Horror Writing: Embracing Fear, Shock, and Disgust

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Good horror writing will keep your reader on edge, glancing nervously over their shoulder even in broad daylight. The following post will give you some insight into the human psyche and how to turn up the scare-factor.

Chainsaws are not always the answer

Horror is a delightful concoction of fear, shock and/or disgust served with a side-car of terror. Let’s talk about the topic of your horror writing. Real horrors do not necessarily need to include rusty, sharp, metal objects. That’s the easy route. Consider these clichés when you begin your writing, then make a conscious decision to either embrace them to your bloody heart or run in the opposite direction.

Visceral fears like losing a loved one, failure, being alone are a great place to start exploring. Horror and tragedy are not that far apart. We see tragedy in the news every day and think, I’m so thankful that’s not happening to me. Exploit that, horrify your reader, then make them feel disgusted.

Consider this quote from the master of horror himself, Uncle Stevie–aka Stephen King:

I’ll try to terrify you first, and if that doesn’t work, I’ll horrify you, and if I can’t make it there, I’ll try to gross you out. I’m not proud.

Your Horror writing lacks Background Music

Horror film-makers rely on background music to warn the viewer of potential dangers. As a writer, your job is to create the background music with your words. Monsters are much more terrifying before we see them. Think of the music in Jaws. Those simple notes, to this day, indicate suspense followed by a nasty, bloody end. How will you replicate John William’s iconic dunt, dunt–dunt, dunt with your build up?

It’s all about Tone and Pacing

Some people feel that the world slows down right before something awful happens. For example, a ball rolls into the street and a child runs after it. In the too-close distance, a car speeds towards the ball. All those milliseconds before impact should be packed with details, lengthening the inevitable and building the suspense. What does the light gleaming off the chrome look like? How would you describe the smile of the child? Or the bright richness of the cherry-red ball?

Saying what you need to say with a sparsity of words will keep your tone and pacing both succinct and powerful. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is a fantastic course of study. His word choice is painstakingly poignant. He clears away all the unnecessary bits to get to the heart of the emotion. However, his pacing makes the hair stand up on your arms. McCarthy is the master of a slow build.

In The Road, a young son and his father navigate a post-apocalyptic world. They see a house that they should probably avoid. But they don’t. They slowly size up the could-be shelter, the father takes his time exploring the house. Then he hears a noise coming from the basement …

He started down the rough wooden steps. He ducked his head and then flicked the lighter and swung the flame out over the darkness like an offering. Coldness and damp. An ungodly stench. He could see part of a stone wall. Clay floor. An old mattress darkly stained. He crouched and stepped down again and held out the light.

Huddled against the back wall were naked people, male and female, all trying to hide, shielding their faces with their hands. On the mattress lay a man with his legs gone to the hip and the stumps of them blackened and burnt. The smell was hideous.

Jesus, he whispered.

Then one by one they turned and blinked in the pitiful light. Help us, they whispered. Please help us.

The real horror in this passage is the reveal that comes after. These humans are being held captive for food. Ah, depravity. As a horror writer, this is yet another fine box to open and explore.

Explore and then exploit your own demons

And, finally, take some advice from the Queen of the Damned herself, Anne Rice. We all have a darkness we keep buried within our rib cage. Think about running towards those feelings instead of running away. I’ll leave you with her words:

I lost my mother when I was 14. My daughter died at the age of 6. I lost my faith as a Catholic. When I’m writing, the darkness is always there. I go where the pain is.


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About Author

Heather Rigney is a fiction writer, blogger, journalist, and art teacher based in Rhode Island. Author of The Merrow Trilogy--a dark, historical fantasy novel that deals with homicidal mermaids, the colonial suppression of women, and a present-day alcoholic funeral director trying to make sense of it all. Her writing has been featured in Motif Magazine and Stone Crowns Magazine. By day she teaches art at an all-girls Quaker school and at night she tries to be creative while avoiding too many sweets. You can read more about Ms. Rigney on her website: www.heatherrigney.com

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