Friday, July 12, 2013

Writing horror: when the familiar becomes the unknown

When you think about what kind of fiction complements these hot summer months, generally people will bring up romance or summer action blockbusters first. But one of the great things about living in Tokyo during the summer (one of the only great things, considering how brutally humid it was) was
that summer goes hand-in-hand with ghost stories - not only does this coincide with O-bon, but those cold chills down your spine might even help you deal with the heat. So today, I'm going to talk a little about one of my favorite elements of horror: familiarity.

I get nightmares on a fairly regular basis. Regular enough, at least, that it takes a lot to make me wake up breathless with terror nowadays. And it's probably my own fault for watching so many scary movies, anyway.

When I was younger, it was much worse - I don't know if those dreams were actually, objectively more terrifying, or if it was just because I hadn't built up the tolerance to creepy I have now. But I remember those dreams more clearly than I do the ones I've had this week alone: I remember an endless black hole in my driveway, a creepy deserted cabin that suddenly appeared in our back woods, and a strange, high voice coming from my brother's room next door. (Which might have been him talking in his sleep, now that I think about it.)

But out of all the horror movie stylings of my subconscious, this one scared me the most: I was sitting in the backyard, rocking back and forth on the swing and watching my father mow the lawn while someone moved, a little too quickly for me to make out, inside the house. I hopped off the swing and walked closer to the house so I could see the person inside, until I realized that he was my father, too. And then he stopped, turned, and smiled at me as the dream ended.

That was years ago, and it still makes me shudder!

There's one thing all the examples above have in common: each one featured something intimately familiar, whether it's a place or a person. I had the usual monster nightmares when I was a kid, and those were scary at the time, but no monster is quite as terrifying as an everyday sight suddenly turned completely alien.

The same principle is true in horror. There's a big difference between momentary chills and the kind of unease that lingers with the reader long after they set your book down. Even a well-executed horror sequence can lose its potency after the fact if the reader can 'think their way out of it,' so to speak. If the protagonist's circumstances seem completely removed from mine, I would be able to talk myself out of being scared.

Even if there's no way your reader would be in the situation your protagonist is, there are other ways to hit your reader where they live - and this is why it's just as important to balance the more fantastical elements of a horror story with a more down-to-earth terror, something in your protagonist's life that your reader might recognize in him or herself. Horror is a very personal genre when you get down to it, so the author needs to make it personal, both for their characters and their readers.

So go forth and inflict those cold chills! Given how scorching it is in DC right now, I could do with a few myself...


  1. I have a friend, Mark Steensland, who does short films, most of them horror and they play on exactly that kind of dynamic. Twilight Zone did too, for sure.

    1. Ooooh - I want to see his films! Are they online?

    2. Yes, search YouTube for his name or I think they're all here


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