I love good horror stories. As far back as I can remember, I’ve loved being pushed to the edge of my nerves, being terrified to the point that I couldn’t sleep, wondering if the ping, ping, ping outside my bedroom window was the sound of killers breaking in or simply magpies pecking at the dog’s dish again.
I grew up watching Dark Shadows, Night Stalker, Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, and any horror movie that was playing after midnight on the UHF channels on Friday and Saturday night.
I never stopped to think about why I liked these, let alone why certain stories had the power to frighten me. I just loved the feeling of being carried off to another world, being in the middle of the action, and being completely powerless to alter the outcome.
While I enjoyed the crisp telling of a good horror story on television and in movies, the first book I remember being truly terrified by was Stephen King’s “The Stand.” I had just completed basic military training where 30 of my closest friends and I shared not only military training but also seemingly every germ any of us had ever encountered. For more than a month, it was a continual transference of viruses so coughing and sniffles were rampant for all of us.
As the story unfolded it became apparent that during the time I’d spent in basic training, a new strain of virus had been launched on the world. I plunged into the book as I battled my perpetual cold symptoms, every sniffle and sneeze convincing me that Project Blue had claimed another victim. Captain Trips had me and I was not going to survive to the end of King’s epic masterpiece.
After I finished the book and crawled out from under the covers, I asked myself why this book scared me, why I had bought into King’s story. Why did this book scare me when others had failed?
The answer was simple: I believed this could actually happen to me.
The symptoms of King’s killer superflu weren’t far-fetched. It wasn’t like the victims were covered in paisley warts or grew third arms in the middle of their foreheads. The onset of the superflu was marked by simple sniffles and sneezes, symptoms I’d experienced often in my life and was, in fact, experiencing as I read the book. I could have been part of King’s 99% of the population affected by this killer bug.
Over the years, as I’ve watched, read, and especially written in this genre, I’ve thought back to the simplicity with which King roped me in. I noticed that all good horror stories (in addition to good storytelling, of course) presented the terror as something that could happen to the audience. It was presented as something that could happen to me.
Of course all the other elements of a good story have to be there for the horror to work. The writer must create believable characters the reader (or audience) cares about. The theme of the story has to resonate with the reader and the action must engage them, propelling the story – and reader – forward.
If the reader isn’t emotionally invested in a story’s characters, the action will have no impact. Here’s an example (as well as shameless self-promotion): the opening scene of my short story “Love Stinks” presents a graphic murder scene. A man lies dead on the kitchen floor, a kitchen knife buried to the hilt in his lower abdomen. Blood and effluvium fill the room and a woman and small child are witness to it all.
But there isn’t any horror. There is no emotional reaction to the graphic display depicted in this scene whatsoever, in fact. It’s intentionally a simple recitation of the facts, a sterile description of the scene in the kitchen. As a result, there is no horror associated with it.
First, we don’t yet know or care about the characters involved. We don’t know the man who’s been killed. We don’t know the woman or the boy who stand over his dead body. In other words, this didn’t happen to real people because we don’t know who these people are.
Later in the same story, however, there is another murder scene involving the two main characters. At this point in the story, however, there is an emotional reaction because now we know them and empathize enough to care what happens to them. The fact that the reader cares about the characters makes this scene matter. It makes it horrible.
Another distinction between horror and any other good fiction is the nature of the action. The action must be such that it creates fear for the characters and, by extension, the reader. There has to be a genuine danger and the stakes of the characters’ conflict have to be graver than in other fiction forms.
Of course, putting a character the reader cares about in danger isn’t unique to horror. For example, in John Grisham’s “The Firm,” Mitch McDeere is a truly sympathetic character. He’s presented to the reader as very likeable, someone who has pulled himself up by the bootstraps to make a life for himself and his wife. Grisham puts this likeable character in grave danger by pitting him at odds with dangerous elements, people who want him dead and against whom there appears no defense for poor, overmatched Mitch.
But while certainly a well-crafted thriller, “The Firm” would never be considered horror. We have some of the elements of horror: good story, likeable characters, grave danger, and fast-moving action.
So what’s missing? Why didn’t “The Firm” scare me?
Because I didn’t believe it could happen to me.
I am not an attorney with a high-dollar law firm. I am not – and likely will never be – in circumstances like those faced by Mitch McDeere. I care about him making it out alive but I never once fear for myself.
In The Stand, 99% of the population was affected and I could easily imagine myself in that 99%. I could imagine myself as a writer in an empty Colorado hotel, tormented both by guests from yesteryear and by writer’s block (King’s “The Shining”). I’ve been to the beach and could be eaten by a shark (Peter Benchley’s “Jaws”). I could even imagine myself as one of the poor citizens of Haddonfield, tormented by the killing machine that was Michael Myers in “Halloween.” These horror stories all stir the nerves because they present situations in which I could imagine myself.
And triggering that imagination in the reader is the real challenge facing the horror writer. It’s not the horrific action alone that gives the audience the chills. Don’t believe me? Check out any of the “Final Destination” movies. Absolutely horrific events happen in these stories but, frankly, the stories are pure camp because the elements of a good story aren’t there. It’s gore for gore’s sake and leaves the audience laughing rather than hiding under the covers.
So the final element of delivering a good horror story is to know thy audience. The writer has to know who will be reading the story and how to manipulate their imaginations to the point that they put themselves in the middle of the action, or at least could imagine a scenario in which they could find themselves there.
In other words, the writer has to be at least as invested in the reader as the reader is in the story.
It’s the only way to make them believe it could actually happen to them.
Find out more about Smokey Joe Mayes at http://smokeyjoemayes.blogspot.com/