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

Return to Speculative Fiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

It all began thousands of years ago in some dark and smoky cave with a tale-teller chanting to his awe-struck tribe huddled around a sputtering fire. He told of strange beasts, angry gods, and dark magic afoot in a dangerous world. In other words, horror stories.

All known societies have a rich history of these supernatural myths and legends. Their purpose, like fairy tales for children, is to explain the threatening universe beyond the cave, to simplify a confusing world seemingly dominated by forces greater than ourselves.

But we're civilized now. No more of that "moon eating the sun" business. We know an astronomical event when we see one. Why, we don't even throw virgins into volcanoes anymore to keep them (the volcanoes) from erupting.

Yet we still love our horror tales. Today they enjoy unprecedented popularity. In the past twenty years more horror novels have been published than in the entire previous history of the printed word. Stephen King has over 100 million copies of his books in print, with Dean R. Koontz nipping at his buttocks.

Horror is everywhere in our post-print media, too. The genre's three archetypes -- the Vampire, the Monster, and the Ghost -- have been immortalized in the breakfast cereals Count Chocula, Frankenberry, and Boo Berry. On TV, horror is used to hawk everything from floor polish to charge cards. Horror films remain one of Hollywood's most bankable genres. And don't forget that the music video which ignited the best-selling album of all time, Michael Jackson's 1982 "Thriller," was nothing if not a little shop of horrors.

Horror's Awe-ful Appeal

The first task for a writer looking to publish in this genre is to understand the reasons for such enormous popularity, to fathom the complex social and emotional elements which fueled the horror "boom" that began in the early 1970s and continues today. Like Freddie Kreuger and Jason, horror refuses to die. And to write it successfully, we need to know why.

When H.P. Lovecraft observed in the 1930s that the appeal of horror was narrow because it required imagination and detachment from life, the Rhode Island recluse couldn't have anticipated the profound threats to our imaginations and lives the last decade of this century.

Can anyone doubt that we live in a horrific world? Middle Eastern madmen overflow with pent-up doom, the AIDS virus stalks our globe, and above Antarctica there's a hole in the ozone layer that's the size of the continental United States.

Someone should wake up Lovecraft and tell him that imagination and detachment have become requirements for maintaining one's sanity today. Our need for horror stories parallels our sense of alienation, helplessness and fear -- as common today as pop-up ads on AOL. Horror provides a way for us to deal with these emotions. It lets us confront them in a make-believe world, gain a sense of control there, and bring a little of it back with us.

The Horror in Your House

But a horror writer need look no further than his own backyard to find his subject matter: the misery of our inner cities, the cold-eyed insanity of Timothy McVeigh, children who kill and are killed. There's real horror in loneliness and rage, in twisted love and jealously, in the rampant corporate greed that threatens to rot us from within. Much of today's horror is about these dark stains on our souls, the cancers of our minds.

Since Lovecraft's time we've fooled ourselves into thinking that the universe is fully explainable in terms of natural laws which are discoverable through science. Once we understand these laws, the reasoning goes, we'll be the undisputed masters of the universe and our lives in it. Yet, at the same time, we suspect and hope that there are still occult forces out there that we can never fully understand. We are driven to seek them out because our science and rationalism threaten to rid the universe of all mystery.

Taming the Beast Within

But there's another appeal of horror that we mustn't fool ourselves about: The innate violence of our species, distilled and pure as plutonium, fuels horror literature and serves as metaphor for the everyday brutality lying beneath the surface of our lives.

This compulsion to violence is another legacy from our early hominid ancestors, who fought off extinction on the African veldt. Eons of biologic evolution have ingrained the savage instincts of the hunter into us, yet our current lives provide little opportunity for its expression. In many ways we have become automatons regulated by the corporation's clock and must suppress our savagery, paying the price in ulcers, heart disease, and social psychopaths like the D.C. snipers.

The emotional and physical violence of horror literature acts as a safety valve for our repressed animalism. What commuter doesn't cheer for King Kong as he rips the five o'clock train from its tracks? Who hasn't wished to strike out against the nameless, faceless regulation of our lives, a conformity that threatens to turn us into unthinking, unfeeling workaholics? Who doesn't see in Frankenstein's monster, who was refused the affection he craved, the expression of our own innate hostilities?

Few of us in this complex, technological, alienating world have not felt at times misunderstood, unappreciated, alone, and dehumanized. Horror stories are a convenient and harmless way of striking back, of giving in to those mysterious and feral forces, allowing them to take control and wrack havoc on the stultifying regularity of our lives.

A safety valve. One which allows us to exercise, in the words of Stephen King, "those antisocial emotions which society demands we keep stoppered up ... for society's and our own good." We can also understand why this literature appeals so strongly to adolescents in the process of rebelling against authority and social conformity. Horror literature, like rock 'n' roll, is strenuously antisocial and especially popular with teens experimenting with the extremes of their emotions.

A Walk on the Dark Side

Horror also appeals to the morbid in us. We hold an inescapable fascination with the grave and the dark mystery of death. At the instant of our birth, the countdown to oblivion begins as each passing moment brings us closer to death. It is said that Voltaire possessed a clock which, in addition to chiming the hour, intoned the solemn words: "One hour nearer the grave."

Death is the one aspect of life that cannot be denied. And as Stephen King observed, the reading of horror and supernatural tales is a form of preparation for our own deaths, a "danse macabre" before the void, as well as a way to satisfy our curiosity about the most seminal event in our lives except birth.

A Search for God

So perhaps the ultimate appeal of horror is the affirmation that it provides. The opposite of death is life. If supernatural evil exists in this world, as many horror stories posit, so must supernatural good. Black magic is balanced by white. The Wicked Witch of the West met her match in Glenda, the Good Witch of the North. If the fallen angel Lucifer lives and is at work in our lives, so must be God.

In a starkly rational world that would banish such beings, horror literature gives them back to us: their magic, their power, the reality they once held in simpler times. As critics over the years have noted, fantasy literature works like religion in our lives. It helps to satisfy our need to believe in forces greater than ourselves, worlds different from our own. It touches that part of us that dreams of what never was and can never be. But for a brief and magic moment it is real and we believe.

And are filled with awe.

Find Out More...

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

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

Do Werewolves Wear Shoes? Building Successful Horror Characters - Shaunna Privratsky

What Makes a Horror Writer? - Elizabeth Peake

Copyright © 2003 David Taylor
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

David Taylor's horror and dark suspense fiction has appeared in anthologies such as Masques, Pulphouse and Scare Care; and in magazines like Cemetery Dance, Sci-Fi Channel Magazine and Gorezone. His 1990 short story "Lessons in Wildlife" earned an honorable mention in that year's "Best Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy" awards. Author and coauthor of five horror novels, David's latest works are a collection of short stories, Hell is for Children, and a guide to nonfiction writing, The Freelance Success Book.


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