Five Reasons Great Horror Stories Work by Joe McKinney
There is a fine art to scaring people, and like all art, it is the product of raw talent honed by craft and technique. No one can teach raw talent, of course. You either have it or you don’t. But craft and technique can be taught, and in the following few sections I’m going to walk you through five basic characteristics that all great horror stories share. Learn to incorporate these into your stories, and you’ll find your stories make more sense and, hopefully, sell better.
First, let’s talk about your story’s setting.
The key to good, memorable horror is much the same as it is in the business world – location, location, location. Many beginning writers come up with potentially great settings, be it an abandoned town, or a graveyard, or a mill, or a big scary house, and then fail to carry through on its potential. As a result, their great setting never rises above the tired old mainstays of B grade horror.
Think about all the great works of horror you’ve ever read. My guess is that, in every single one, you can point to the setting and say, “That right there sealed the deal for me. When the mother and child were trapped in that Pinto in Cujo, I was scared. When the priests entered Regan’s room in The Exorcist, I felt her bedroom door close behind me. When Pennywise the Clown spoke to the children of Derry, Maine through the drains in their bathrooms, I wanted to escape.”
But why does Stephen King’s story about a creepy old hotel in the middle of nowhere get the scares, and Joe Schmoe’s story set in a similar creepy old hotel fail to deliver? Well, think of some of the words I used in the previous paragraph. “Trapped.” “The door close behind me…” “Escape.” In every sense, the effect created is one of insularity. Through the characters in the story, we get a sense that we are closed off from the rest of the world, that we are no longer free or able to run away, that we are shut in with something very bad.
This explains why old graveyards, or cabins deep in the woods, or small towns, are such common destinations for the horror story. But it doesn’t explain why they work. The challenge, you see, is to show, through your characters, the setting going through a change. The way your characters perceive the setting is key. Think about the movie Jaws for a second. Remember when Brodie, Quint and Hooper are headed out to sea, and they get drunk and trade sea stories? They’re laughing and having a great time. Some might say they’re simply whispering in the dark, but the result is effective nonetheless. The sea seems a peaceful, welcoming place. But the next day, as they engage the shark, and it starts to wreck their boat, they begin to feel small and helpless, fighting for their lives in a hostile, brutal environment. The sea has not changed, obviously. It’s the same sea that seemed so comforting for them the night before. What’s changed is their perception of the sea. The characters in all great horror stories show this changing reaction to the settings in which they find themselves.
To achieve this in your own writing, you need to make readers feel that what was once familiar and comforting has suddenly become oppressive and menacing. In other words, you need to change your characters’ attitude toward the setting, and you do this by showing the setting before and after the horror takes the stage. If you’re sending your protagonist into a small town, you might start off by making that small town feel comforting, friendly, perhaps even nostalgic. Once you’ve established this, you’re free to turn the thumbscrews.
There’s no set rule on how long you have to take to create this feeling of comfort, of normalcy, but you do need to create it. Horror is, after all, the intrusion of the extraordinary into the ordinary, and if you’re going to make that work you have to first create normalcy. A comfortable, familiar setting that suddenly becomes hostile and claustrophobic is the best way to do this.
Characters Who Act Scared
Remember the opening to the movie Jeepers Creepers, where the brother and sister are driving their old car across an endless plain of corn fields? Their banter is light, their mood is easy. The countryside seems peaceful and inviting. Within seconds of the opening credits, we feel like we understand this situation. But then the big black truck comes roaring into view and begins chasing them. The kids manage to get away from it. But then, a short distance later, they spot the driver dumping body bags into a sewage pipe, and everything changes. The setting that once seemed so serene now seems vast and empty, and they are stranded and alone, as though at sea.
Jeepers Creepers is a perfect example of how the setting needs to change to create a sense of horror. But there’s another side to that equation. Your setting alone can’t create the horror. We, the readers, need someone to show us why that change is scary. In other words, we need viewpoint characters who get scared so that we get scared vicariously through them. The characters are our surrogates, in other words.
