces of the opposing form; in point of fact, a great many stories rely on some combination of the two, not falling solidly into either zone. But I will come to that later. For now, I will simply outline each.

The first school is that of the personal or character-driven horror tale: The story that relies on sympathy with the main character as the source of horror in the story. By identifying with the protagonist, we become desperate with them as their circumstances worsen, their fear becoming our own as we watch them move inexorably toward their doom (whatever that may be). Stephen King's odd little tale "Chattery Teeth" is a good example of this form: It uses the POV character's increasingly unsettling situation and occasionally limited perspective to create a very sympathetic (or even empathetic) terror in the reader. Most ghost and monster stories fall under this banner, as do nearly all "realistic" horror stories

The tone of personal horror narratives lean toward the objective, more often than not leaving the reader certain that what they read was, in context, what literally happened. Although this may be played with—unreliable narrators, odd narrative tricks and so on—the fundamental sense of reality is always there.

The second type is the universal or author-driven horror tale which, contrary to the first, relies on the implications of its key scenario rather than sympathy with the protagonist to create fear in the reader. Here the source of pathos is not the characters and their individual fates, but direct personal resonance with the fears of the author. An extreme example of this would be Thomas Ligotti's novella "The Red Tower", which literally features no characters until the last two or three pages of the story, instead relying upon the bizarre metaphysical quandaries raised by the story's premise to create a lingering sense of unease. Cosmic, philosophical and surreal horror tend to fall heavily into this category.

By contrast with the grounded tone of more personal narratives, universal horror stories tend toward the subjective in their presentation of events. They take on the semblance of simulated nightmares rather than frightening anecdotes, at once making the relationship to the reader more intimate and more distant.

In my next post, I will address further aspects to both of these styles in my next post, particularly in relation to character writing; I may also talk about story architecture, although that likely deserves its own post. But for now, I must go. I bid you goodnight.
13 tsstevens25th Jan 2013 01:28:23 AM from Internet, Tasmania , Relationship Status: She's holding a very large knife
If I could make a suggestion...a Zombie Apocalypse or Giant Spiders or Eldritch Abomination are all worthy contenders of what's frightening. However...they're not real. Serial killers are real. Cults like the KKK are real. One of the scariest movies I've seen is one on Adolf Hitler. These are all real fears and they are all some seriously scary stuff. So something that's real or at least a realistic fear (The Terminator nuclear holocaust would make it a horror film in the Cold War) might work.

edited 25th Jan '13 1:29:02 AM by tsstevens

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14 GaryCXJk25th Jan 2013 01:38:21 AM , Relationship Status: Shipping fictional characters
Wants Captain N for Smash Bros. NX
In my opinion, a good horror story tries to play with the fears of others, but a great horror story uses the author's own fears and tries to convey it to its readers.

For example, an in-universe example is Batman, who uses the bat-motif to scare the living daylight out of his foes, to instill fear. That very same can be done in writing form. It could even be as simple as a fear for dark alleys, or grass.

For example, I have a fear of grass, as in, that green stuff you find in parks and shit. Now if I wanted, I could create a horror story that could even scare the crap out of normal people. You know, people who don't have an irrational fear for grass? Fortunately, an episode of Sliders already did that one for me, with some mutated human centipede or something that dragged people down into an underground mine when they threaded through grass or some shit. I'm pretty sure people can create even more freaky shit using grass, though.
Signatures are for lamers.
15 Noaqiyeum25th Jan 2013 01:00:09 PM from the October Country , Relationship Status: Showing feelings of an almost human nature
The it-thingy
([up] I don't want to self-promote, but...)
Anyone who looks dangerous is dangerous.

Anyone who doesn't look dangerous is dangerous and sneaky.
16 Alma14th Feb 2013 06:41:35 AM from Coruscant , Relationship Status: You cannot grasp the true form
The Harbinger of Strange
Anyone trying to write horror is automatically working at a disadvantage, IMO, because it's harder to scare with text. It takes some truly disturbing horror imagery or a very creative writer to pull that off.

