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Writing horror

By Jason Wong
On November 29, 2012


Since this week's "Writer's Desk" is my 13th, I've decided to discuss the task of writing horror. To be honest, I've never been much of a horror fan. Most horror movies that are coming out and have come out in recent history seem to me like great examples of lazy writing, where gory death and cheap "jump-out" monsters pass for good plot points and well-written suspense. I take this as almost a personal affront, especially when horror has so much more to offer as a genre.


In my opinion, the best kind of scare is not the kind that pops up and elicits a short-lived yelp of terror, but the almost lovingly rendered grotesqueness that results in a cringe that shudders through the entire body; or better yet, remains a thought in the back of your head that comes out for a visit when it gets dark and you're alone. That is to say a psychological horror is one where the imagined terror is on par with the actual reality. How can a writer accomplish something like that?


One way to create memorable horror is to take a common fear, say, fear of the dark, of spiders or the unknown, and add a twist. The familiarity of the fear will make it stick in readers' minds, and the twist will give them the desired goosebumps. Some great examples are the clown in Stephen King's "It" and the creature in the Doctor Who episode "Midnight." It can be difficult to think of a good twist for a potential fear. Try thinking about what makes that fear so indescribably scary, and then exaggerate it.


Another way to create memorable horror is simply by making use of the bizarre. This is practically the complete opposite of the previous approach, where you choose something familiar. In this case, the horror is frightening because it is so alien and unfamiliar. That doesn't mean you have to think of something out of this world. The best examples I can think of are instances where insanity plays a role in the work of horror. Insanity is frightening because it is illogical and unpredictable; an enemy that cannot be outsmarted because it simply doesn't think the way a normal person does, if at all. Many a well-loved psychopath villain falls under this category, but don't think that a good horror villain need be amoral. 


As a final note, I just want to say that horror does not need to stick to just the end goal of scaring its audience. The horror need not eclipse a potential drama - it should work alongside a well-written plot and make the story that much better by its inclusion. Nor does horror need be campy or so awash with blood that the reader becomes desensitized to the gore. In my opinion, the perfect horror should treat death as nearly all other genres treat it - a significant detail and turning point, not just a throwaway paragraph.

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