That may seem obvious, but it really is a fundamental component of the horror story. Look at The Wizard of Oz, for example. Dorothy encounters a talking lion, a talking scarecrow, a big giant robot-looking thing with an axe, and…well, you get the idea. The point is, any one of those things should be scary. Personally, scarecrows creep me out. But not Dorothy. She starts signing, links arms with them, and goes skipping down the yellow brick road. Her reaction informs us as to how to take all this. If she had run away shrieking in terror, we too, would be horrified. But she doesn’t. She starts signing. And we sing right along with her.
So the trick here is to have your characters tell us how the setting is changing, and why that change is terrifying. Think about Jack Torrence’s slow slide into insanity at the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s The Shining. Gradually we realize that the hotel is possessing him, changing him. We get some of this from Jack himself, but most of it through his wife and young son, Danny. They witness the change, and because they are afraid of it, our sense of empathy places us right there with them, scared out of our minds.
A Reason to Stay
While we’re on the subject of characters, let’s talk about why they don’t just up and leave the moment things start getting weird.
Here again, we need to frame our discussion in terms of the setting.
Why is your small town there, out in the middle of nowhere? Same with your blasted ancestral manor, or your haunted motel, or your big spooky mill outside of town. Why are they there? I mean economically. What is the economic reason for being for your setting?
Give that a lot of thought before you start writing your horror story.
This isn’t just one of those silly writing exercises, either. Knowing your setting’s economic reason for being is essential to good characterization, especially when the horror gets turned up later in the story.
Consider Amity Island in Jaws. The little community exists primarily as a summer tourist destination for the mainlanders. This little detail develops into a major plot point when Sheriff Brodie tries to convince the town council to shut down the beaches. We know the shark is out there, killing, and when the council refuses to listen – because, of course, to do so would be to go contrary to their economic interests – we feel our stomachs turn with mounting dread. We know the town council’s shortsighted greed is about to paint the beaches red with blood.
Think of the house in The Amityville Horror. Or the house in Poltergeist. In both cases, the family has a vested economic incentive – no, scratch that; an imperative – to stay. They are economically tied to the setting. They have dumped a lot of money into the house, right? I mean, could you just walk away from your house if you were mortgaged up to your eyeballs? Remember that Eddie Murphy stand up skit where he makes fun of The Amityville Horror. He says, “You know, you put a black family in that situation, and the house says, ‘Get out!’ they out the motherfucking door.” This is what he’s alluding to. A surprising amount of good horror is built from economic necessity. There’s a reason why the protagonists can’t, or won’t, just get up and leave.
Now, if you’re setting is a hotel room in a major city – like “1408” – or a little girl’s room – like in The Exorcist – you’re going to have an easy time of this. Clearly, the hotel room exists for temporary habitation. The girl’s room, well, that’s her room.
But don’t think that your job stops there. A key element to effective settings in horror is the feeling of being cut off. It’s that insularity I was speaking of earlier.
Try to apply that here.
Consider Regan in The Exorcist. In the early stages of her possession, when Pazuzu is fighting for a way in, she is effectively trapped by her circumstances. She can’t go to her mom and say, “Look, we need to move because I’m getting possessed.” She’s powerless. She’s a kid. She’s cut off from escape.
The same thing applies to the little kids of Derry, Maine in Stephen King’s IT. They know they are on Pennywise’s menu, but they can’t do a thing about it because they are economically tied to the town through their parents.
Part of rounding out your characters (that is, making them believable and giving them problems we care about) comes from identifying this economic bind that holds them to the horror.
A Logical Connection
A few years ago a young horror writer asked me to blurb a book he had just written. I said, “Sure, I’ll take a look.” It was this story about a guy who goes after a demon who has abducted his girlfriend. It was well written, full of great action sequences and lots of creepy scenes in this abandoned hospital. But there was a gaping hole in the narrative. The hole was so big, in fact, that I couldn’t, in good conscience, blurb the book.