My advice would be:

Disregard what you THINK the audience is afraid of (blood, violence, ghosts, things that go boo). Learn about things they're ACTUALLY afraid of. This can depend on, say, time as much as the audience. Certain things which were scary to viewers seeing the first movies to truly push special effects, such as Jaws, aren't scary anymore. Other things are timeless because they tap into subconscious, fundamental fears. The Xenomorph was scary because it was loaded with rape imagery and pushed all sorts of psychological buttons.

What works for me is the incomprehensible, the unknown, and the weird. The destruction of everything familiar, safe and sacred. People rely a lot on familiarity for security—things they see every day. So shake up the status quo—in a BIG way. As big as you can go. Don't just destroy civilization, or even the world—break down reality itself. Make the characters and the audience ask themselves if what they're seeing is REAL. A glitch in the Matrix is scary because to question reality is to question yourself and your importance in the scheme in the universe—something man has always found daunting. If a hole appears in the middle of the street—not a pothole, but a rift in reality—what would happen if I jumped in? The movie Hypercube I thought did that pretty well.

Another thing is the subtle distortion of human features. A glimpse of a not-quite-human face between shadows, or a person who behaves strangely in ways that aren't easily defined. No Country for Old Men is a great example. There's just something plain weird about Chigurh.

And of course, it's hard to go wrong with Adult Fear.

Although, I find a certain purity in works like Doom 3 that, IMO, are all gore and closet scares and don't have any pretensions of actually scaring you. I'm sure the creators probably DID mean to scare the player, but it comes off to me as a "fun" sort of horror. Although, there was one thing I thought was cool: When designing the Vagary (woman spider-centaur thing), the Doom 3 team came up with the equation "Sexy + Gross = Creepy". I think evoking a "not sure if want" kind of response in the audience can work to horror's advantage.

edited 14th Feb '13 6:44:17 AM by Alma

You need an adult.
17 JHM14th Feb 2013 06:53:49 AM from Neither Here Nor There , Relationship Status: Showing feelings of an almost human nature
Thunder, Perfect Mind
[up] While I think that it is more difficult to scare someone directly with text than with imagery, I think that the fear in question can be more potent and lasting because of that subliminal quality. You have to fill in the blanks yourself, which is precisely what your mind doesn't want to do. Disturbing music operates on similar principles.

I actually talked about weirdness as a horror principle a few posts up. You might find it interesting...
Terracotta Soldier Man
I'm going to have to second what [up] is saying, especially after reading Nineteen Eighty-Four just a few days ago and concluding it's the most terrifying thing I've ever read. I've seen plenty of scary movies over the years, but it's always been the scary books that have stayed with me (despite my best efforts) precisely because it's my imagination creating the details that the book leaves out.

That, and I think literature is better at better at subtle horror, where the reader doesn't realize just how scary what they just read is until they start going over the details in their mind and putting the pieces together. Written horror can take innocuous little things in the "background" early on and bring them back later to drop them on your head with megatons of force.

TLDR: Visual media are better at physical / visceral horror, while written media are better at psychological / existential horror, although neither is impossible to find in the other.

edited 17th Feb '13 10:19:43 PM by Specialist290

19 porschelemans23rd Feb 2013 03:41:32 PM from A Giant Hamster Ball , Relationship Status: You're a beautiful woman, probably
Avatar Sakaki Ignore cat
From my experience suddenly diverting from vivid description into Beige Prose gives the best sense of something freaky happening. Suddenly dumping

"Alice walked into the subway. She found herself surrounded by people. They were. all staring at her They were grinning. A man appeared from the crowd. He was carrying a knife. He continued grinning at her, as did all the others. He stabbed her. Repeatedly."

into the middle of a otherwise well written book can really give people a sense that something is up in the tale and freak them out rather a lot. I say this from experience. Random insertion of Non Sequitur's into otherwise coherent plots also helps.

edited 23rd Feb '13 3:41:47 PM by porschelemans

I'm so sorry that my avatar doesn't appear fully in the shot, but the cat was threatening the photographer.
20 Wheezy24th Feb 2013 09:10:46 AM from South Philly
(That Guy You Met Once)
Personally, I always thought the most disturbing things I've ever read were accounts of characters I care about being put through extreme misery and pain, and among those, the most disturbing were the ones where there was no way out. They were also both gradual, but focused and effective, with all the minor details helping to set up the atmosphere.

