It’s the time of ghouls and goblins, witches and warlocks, princesses and superheroes. It’s also a wonderful time to be a writer. As inspiration gathers in grey skies and polite thieves knocking on your door, you can gather crucial tips on writing horror. It’s the spirit of the season, after all.
Humor and Horror Go Together
People leave fake dead bodies on their lawns – but they configure them like a scene from Ghostbusters. There are insects and giant arachnids creeping along the gutters – but they’re smiling, glowing, or even… sparkly? Some costumes terrify and others summon a giggle, and throughout the dark of night, giggling children prepare to terrorize their parents for the coming days with literal bucket-loads of free candy.
The juxtaposition is essential to the holiday, and it can make your writing better. Maintaining dread throughout an entire novel – while possible – is very, very difficult. It’s also easy to slip into overwrought melodrama if you don’t sprinkle in some humor. The contrast emphasizes the humanity at risk and distracts the reader so the monster in the closet can have a great jump-scare.
The Setting Informs the Reader
Halloween is an incredibly setting-dependent holiday. As a trick-or-treater, you rely on visual clues to determine if a house is giving out candy. Is the porch light on? Did they leave out a bowl of candy, or should you knock? Whether or not a house is decorated may warn you a teen or childish parent is waiting to leap out of the shadows for a laugh.
You can usually tell what type of horror a book or movie is by the setting of the first scene. Is there a looming, mysterious mansion? Hello, Gothic horror. Are a bunch of young adults giggling around a campfire in the woods? Chances are high you’re in slasher territory. But this goes beyond subgenre identification. Setting is essential in any kind of story, but it helps define horror. Is your character isolated? Do they feel overwhelmed, out of place, or trapped? The setting should have context clues for the reader.
It’s All About the Masks
What is Halloween without costumes? They simultaneously veil the wearer’s identity while revealing important information about their goals, dreams, and sense of humor. Teen girls with perfect make-up and tiny costumes celebrate their growing independence while trying to fit into the pantheon of popular kids. That one kid in a slasher mask clearly just wanted to hide his face and have an excuse to stab his little brother with a plastic knife. Your mom dressed up as Raggedy Ann, and there’s just too much to unpack there.
Writers should study these living lessons in character development. Even if two people wear the same costume, you can tell them apart, because their motives for wearing it are completely different. That, and they can’t hide everything about their real selves. They walk differently, move differently, and pick different brands of candy from the bowl.
Horror relies on masks just as much as Halloween, sometimes literally. Watch what anonymity does, look for the accidental honesty in costume choice, and let those insights inform your next monstrosity.
What is your favorite thing about Halloween? Has it taught you any unique lessons about horror? Share your ideas and stories in the comments.