Momentum BooksWriting Fiction

A Guide To Writing Modern Horror

There’s a feeling these days that the horror genre seems to have run out of ideas. This malaise largely seems to stem from cinema where it seems a year can’t go by without Hollywood recycling another batch of classics horror films for a new generation. The problem here is that in recycling them, three unintended consequences occur:

1. The horror is removed from context.

So much of what made the early horror films great (The Cabinet of Dr CaligariNosferatuFrankenstein) and the later ones (Rosemary’s Baby, The Shining, The Exorcist) were the cultural ideas that were explored through an essentially pop-cultural genre. Positing the same narrative out of time only manages to reduce the story down to a superficial, two-dimensional existence.

2. The horror becomes artificial.

This in itself is logical, given the nature of 21st century filmmaking relying on computer-generated imagery, but ultimately this diminishes the film. Given that horror as a genre requires an intuitive subconscious reaction to something, making that something computer-generated flaws the process. For horror to work, we must believe. We must fear. And that requires physical, practical elements to be used.

3. The blood-spattered slippery slope.

There is an emphasis on outdoing previous horror. Unfortunately, this too-often leads to more gore, rather than better horror. When the genre does throw up the occasional new story, it is invariably one prescribing to the excessive gore trend (Hostel, Wolf Creek, Saw) until we end up with something so far removed from sense (The Human Centipede) that we might as well give up and go weave baskets.

And this isn’t confined solely to cinema. Most of the great horror films were based on books, and so maybe it is there with books we can see possible solutions. It’s worth considering what one of the best has to say about the horror genre here:

‘I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud.’

This three-tiered approach to horror is brilliant. It offers a writer everything they need to know about successful horror writing. But how to put it into practice? How to place terror first, horror second, and gore a distant third?

1. Emphasise the imagination.

Terrorising the reader relies on the fear of the unknown. And the fear of the unknown is infinite. We can imagine (and fear) far more than a writer can ever put on the page. So using this fear as much as possible is important. Aiming for a maximum in anticipation – just what is underneath the bed? – allows the impossible monsters to be possible for just long enough. For a long time it doesn’t matter if the monsters don’t materialise, it’s the sustained threat that they might that makes a terrified reader.

2. Seeing is not believing.

The worry about computer-generated horror need not apply in books. Given that writing relies on a reader’s own visual interpretation, we don’t need to worry so much about it not appearing real. Our minds make it real. So, don’t overplay it. At some point the horror needs to arrive, we need to see what is under the bed, and no matter whether it’s a crazy Nazi dentist or a clown-faced spider monster, it’ll still be real if it’s described well enough. But what keeps it real is its rarity. The writer needs to cherish the horrific monster and save it for when those rare glimpses. And above all else, abhor the gore. The more we see it, the less we believe.

3. Find fear in the future.

A lot of current horror rest on fear of the old, of the buried secrets. I think largely this has to do with two factors: firstly, we can see what’s in front of us so what tends to scare us most is what’s behind. What we’ve left behind in the old countries. Secondly, we’re resting on the laurels of old horror, and so most of the stories, the monsters and the fears are recycled from old stories. The narratives try to explain the recycling by suggesting it’s an old horror reawakened, but really it just suggests we’re looking back for ideas and not forward. And in the end, the foundation texts of horror were all about a fear of the new (the workshops of filthy creation), of the expanding, unknown world.

So, very soon, modern horror should start to fear what’s in front of us. We’re expanding so rapidly that we might soon find ourselves – if we haven’t already – on a falling tightrope with no safety net.

I know someone who locked their copy of The Shining in the spare room they couldn’t bear to sleep with it next to their bed. To read great horror is a strange experience, in that you can’t hope it’ll all be over in a couple of hours like a film. It’s not a rollercoaster where you shut your eyes and wait for it to stop. It might take you weeks to read. And each night you turn off the light and go to sleep knowing the horror is right there and you have to keep reading.


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