If I can cross media for an example, someone mentioned Throbbing Gristle's "Hamburger Lady" in the creepy music thread, and I think that's a perfect example. The title itself is unnerving. The background noise sounds like a car engine revving, which is a subtle hint at how the focus of the story got that way, and just works really well as an ominous, monotonous drone. The distorted, monotone vocals suggest someone who's life is pointless misery, and the sing-songy chorus seems to be making fun of it all in some resigned, fucked-up way. Finally, when it really hits home is when you look up the lyrics, and the letter behind it, then find out it's all a true story, which connects it with your primal fears. While it's certainly not "jump out of your seat and void yourself" scary - which I don't even think is possible in text, so that's beside our point, anyway - it's truly unnerving and depressing, and it digs deep into your mind and follows you around for days.

Every attempt I've seen at using horror as light entertainment has failed to be scary, and I think the reason why is that truly horrifying things are made entirely of sadness and pain. If the intention of your story is to entertain people with stories of monsters or what-if scenarios, I think it would be hard to pull it off truly effectively, because even though they're reading horror, your readers still came to have fun, not to have their insides hollowed out.

That's why most of the things people use as examples of the scariest things they've ever seen weren't intended as horror for the sake of horror. The "scares" were just a product of the story, and the subject matter it dealt with, which often boils down to something horrifying about Real Life.

Threads is often considered the scariest movie ever, because it's just a perfectly realistic and drama-free depiction of what would happen to an ordinary city after a nuclear strike. 1984 was a warning against fascism, as were a lot of the "worst" parts of Pan's Labyrinth. Evangelion was a product of depression. Even Lovecraft's stories were mostly about our fear of the unknown. Perfect Blue and Black Swan were about obsession and self-hate. So think about if you really want to go those kinds of places, and if you are, maybe you can pull off something that's as "scary" as you want it to be.

edited 24th Feb '13 7:06:52 PM by Wheezy

21 JHM24th Feb 2013 12:25:07 PM from Neither Here Nor There , Relationship Status: Showing feelings of an almost human nature
Thunder, Perfect Mind
[up] The interesting thing about "Hamburger Lady" is that, according to the band, the real horror of the situation (and the point of the song) is the refusal of the doctors in the anecdote to let the titular character die despite her wishes and being in constant, interminable pain. The song's various strange sounds are simply a portrait of her environment and her mental state: The growling, engine-like guitars are the sounds of the cleaner vacuuming her room; the bleeps and electronic sounds are her life support machines; the strange spoken and sung vocals are the sounds of her doctors and nurses discussing her, twisted (as you pointed out) into an almost resigned self-mocking litany; and the production as a whole is gauzy and alienated because the subject herself is perpetually drugged yet always in agony.

It's actually really sad, in addition to being utterly horrifying.
22 Wheezy24th Feb 2013 02:21:11 PM from South Philly
(That Guy You Met Once)
That was the point I was getting at. I think true horror will usually be extremely sad, especially when Fridge Logic's applied to it.
23 JHM24th Feb 2013 07:16:38 PM from Neither Here Nor There , Relationship Status: Showing feelings of an almost human nature
Thunder, Perfect Mind
[up] Yes, exactly. I was talking about how horror is a tragic art earlier.

(I need to get to that blog post sometime. I promised Noaqiyeum, and breaking promises sucks.)

edited 24th Feb '13 7:17:46 PM by JHM

24 Wheezy24th Feb 2013 08:22:50 PM from South Philly
(That Guy You Met Once)
I'd only skimmed everyone's posts before writing. Looking over them, it seems like I was just summarizing other Tropers' posts.
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Total posts: 24