What Makes Scary Writing Scary? Going Beyond Halloween Ghost Stories.
As someone who self-identifies as a scaredy-cat, the fact that we have seven Saw sequels, four Five Nights at Freddy’s games and seventy Stephen King novels disturbs me greatly. But whether you enjoy being scared or not, you can’t deny that fear is addictive. It would explain why I, despite avoiding horror movies at all costs, demand full descriptions of their plots from my brother after he watches them. While I understand the broad appeal of horror, it’s trickier to determine what exactly makes content scary. Movies have disturbing visuals and the spooky sounds of the waterphone, and games make you the protagonist where your actions could lead to your own demise. Writing, on the other hand, isn’t as clear. We’ve all heard lame ghost stories before. How do you avoid the pitfalls of a cheesy campfire story and really, truly terrify your readers?
While I read my fair share of Goosebumps as a kid, I’m not exactly an expert. Being as easily frightened as I am also doesn’t help when pinpointing the exact elements of horror. So I did a little research (including a call to my mother, whose bookshelf contains almost all seventy of Stephen King’s books). What I found was that several pieces of advice were repeated over and over for those struggling with how to write a scary story:
- Create appropriate tone and atmosphere. Unexpected and foreboding descriptions are your friend. The reader should feel uneasy about the dingy-looking, musty-smelling living room so they’re on edge even before they notice the fish tank is filled with blood.
- Build a setting that is scary on its own (think abandoned hospitals or wooded areas with no cell reception).
- Use tropes to your advantage, whether you’re embracing them or turning them on their heads.
- Establish caution, because even the smartest characters can make bad choices (why would you ever run upstairs to escape a house?)
- Play on the deeply rooted, primal fears that exist in all of us.
These are great, but I think they work because they can be used to create anxiety or tension. It’s this buildup that is most important in horror. The monster doesn’t waltz in in all of its terrifying glory at the very beginning. It stays shrouded in “the unknown.”
But how can you write about something that’s not known? I hear you. Think of it this way, truly scary stories resist the urge to be too descriptive in the wrong places. You can’t give too much away too soon. Consider your audience; they’re looking to be scared. They’re ready for the murderer to start stabbing people with a pitchfork, but what really disturbs them is the metallic scraping on the cement floor as the murderer slowly approaches, trailing his weapon behind him, building on the suspense of the audience knowing what’s coming. It’s the anticipation of the unknown that becomes the source of terror because your own mind fills in the blanks left by the author, and no one knows what scares you better than you do.
Don’t believe me? I’ll prove it to you. See this creepy bit from The Shining:
His breath stopped in a gasp. An almost drowsy terror stole through his veins. Yes. Yes. There was something in here with him, some awful thing the Overlook had saved for just such a chance as this. Maybe a huge spider that had burrowed down under the dead leaves, or a rat… or maybe the corpse of some little kid that had died here on the playground. Had that ever happened?
At the far end of the concrete ring, Danny heard the stealthy crackle of dead leaves, as something came for him on its hands and knees.
Good lord. I can’t help but stress over what kind of awful thing would come for me on its hands and knees. Chances are the author couldn’t have described something as terrible as what you just pictured for yourself. You can be limited by words on a page, but imagination is limitless.
Not convinced? Let’s try another. Against my better judgement, I visited a subreddit called /r/nosleep (which is full of creepy writing) and found the top post of all time. It’s a story about a guy who’s receiving messages from his dead girlfriend’s Facebook account. One part reads:
It wasn’t until I was going over these logs a few months later that I noticed she was recycling my own words as well.
My response seems kind of lacklustre here. I was intentionally providing him/her with emotional ‘bait’ (‘This is actually devastating’) to keep them interested in their game; I was working off the assumption that the kind of person to do this would be the kind of person that would thrive on the distress of others. I was posting in tech forums, looking for ways to track this person, contacting Facebook. I needed to keep them around so I could gather ‘evidence’.
Before anyone asks, yes, I had changed the password and all security info countless times.
I can’t tell you how thankful I am that I read this during the day. I suggest you read the whole thing for context, and so that I’m not the only person scared to check my Facebook messages. The tension really starts to build here. This guy can’t figure out why someone would recycle old messages and send them as his dead girlfriend. The anxiety is rooted both in the creepy messages and the worry over what kind of sick person – if it even is a person – could do such a thing. If they’re willing to do something like that, what else are they capable of? How much creepier could these Facebook messages get? (As it turns out, they get a lot creepier, but I won’t spoil anything for you here).
These pieces are also great because you can see how tone, setting and primal fear all play a role in spooking your reader. This, in combination with the lack of a definitive source of terror (aka, the unknown), creates almost unbearable amounts of anxiety and tension. We can see something awful is about to happen and there’s nothing we can do about it; we’re helpless.
It may seem like a lot is being left up to the reader, and that’s partially true. That’s why it is so important to understand your audience. While the reader fills in the blanks with their darkest fears, it’s ultimately up to you, the writer, to give your readers the right amount of push. Give them just enough so that they feel the thing breathing on the back of their neck, but when they turn around to look, there’s nothing there.
Check out Holly’s work on centently.com.