Note From KMW: I’ve been delighted to hear that so many of you have enjoyed the “Genre Tips” we’ve been exploring these past five weeks. Today, I’m happy to share a surprise post to finish off the series! Welcome to “How to Write Horror.”
As you may remember, I crafted the series around the five major genres to which I felt I could bring value (those being Fantasy, Romance, Historical, Mystery, and Literary). One major genre I did not feel qualified to write about, simply because I don’t read or watch much of it, is Horror. In response to my mentioning this in the series’ opening post, Horror aficionado Oliver Fox stepped up to go deep in a guest post on this popular genre.
Today, I’m happy to share with you a thought-provoking and thorough examination of this archetypal genre.
In the post, Oliver talks about important tips and tricks for structure and theme in Horror, as well as the symbolic “character triad” of the Haunted House, the Average Joe, and the Monster.
Keep reading for more!
Horror may be the least understood and most maligned genre. It is usually portrayed as revelry in violence, gore, and nihilism, and thus something immoral—perhaps even wicked. Or horror stories are thought of as loose narratives punctuated by a series of jump-scares. Sadly, these are accurate portrayals of many stories that have become mainstream in the horror genre. However, it’s worth considering whether glorying in the darkest human tendencies is necessary or even desirable in horror.
My aim is to determine the essence of horror and explore it using stories that provoke our deepest fears without relying on our reactions to surprises, deformity, and death. I believe great horror aims for more lingering types of fear brought about by experiences of the Uncanny and the Unknown, unsettling us and filling us with dread. Thus, equipped with a more nuanced understanding of horror, this article will explore how to write horror.
Now that we have a better idea of what isn’t necessary to horror, let’s consider what the genre’s essential qualities are and how to write horror using the Big Three of storytelling as our guides: Character, Plot, and Theme.
3 Tips for How to Write Horror
Character Triad in Horror: The Haunted House, The Average Joe, and The Monster
The Haunted House
In this article, I’m treating the setting as a character, which isn’t unprecedented; the idea of setting as character has existed for a while. Like a human character, a setting that is a character has a past with consequences that linger into the present. Through an understanding of the setting’s past and present, we get hints how it might interact with the characters within—what it might “do” to them in the future.
The archetypal horror setting is the Haunted House. The setting doesn’t have to be a literal house—it could be anything: a derelict research lab, a stranded spaceship, or an arctic research facility. What’s most important are a few key features.
The Haunted House must be:
- Evoke a sense of Lingering Dread because of some terrible past events that occurred there—although often that past isn’t immediately apparent.
The horror setting is haunted by its past, perhaps metaphorically (in that there are still hints and vestiges of said past) or perhaps literally (by something monstrous tethered to it, actively stalking its corridors).
For Example: In the film Alien, there are two Haunted Houses. The first is the planet where the Nostromo’s crew lands to investigate the source of a signal. There, they discover a collection of unsettling tableaux: a crashed spaceship, within it a fossilized humanoid alien, and a room full of large, leathery eggs. Nothing is actively stalking the setting, but the Nostromo’s crew can tell this was the site of some horrific event. While on the planet, one of the crew members foolishly tinkers with the eggs and becomes host to a parasite which injects him with an embryo. Soon the embryo gestates, bursts from the unfortunate crewman, and begins actively haunting the Nostromo, picking off the crew one by one.
The Average Joe/Jane
In many genres, the protagonist is someone extraordinary, whether in capabilities or because of some special origin and destiny. However, this trope doesn’t work for horror. In horror, the protagonist ought to be exceptional only in a lack of any capabilities or resources. This is to emphasize their vulnerability as they navigate the Haunted House and face the Monster, increasing the audience’s concern for their safety. Think about it: a story about Thor going up against a Japanese ghost girl inspires zero tension, no matter how spooky the ghost is. To build tension, we need to be acutely aware of the protagonist’s helplessness.
For Example: In the book and film Rosemary’s Baby, Rosemary is a young stay-at-home wife pregnant with her first child. Rosemary has recently moved into a new building where she knows no one. Virtually everyone marginalizes and disenfranchises her: her new neighbors gaslight her whenever she raises concerns about strange goings on, her doctor insists she ignore her instincts about her pregnancy, and even her husband abuses her. Rosemary is disempowered in every way imaginable and has no one to turn to when she realizes she and her child are at the center of a cultic conspiracy. With the odds stacked against Rosemary, we can’t help but fear for her safety.
The Monster is the central figure in all horror stories. According to horror philosopher Noel Carroll, a horrific monster is anything outside the natural order.
It is unnatural because it is a:
- Fusion of opposites (eg., vampires, who are simultaneously dead and alive).
- Fission. This indicates oddly paired or sequenced elements (e.g., werewolves, who are humans most of the time but can change into creatures capable of indiscriminately murdering loved ones).
- Formlessness. These are misshapen (even shapeless) creatures, which break down our established categories (e.g., a sentient blob or mist consuming everything in its path).
But Monsters can’t be just unnatural; they must also be morally impure deviants. Deviant Monsters willfully upend moral values by indulging in harmful taboos, such as acts of violence toward the self and others. Such moral monsters are the perverse mirror image of a hero. Just as heroes represent an idealized vision of humanity who sacrifice their own desires for the needs of others, deviant monsters are vicious in every way, sacrificing the needs of others for their own desires.