You see, nowhere in those 300 pages had he made a connection between the main character – or his girlfriend, for that matter – and the demon. Basically, you just had a big ugly demon that swoops out of the blue one day and grabs this girl. The boyfriend then marches into the ruins of the hospital and starts fighting for his beloved.
Do you see the problem?
There’s no connection between the good guy and the bad guy. There’s no reason for this bad guy to be involved with that good guy. Why did the demon want the girlfriend? Where’s the fully developed connection between them? What’s the reason for all of this? Yeah, I realize that bad things sometimes happen seemingly without reason, but that is because we lack the appropriate perspective. It may seem totally random for a serial killer to scoop children off the street, but that is because we are on the outside of the killer’s pathology. Notice that the best horror stories give us a glimpse into this pathology. And it is precisely because the young writer I told you about failed to give us that glimpse that the story felt unfocused. It failed to resonate. And as a result, the scares just weren’t there.
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this relationship. There has to be a connection between the protagonist and the antagonist. If they don’t belong together, your story simply won’t make sense. And if it doesn’t makes sense, it won’t scare anybody.
A Monster with Depth
A convincing and truly frightening villain, be he a person or a demonic force such as a ghost or a monster, is one of the most important components of a horror story because the bad guy generates most of the conflict.
Now I’m saying villain, but really the word is just a convenient catchall. This is horror we’re writing, after all, so we could be dealing with a human bad guy, or a monster such as a werewolf, vampire, serial killer, or whatever. Maybe your bad guy is the demonic, long dead presence that haunts your dark old hell house as a ghostly presence. Or maybe it’s the elements, such as in Algernon Blackwood’s story “The Willows,” or maybe you’re writing about giant rats, whatever. It doesn’t really matter, at least on the surface, who or what the actual bad guy is because what counts – what makes him, or it, scary – is the human element. The more human, the scarier.
The best stories are those that bring the villain – the conflict, if you will – into the clearest focus. This is especially true in horror, but it applies to all the other genres too. If your story is going to work, your villain must be genuine. Your monster must have depth.
But what does that mean? Well, as I’ve already mentioned, your good guy and bad guy, protagonist and antagonist, have to fit together. There has to be a reason they are going to lock horns. Randomness isn’t going to scare anyone.
Secondly, your bad guy ought to have some degree of moral authority. Even if his or her conduct is reprehensible, even unforgivable, there needs to be some logic to why they are doing the evil that they do. Look at the creature in Frankenstein. Victor has essentially created life from death, and in the process usurped the role of God. He has become the creature’s God. Now imagine yourself as the creature. Your God stands over you and says, “You are so vile, so wretched, that I refuse to acknowledge your existence. I turn my back on you.” Imagine the shock at being denied by God. The creature, in his rage, strikes out at Victor. He begins to systematically murder Victor’s family. He is a smart organism, fluent in seven languages, well-versed in the morality of the Bible, but he deliberately turns his back on that and engages in conduct he knows to be evil because at least that way his God will be forced to acknowledge him. That is moral authority. And that is why Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the cornerstone of horror fiction.
Not every monster will lend itself so easily to human moral standards, of course, but everything can be imbued with a motive, a purpose. As a horror writer, your goal is to give your monster that purpose.
Joe McKinney has been a patrol officer for the San Antonio Police Department, a homicide detective, a disaster mitigation specialist, a patrol commander, and a successful novelist. His books include the four part Dead World series, Quarantined, Inheritance, Lost Girl of the Lake, Crooked House and Dodging Bullets. His short fiction has been collected in The Red Empire and Other Stories and Dating in Dead World and Other Stories. In 2011, McKinney received the Horror Writers Association’s Bram Stoker Award for Best Novel.