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What Makes a Horror Writer?
by Elizabeth Peake

Return to Speculative Fiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

When you think of horror, what comes to mind? If you're an average movie viewer, you probably think of Jason Voorhees and Freddie Krueger. The average reader most likely thinks of vampires and werewolves.

But if you are a horror reader, you know exactly what fear means to you. Horror readers are afraid of one thing. They are terrified the horror writer will show them their greatest fear has become reality.

Fear is the weapon of the horror writer.

We horror writers will go into any dark dwelling, any crawl space, anywhere the reader dare not venture. We will take a good, hard look at your fear; then we'll come back and tell you all about it.

We will break the rules and kill off anyone. It doesn't matter if you have grown to love the character. It doesn't matter if the character is young or old. We're rule breakers. That's how we scare you.

We're not concerned with happy endings, warm blankies, and fuzzy slippers. Happiness is not in our job description. Our job is to scare you. And we love our job.

We will take your sense of well being, and feed it to that hungry part of you that wants to be scared. We'll make sure you don't look at common household pets the same way. You'll become suspicious of everyone and everything you once thought safe and secure. And we'll do it long after you put our stories down.

You'll reassure yourself by thinking it's only a story, and stories aren't real. And you'd be right. The story is fiction, a work of someone's imagination.

The underlying theme, however, is very real. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. Sometimes we are out of our environment and feel very uncomfortable. Sometimes, circumstances are beyond our control. Sometimes, some body or some thing wants to take over. And that is very scary.

Why do some readers prefer, even LOVE to read horror? Because we like to be scared. So why not do it safely? We'll take our fear in small doses, one chapter at a time. If the going gets tough, we just need our bookmarks to give us an intermission. We can always go back and face our fear once we have taken a little breather.

Why do horror writers prefer this genre? Because misery loves company, and you WILL be scared with us. We're not facing any fear alone. We're not stupid. We know what's out there, and it's too scary to face alone. Besides, we might need you as bait.

Speaking of fear, let's discuss it a little further. Thirteen sounds like a good number, don't you think?

  • The look on the face of your doctor who is about to tell you the results of your test
  • The confirmed reality that your spouse is having an affair
  • The call in the middle of the night from the police regarding a car accident involving your son or daughter
  • The realization the person peeking through your windows is someone you know or worse, someone you don't
  • The feeling in your gut when you awake and realize your newborn hasn't stirred all night
  • Dark places
  • The low growl your dog makes when you are in the house alone
  • The need to keep both feet covered while you sleep
  • Heights
  • Ground zero
  • Taking a test
  • A police car in your rear view mirror
  • Spiders

Real life horror. Yet something is missing from each of those scenarios. You won't find a vampire or a vengeful mummy in real life. Hideous beings from another world aren't hiding under your bed. Six-foot slugs aren't eating your loved ones right out of their final resting places. Look as far as the eye can see, you still won't find flesh-eating zombies coming toward you.

When writing horror stories, make them plausible. Make your readers believe in your tale with vivid scenarios, strong characters, realistic dialogue, and terror so real they won't question it. They know the story is fiction, but they'll accept that it could happen. That's what storytelling is all about. Make them beg for more.

We've discussed common fears that haunt us in the world today. If you want to write horror, think about the things that really scare you. Think about all the stuff that makes your mouth go dry and your insides shake uncontrollably. Go deep inside, so deep it scares you. Go to that place you refuse to bring to light because it makes you ill to think about such things. When you get there, grab onto those unspeakable fears and talk about them. Those are the stories horror writers need to tell.

Why? Horror is changing because horror readers are changing. They've grown weary of reading the same stuff with different names and different towns. They want to be scared to the point of no return. The only sure way to do that is to show them their real fears.

If you want to show the reader what scares him, then show him what scares you. Go deep and face your fear.

Find Out More...

Do Werewolves Wear Shoes? Building Successful Horror Characters, by Shaunna Privratsky

How to Write Today's Horror, Part I: The Seeds of Horror, by David Taylor

How to Write Today's Horror, Part II: What Today's Readers Want, by David Taylor

How to Write Today's Horror, Part III: What Today's Readers Don't Want, by David Taylor

Copyright © 2002 Elizabeth Peake
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Elizabeth Peake is a member of the Horror Writers Association.


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