Here we are in October, my favorite time of year. I happen to like scary movies. Not slasher flicks, but stories that disturb the psyche and really rattle us down on a visceral level. There are different levels of fear—shock, revulsion, terror, etc. As a genre, horror seems to have more subgenres and classifications that any other. I don’t profess to be any kind of an expert, beyond the discerning taste of a consumer. I believe horror to be one of the most difficult genres to write. Modern-day audiences are far more sophisticated and tougher to rattle. I feel that those authors brave enough to endeavor to scare us out of our wits have their work cut out for them. Like horror writers, ALL authors would be wise to learn from the masters. So today we are going to explore three lessons all of us can take away from the Masters of Horror.
Like great horror authors, great writers must be masters of understanding human psychology.
One of the best horror novels I’ve ever read was The Shining by Stephen King. What makes this story so terrifying is that Jack Torrence starts out a normal, yet flawed guy. He battles a temper and has a history of alcoholism. We, the reader, are introduced to a man who is penitent and trying to make a new life for a family he loves. He genuinely is trying to be a good father and husband. Yet, at the very beginning King gives us a whisper of the darkness that will eventually eclipse this family until it can blot out their very existence, and the only power that can thwart the darkness is, of course, the light…appropriately called the Shining.
For me, though, what made this book so terrifying was the devolution of Jack. It was the steady unraveling of his mind and how he disintegrated over the course of the story that bothered me on a primal level. I genuinely related to Jack in the beginning, even liked him and saw in him a reflection of my own human weakness. King then exploits that weakness leaving me, the reader, well aware how vulnerable all of us are to the darkness.
I personally hated Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrence in the Kubrick version of The Shining. To me Nicholson was a dreadful casting choice in that he seemed crazy as a bed bug in the first scenes and was utterly unlikable. By contrast, the beauty of the novel was that Jack Torrence was flawed, but most importantly, he was likable and sympathetic. What made the book so disturbing was Jack’s progressive descent into darkness as his mind spiraled toward madness. He began sane, and then changed. In the beginning, we see a loving father and husband. By the end, he is chasing that same family he loved with an ax. King had a deep appreciation for the human psyche and that was why he was so brilliantly able to torment our soft and tender parts.
This type of acute understanding of psychology, I feel, makes the different between caricatures and three-dimensional characters.
Like horror authors, we are wise to appreciate the power of the flawed character.
I feel that often King is called the Master of Horror because he is truly brilliant in depicting flawed characters. King then uses these flaws as a place that the darkness can gain a toe-hold so it can take over an inch at a time. For instance, in Duma Key, Edgar Freemantle survives a horrific crane accident where he loses an arm and incurs a terrible head injury which leaves him with brain damage, memory loss, depression, and mood swings. Through much of the book, the reader finds it hard to discern what is real and unreal, what is outward evil versus what is torment from Edgar’s own mind. Edgar goes into this battle damaged, broken in a way that could happen to any of us on an unlucky day. We are able to slip easily into Edgar’s place because he is imperfect, and we can relate. Because we can slip into Edgar’s place, we then share in his torment. Horror will only work if the writer can get the reader squarely into the protagonist’s shoes to experience the distress and anguish first-hand.
It is no mistake that Poe wrote “The Cask of Amontillado” from first-person POV.
Great horror authors know that less can be more. Sometimes the unknown is more terrifying.
Want to ramp up tension in your book? Don’t feel the need to explain everything. As humans we always like neat and tidy answers, so feel free to yank that away and watch us squirm. I think one of the strengths in Clive Barker’s Hellraiser series was that he never fully explained this rip in the fabric of this dimension and the next. He made allusions, and never gave satisfying explanations. For me, at least, this unease of not knowing added to the tension. The religious aspects of the Cenobites, at least early on, seem to be relatively ambiguous. It is perhaps their shocking outward appearance—piercings, ghoulish disfigurement—that makes us, the observers, deem that they are “hellish.” But, in behavior, there is nothing discernably moral or immoral about them. Yet, we knew they had an agenda, and Barker never fully revealed it. I think the not knowing made the stories more terrifying.
The Exorcist is another great example. We never had a full, satisfactory explanation how the little girl became possessed and what happened after Father Karras’s nasty tumble down the stairs. Thus, the author, William Blatty, could capitalize on this unease to make the story sink in and scare our britches off.
Even if you aren’t writing horror, sometimes it is better to leave unanswered questions. Make the reader writhe. Recently I had one of the members of my novel writing workshop ask about a scene at the end of her book where the protagonist’s daughter is kidnapped. This author wanted to write scenes from the perspective of the girl being kidnapped. I asked, “Why?” Those last scenes in the book gearing up to the climax need to be saturated with tension. By writing from the POV of the kidnapped girl, this writer would allow the reader to be at least somewhat at ease. How? The reader would know the girl was at least not dead. Of course, such a tactic would have effectively ruined the tension.
In the end, horror authors have a lot to teach all of us. We all should strive to do at least these three things in our writing.
1) Understand the psychology of our characters.
2) Appreciate the power of the flawed character.
3) Recognize that sometimes less is more.
What are some of your favorite scary movies or novels? Why did they scare you? Share in the comments, .
Until next time…
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