Here There Be (no) Monsters

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When you mention horror to a non-horror fan they immediately think of vampires, Frankenstein’s monster (or Frankenstein as they would call it), and supernatural killers that somehow always manage to crawl back from Hell just in time for a sequel, but there is so much more to the genre than that.

Horror comes in all shapes and sizes and isn’t just limited to the supernatural and mythical beings. There can be pure evil found lurking in the heart of even the most innocent (human) child, malevolence can be found in the mind of a seemingly mild co-worker, or the sinful acts of an elderly priest, and you only have to open a newspaper to see reports of things you didn’t believe possible only yesterday.

Switch on the television and you’ll see there is horror all around us every single day, and I’m not just talking about ‘The Only Way is Essex’ *shudder*. Bombs dropping on starving families, fathers murdering their own children, oil spills ending thousands of lives, earthquakes, mail bombs, disease, massacres, missing people, body parts found in school playgrounds.

The kind of stuff that makes you turn around and tell the vampire silently creeping up on you to stop for a minute because there are more important problems to focus on.

When you compare it to things you see on the major news channels, Jason chasing you through the woods, because you lost your virginity, is a pretty mild news day.

But this post isn’t supposed to be about making you feel miserable about the world you live in; it’s about how to make the reader scared of the world your main character is living in. It could be a post-apocalyptic world, the chance of death by starvation; a woman trapped in a mall at night being stalked by a crazed killer; a group of children plotting their escape from a hungry cannibal.

Place your characters in a terrifying situation in order to elicit feelings of terror…sounds pretty simple when you put it like that, eh?

By focussing on the ‘ordinary’ you put the emphasis on the thrills and chills rather than the BIG BANG. The BIG BANG is a technique filmmakers use…and it’s annoying. The loud crash of symbols as something happens, the sudden cutaway at the right moment, the friggin’ cat jumping out of the wardrobe – the BIG BANG. Of course you’re going to jump if they crank up the volume and throw a cat at your face, but it’s not a real scare. It’s nothing but cheap parlour tricks, all button twiddling and feline flinging.

A real scare should leave you shaking, with a sustained feeling of apprehension and dread. You should be afraid to turn out the lights or go upstairs on your own, not pointing at the cat and saying “I’m onto you!”

If you hone in on the emotions of real life horrors, you tap into something that we all share – common dread. This can be a powerful tool as we all know how to feel scared. And most of us are more scared of losing a loved one, being made redundant, or losing our minds, than we are of xenomorphs, soggy mogwai, crites, or graboids.

If you’re writing with monsters, ghouls, leprechauns, or voodoo, then fine – carry on. But don’t just assume because you’re using a horror trope that it will be scary. Certain books have proved that just adding a vampire doesn’t mean it will be a horror book. It will be a book with a vampire in it. Folklore monsters aren’t inherently scary – what they DO is though, so if you do have a zombie, werewolf, she-demon, make sure they are more than a cardboard cut-out borrowed from a recent blockbuster movie.

People are scary enough as it is without adding fangs and claws, try and get inside the mind of a truly sick individual…and if you’re lucky enough maybe you can train your own mind to be sick and twisted without actually having to go on a killing spree, that way you’ll be able to write horror fiction that takes people to Hell and back without resorting to the demons that live there.