As you can see from the recent ‘What Scares You’ series on HHHB our fears and worries range far and wide. There are universal fears that most of us experience at one time or another, and there are irrational fears that differ from person to person. The only thing we truly share is the ability to be scared…by something.
Horror is all about fear, be it intense, insidious, or instinctive. The hardest part of writing a horror novel is finding a way to truly scare the reader. We are inundated with horror on a daily basis; movies, books, cartoons(!), comics, even a whole day celebrating it in October…so it’s getting harder and harder to provoke genuine fearful reactions from readers. The horrors of the past are losing their icy grip on the people of today as more and more individuals adopt an attitude of ‘seen it before, bored now.’
But traditionalists are still out there. People who prefer their vampires with a bit less sparkle, and their zombies with a bit less speed and cognitive power. Pleasing both groups can be tricky but is an essential skill for a horror writer to learn.
And it’s not just traditional vs. modern themes you have to worry about, fear is relative. What scares some people may make others laugh. If I see even a tiny spider in my living room I’m on Spiderwatch for the rest of the night, legs tucked up on the sofa and vacuum cleaner at the ready, but I know plenty of people that keep tarantulas as pets! Pets!!
You can never really tell what a person might be scared of.
Take another of my irrational fears (please!)…I hate fish.
Specifically big fish.
I can handle goldfish…not literally of course; no way am I touching one of those slimy suckers! But ‘big’ fish scare the bejesus out of me. Whenever I have to walk past an aquarium I watch them with shifty eyes waiting for the slightest sign they’re about to smash through their glass prisons and lunge for my face…*shiver* Most of you out there are probably thinking I’m either mad or the biggest wuss in England. You’re thinking that that because YOU’RE not scared of fish, so it seems absurd that I would be.
I repeat – fear is subjective.
So when it comes to writing horror do you do general and traditional, or experiment with new and absurd?
Traditional may be favoured, because someone being chased by a zombie/vampire/werewolf is instantly recognisable as a horror/scary scene. Whereas with new ideas you may try and explain to the reader that a Munkledooden monster is hunting the main character but it’s harder for them to ‘relate’. Even though they don’t actually relate to ‘tried and tested’ monsters the rules are already established and therefore which makes things more believable.
Now, I’m a firm believer of mixing the old with the new and when you break the two views into their component parts there’s not that much difference. Boil down any irrational fear to its base elements, no matter how absurd it may seem in the first place, and it will always circle around the same subjects:
- Don’t kill me
- Don’t hurt me
- Don’t hurt/kill my loved ones
- Don’t imprison me
- Don’t reject me
Scared of flying? Well it’s probably not the tiny bags of peanuts that make you shudder with fright, or the inane smile of an overenthusiastic flight attendant – it’s the fear of the aircraft plummeting out of the sky and forever melding you with the concrete ground below – don’t kill me!
Scared of speaking in public? Again not a fear of lecterns or overhead projectors but a fear of humiliation at the hands of your peers. It’s not stumbling over your words that causes you concern rather it’s the audience laughing at you (snubbing you) for doing so that ties your tongue in knots – don’t reject me!
So even if you come up with a brand new twist for a horror novel (maybe a Munkledooden monster?) you should be able to relate the characters horror back to basic fears. That way something that may seem completely alien to a reader suddenly becomes relatable. They may not understand the inner workings of a Munkledooden, or think a family of fourteen-inch bright orange monsters living under their floorboards is particularly scary, but when they find out the little tykes like to munch on your fingers when you sleep they can relate. Not to memories of having their digits gnawed on by otherworldly creatures (I certainly hope not anyway!) but to the basic fear of pain and possible death – don’t hurt me!
Suddenly an absurd concept becomes a little more applicable to real life.
By presenting the ‘basic’ fears people understand the urgency in a situation, they become invested in the scene as they suddenly start to panic along with the character. Mix up those fears for maximum value…by this I don’t mean have the main character sealed in a coffin which is full of spiders, wallpapered with pictures of clowns and ventriloquist dummies, and suspended 50,000 feet in the air by a single thread.
Mix and match the BASIC fears – not the irrational fears.
Have the MC trapped in a coffin by all means, but don’t just have him lying there thinking ‘oh bugger, looks like the old claustrophobia is flaring up again’. Not everyone is frightened by small spaces and if a secondary character is on their way to rescue them then the fear factor drops to 0% for non-claustrophobia sufferers.
Mix up feelings of primal fear by playing with the basics. The battery on the tracking device (conveniently located on the MC’s person) is draining quickly, if his friend doesn’t figure out where the nasty madman buried him soon then he’ll run out of air.
Maybe the person trying to find him hears some sultry truths about their friend at the last moment. Will they decide NOT to save them…dun dun dun! Suddenly ‘don’t imprison me’ becomes ‘don’t kill me, don’t hurt me, don’t imprison me, don’t reject me’.
Or instead of having a character running away from a wild gunman (THREAT: Death…boring!) reveal that his family is in danger and if he gets shot (even a flesh wound to slow him down) then they all die because he’ll be unable to rescue them in time! ‘Don’t kill me’ becomes ‘don’t kill me, don’t hurt me, don’t hurt/kill my loved ones’.
By adding a few more of the basic fears, not only does the situation become much tenser, readers will feel as if they can relate to the characters situation. We can run from our irrational fears; avoid fish tanks, lay spider traps, dodge clowns, but we can’t run away from the dreaded basic fears.
Pile them on and scare the shit out of your reader!