In honor of the festive evening just around the corner, I thought I would ask: what makes a horror story scary? Why not, right? Horror writing definitely falls under the speculative umbrella, and under the larger genre fiction canopy.
Is it the spilling of blood and guts? (Doesn't seem so.) I think folks can be squeamish about gore and bodily fluids without necessarily being scared of it. This is where so many cheap horror movies get it wrong.
The presence of monsters and grinning serial killers? Not in and of itself.
Justin Bieber? Yes, but for other reasons.
Well, I have my own opinions about what makes horror scary. As part of my slipshod research, I turned to our trusty friend Google, and searched the phrase, "what makes horror scary?" Try it, you'll get a lot of responses. I read through a bunch of them. The various entries cover the gamut of opinion, including some strengths of any well-written story, regardless of genre ("clunky wording knocks the reader out, lowering their fear…" Well, duh.) But as I read through, there is one thing that almost every page agrees on: you have to screw with the reader's imagination.
To me, one of the best ways you can do this is tap into the universal fears that seem to affect the human psychosis. I laugh at serial killer and monster movies, though I might jump at the "shocks." I really don't feel scared. But "Jaws" is still hard for me to watch, as I have a deep and abiding fear of the ocean. You see? Spiders crawling over someone who is poisoned and unable to move; yeah, some people are so freaked by spiders, they might get scared enough to toss the book aside. But remember, THEY are scaring THEMSELVES, by imagining it happening to them! Any woman with young children will feel her blood run cold if you describe a mother's mounting panic as her child vanishes in the middle of a crowd; again, they put themselves in that situation you're writing, imagining it's their child.
I've read before that victims of infidelity experience "mind movies;" that is, picturing their significant other doing things with their affair partner. Often, those movies are far worse than anything that actually happened. As human beings, we can't help it. When confronted with something shocking, our minds often dive to the worst possible place. As with so many other facets of writing, I think it better to leave some things UNSAID. There is no way that you, the writer, can scare me, the reader, any worse than I can scare myself. When you let me fill in some of those blanks on my own, you are going to frickin' own me by the end of the story. I think it's a lot better to throw a whole bunch of uncertainty in the reader's head and let them sort it out.
I will never forget the night – many years ago – when I was playing a very scary video game. It was a weekend, so I was up at 3am or something. Pitch dark, save for the glow of the monitor. Headphones on. I was into it, it was intense, my blood was pumping, my heart racing. I kept getting little frights on the screen but I was coping. Then the hand fell on my shoulder. I screamed in the most blood-curdling way a man can, which in turn scared the hell out of Mrs. Axe, who had just come out to see if I was coming to bed anytime soon. The rational part of my mind knew there was no monster, no slavering demon coming for my soul … but in that split second, my imagination dove into the pits of my nightmares and I reacted before I could stop myself.
To me, good horror is about dragging the reader's imagination to a place they don't want to go, but can't resist staying out of. Ambiance, uncertainty, feelings of dread and tapping those basic human fears writ large in adulthood … these are your tools.
On a completely unrelated note, and since I had not mentioned it lately, NaNoWriMO is right around the corner. I wanted to participate this year but that pesky entity known as "Real Life" is going to interfere, and in a bad way. I was all set too; had my idea, had my schedule lined up. I have done it and I think it was productive – and it is good to challenge yourself. I encourage anyone to try, even if you have never written before. Go here for more on it.
As the man with the painted face often said, TTFN.