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Tell Us Your Darkest Fear: Writing Horror

Horror is a genre that has captivated audiences for centuries, providing a thrilling and spine-chilling experience. From ancient folklore to modern-day novels and films, the allure of horror lies in its ability to tap into our deepest fears and provoke intense, often visceral emotions.

Writing horror requires a deep understanding of human psychology and suspense-building techniques, and also capturing the zeitgeist of the present era. In this post I want to explore the key elements of writing horror and offer insights into how to create a truly terrifying experience for your readers.

Understand the Psychology of Fear

Fear is an inherent emotion that manifests in various forms and can profoundly influence our thoughts, behaviors, and overall well-being. Fear, deeply rooted in our evolutionary history, served as a survival mechanism for our ancestors. It enabled them to identify and respond to potential threats, preparing their bodies for fight or flight. This primal instinct allowed humans to assess danger, make quick decisions, and adapt to their environment. While fear once predominantly focused on physical threats, modern society has expanded its scope to encompass psychological and social fears as well.

To write effective horror, it is crucial to delve into the psychology of fear. What scares us? What triggers our primal instincts? By understanding the fundamental fears that dwell within all of us, you can tap into a universal experience that will resonate with your readers.

Fear of the unknown, fear of death, fear of isolation, and fear of the supernatural are just a few examples to explore.

What Are People Afraid of Right Now?

Remember: what people were afraid of back in the Victorian era or the 1980s is not necessarily what they are afraid of in the present day. I mentioned understanding the zeitgeist above:

Scholars have long maintained that each era has a unique spirit, a nature or climate that sets it apart from all other epochs. In German, such a spirit is known as Zeitgeist, from the German words Zeit, meaning "time," and Geist, meaning "spirit" or "ghost."

Even if your story is set in the past, you can still touch upon common themes of fear that your audience can connect with in the present.

Develop Engaging Characters

Compelling characters are at the heart of any successful horror story. Your readers must feel a deep connection with the protagonists and experience their terror alongside them. Develop well-rounded characters with strengths, weaknesses, and relatable motivations. Make them vulnerable and flawed, as it allows readers to empathize and root for their survival.

Saying that, if you enjoy writing from the POV of the villain, you need to consider their motivations and fears. Villains embody a complex range of traits that challenge our understanding of human behaviour. They often exhibit qualities such as intelligence, charisma and determination, which can be both admirable and terrifying depending on how you spin it. Psychologically, the allure of villains may stem from their ability to tap into our primal instincts and hidden desires.

Create Atmospheric Settings

The setting plays a vital role in setting the mood and enhancing the horror experience. Whether it's a haunted house, a desolate forest, or an abandoned asylum, your choice of setting can evoke a sense of unease and foreboding. Use vivid descriptions to paint a vivid picture, incorporating details that stimulate the senses and immerse readers in a dark and eerie world.

Many horror stories take setting a step further, making it almost like a supporting character in itself (e.g. The Overlook Hotel in The Shining). You can give your settings a sense of personality too, just be careful to blend it into the character action.

Master the Art of Suspense

Suspense is the lifeblood of horror. It keeps readers on the edge of their seats, anxiously turning pages to discover what happens next. Use pacing, foreshadowing, and tension-building techniques to maintain a constant sense of unease. Hint at impending danger, but hold back crucial information to keep readers guessing to fuel their imagination. Often it is the things we can't see that scare us more than the man in the werewolf costume.

Employ Effective Plot Twists

A well-executed plot twist can send shivers down the readers' spines and elevate your horror story to new heights. Subvert expectations and challenge traditional narrative structures to keep your readers guessing. The element of surprise adds an extra layer of fear and intrigue, leaving readers questioning their own perceptions of reality.

Utilise Descriptive Language

In horror writing, language becomes a powerful tool to evoke fear and create a sensory experience. Use vivid and evocative descriptions to engage readers' imaginations. Paint a haunting picture with your words, using sensory details to bring the horror to life. Show, don't tell, and allow readers to feel the dread creeping up their spines.

Here is an example from Stephen King's It:

“Smells of dirt and wet and long-gone vegetables would merge into one unmistakable ineluctable smell, the smell of the monster, the apotheosis of all monsters. It was the smell of something for which he had no name: the smell of It, crouched and lurking and ready to spring. A creature which would eat anything but which was especially hungry for boymeat.”

Explore Taboos and Dark Themes

Horror provides an avenue to explore taboo subjects and delve into the darkest corners of human existence. Touch upon societal fears, moral dilemmas, and the macabre. By pushing boundaries and confronting uncomfortable truths, you can create a deeply unsettling atmosphere that lingers long after the story ends.

Do you have anything you'd like to add about writing horror? I'd love to hear from you so do drop a comment below.

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