For Example: One film that features a Monster in which all three categories are combined into one terrifying creature is The Thing. The Thing is a fusion of opposites: an alien virus that perfectly replicates the infected host at the cellular level, so the resultant hybrid organism is convinced it is still whatever it was originally… until the dormant virus feels threatened. That leads us to fission. The Thing usually appears as a perfect doppelgänger of the organism it has infected, but if it fears it has been found out, it will rip apart the host and repurpose body parts as weapons or extra limbs so it can escape. Third, when the Thing dismantles its host, the person’s appearance becomes misshapen to the point of formlessness. Finally, the Thing is morally impure because it inflicts violence on its victims at every level of their being by invading their bodies, destroying them, and co-opting their constituent parts to serve its own purposes.
Story Structure in Horror: Tension-Release Cycles
When writing horror, the temptation is to dive headlong into the action, to throw the Average Joe into the Haunted House straight away and cut loose the Monster. However, the audience needs time to connect with the protagonist, to unravel steadily the mystery of the setting’s dreadful past, to wonder what kind of monster lurks just out of sight. That may all sound counterintuitive, but consider this: if you don’t know the characters well enough to care about them, are you going to worry when a Monster stalking them from the shadows of the Haunted House? If we know all the gruesome details about the setting’s past from the get-go, it’s like working a puzzle with detailed instructions on hand; we won’t get the sensation of dawning comprehension—we don’t experience the chilling realization, “Oh, _______ happened in this room. This place was for _______!” If we are familiar with the Monster too early on—its appearance, methods, and intentions—it is demoted to the status of a typical villain.
To create tension, skilled horror writers set up the expectation of something terrible happening while ensuring the audience can’t predict when it will happen. The buildup to a scare is as important as the scare itself. Let the audience do the work of building tension for you during the long, quiet moments by filling these stretches with false threats: moving shadows, deceptive images in mirrored surfaces, background noises, etc.
Okay, so build tension, then let all heck loose and keep it coming nonstop, right? Nope! Just as it is essential for tension to build to a breaking point in horror, so too should we ensure the audience is given time to recuperate and catch their breath before introducing the next scare. Otherwise, you risk exhausting them until they are emotionally spent by the time you reach the final confrontation with the Monster.
For Example: Stephen King’s IT brilliantly shows each aspect of the tension-release cycle in horror. The story opens by introducing each member of the Loser’s Club, giving you time to get to know them enough that you care about their safety. We then see a brief encounter with the monster, IT—just enough that we have some sense of what he’s done, but not to where we fully understand the extent of ITs intent and capabilities. Then we move on to the next member of the Loser’s Club. This cycle occurs for each character, creating emotional peaks and valleys. The setup for a new character’s story functions as the emotional valley for the previous character’s tension-release cycle.
Theme in Horror: Facing the Monsters Within
For me, all these elements come together to suggest that horror, at its best, holds up a mirror to the audience, helping them consider a central thematic question: what is monstrous within themselves and how can they overcome that monstrousness?
The horror protagonist is ordinary, as are we, allowing us to empathize with them. They become our avatar. The Haunted House represents self-reflection, a place wherein we feel alienated, isolated, and disempowered because we are alone with ourselves. The Monster is an embodiment of the worst aspects of ourselves, the things we keep hidden from the rest of the world out of shame; these are our darkest desires run amok, haunting our conscience.
If we apply this theory at every level while designing our Horror story, we can create a truly rich narrative. For example:
- The Average Joe character is haunted by a deep moral flaw and/or selfish past action (or failure to act) that they find monstrous about themselves.
- Both the Haunted House and the Monster evoke that flaw, embodying it so the protagonist cannot ignore them.
- The story climaxes when the Average Joe enters the Haunted House and faces the Monster who embodies their own flaw.
- The ending tells us something about the destructive nature of the moral flaw the Monster embodies, or at least the danger of waiting too long to face it.
For Example: The Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” is a masterclass of the horror model described above. Strange things happen in a quiet, isolated suburb, prompting a little boy to draw comparisons between the strange events and a story he’d read about alien invaders. Some of the other citizens buy into the boy’s alien invasion theory and, fueled by old personal grudges, begin accusing one another of being alien monsters. The accusations devolve the situation into an all-out witch-hunt; the citizens of the neighborhood commit atrocities against those they fear are monsters. The theme that unfolds can be described as: “When we ignore our prejudice for too long, that prejudice grows into outright fear, then hatred—a hatred which demonizes others to where we can justify even the most evil actions taken against them until we become something demonic ourselves.” This terrifying premise unfolds with no jump scares and few depictions of violence.
Contrary to popular belief, great horror stories are not just exercises in violence, gross-outs, and gore. At their best, they are apt, timely, and frightening social commentaries and self-reflections filtered through the lens of metaphor. True horror might even be the most moral genre, thanks to its uncompromising depiction of monstrous evil as horrifying. I hope you find this article insightful, interesting, and helpful as you write your own horror stories!
Previous Posts in This Series:
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you ever written in the horror genre? What are your thoughts on how to write horror? Tell me in the comments!
References and Further Reading
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