Horror is a messy sea of subgenres and phobias. While most of us discover its chills through scary movies and graphic novels, horror boasts a strong literary tradition that ranges from Goosebumps to Frankenstein. A million and two alternative styles float around, outside, and between them, but they all rely on the same five senses, and nothing can put the audience in a character’s skin like written stories. The more senses used, the more immersive the story becomes.
Frankly, you all know how to use sight in horror. You’ve seen the movies. It’s about what you don’t see, how carnage contrasts with comfort, and the visceral flip of reality. Other mediums do a great job with horror visuals, and you can learn a lot by studying horror illustration and film to develop your internal database of creepy, gory, disturbing things. The other senses, however, reign supreme in books.
Hearing is, in my humble opinion, one of the most under-utilized senses in horror writing. Focus is given to visuals and descriptions of pain. And yet, the books that kept me up at night as a kid were the ones with audio cues.
Get creative with the sounds your beasties make, with what killers do and do not say, and with the ambience of a dark room. What’s the worse place a sound could come from? Don’t go for under the bed, in the closet, or at the window.
Ever been on a walk in the middle of the night and heard wind chimes? They aren’t calming. Horror screams through unpleasant juxtaposition. Try finding a daylight noise that would freak you out at night, like an ice cream truck jingle, or even a lawnmower.
Ever touch something that make your skin crawl? Ever had someone stand too close on a train or bus, not breaking any rules, but just ruffling your hair with their breath? That’s the horror of touch. It goes beyond describing severe ouchies. It’s a sensation you can’t explain, control, or escape.
Horror and suspense are conjoined twins. When you plan to include body horror in your writing – like a graphic loss of limbs – make sure the audience has lived in those pieces before they’re lost. While the idea of losing a finger makes us all cringe, it doesn’t have the same impact when we know it isn’t ours.
It’s like the rubber hand experiment. A partition blocks the participant’s view of one hand, usually the dominant one. What they see instead is a fake appendage. Whoever is running the experiment brushes the top of both the real and fake hand with paint brushes, maybe applies a drop of water, and lets the participant gradually confuse the hand they see with something that’s actually attached to their arm. Then the experimenter swings a hammer at the fake hand, and the participants usually freak out, expecting pain.
That’s what good horror writing does. Make them feel the hand. Let them get comfortable. Then hack it off.
Writing taste is strange. It involves the other senses in fiction just as much as it relies on them in real life. Tearing a crusty loaf of bread makes your mouth water. So does watching butter melting into the slice. You can use words like salty and sweet, but they don’t mean much without the associated visuals.
In horror, this means you can introduce something vile and then surprise readers by making them taste it. For instance, a character examines the slick green walls of an old sewer tunnel, wonders if the pools of water at their feet are brown from algae or feces, and then lands face-first in one.
Taste is also texture. They say giants grind up bones to make their bread. What consistency would bone-meal bread have?
Smell is hard to describe, but it has the strongest link to memory of all the senses. While you’re always welcome to try explaining the smell of an alien planet, I’ve found the sense works best for me in familiar situations. Waking up to a nosebleed is a strange mix of scents. Everything smells like pennies, so much so the copper is almost a fume, but there’s snot in there, too, and usually the scent of laundry detergent from my pillow.
Again, juxtaposition is your ally. Imagine smelling birthday cake while descending the steps of your old family home’s basement, only to find a scene of carnage below. Your nose says vanilla, but your eyes say blood.
How do you use your senses in horror? What scenes scared you most as a reader, and what senses did they exploit? Share your tips and experiences below!