How to Write Horror: Understanding Fear

In my last blog from the “How to Have Halloween at Home” series, I recommended hosting an online scary story circle as an alternative to going out for Halloween. But coming up with a great horror story is easier said than done.

I get asked fairly often about how I develop my ideas for my horror stories and horror writing prompts and I thought I’d share some tips that I’ve found helpful for nurturing the seed of a horror premise into a really compelling horror story.

I'm going to break these out into a few different blogs on themes that I think pay off big time when writing compelling horror.

  • Understanding Fear
  • Understanding Suspense and Surprise
  • Understanding Vulnerability

As a disclaimer: I have a particular way of writing horror that has served me well, but mileage may vary for different writers. If you want to get a sense of my writing style, you can check out these 12 postcard-sized scary stories I shared a couple of weeks ago, or preorder my new book of short stories, which includes a strong sampling of my horror writing.

Alright, let’s get into it!

Understand what fear(s) your monster preys on

Whether the horror in your story comes from a monster, or from the protagonists being put in a terrifying situation, the psychological response starts in the same place: your reader's brain. The most unforgettable horrors often make a tangible threat out of a fear already deep-wired into human psychology.

photo by Alex Iby

Some of these fears are tied to basic evolutionary drives for safety and survival. (No one wants the slasher to stab them to death.) But just as often, good horror connects that base fear to the anxieties of living in modern society that we are otherwise unable or unwilling to confront: fear of losing our identity, of losing control of our rational selves, of our neighbours, of being forgotten, of being turned on by the people and systems that are supposed to protect us.

A lot of great horror connects these evolutionary fears to our modern social ones, without making the tie too obvious.

On one level, the werewolf triggers our fear of the superior predator that might already be in our midst. On another, we fear that we might become the beast, and that the barrier between us and our feral animal nature is thinner than we’d like to believe.

On one level, Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde prey on the fear that we cannot tell a safe member of our circle from a threat. On another, it teases our anxiety that we need only scratch the surface of our baser instincts to discover that we are always on the brink of losing control of our humanity.

You’ll notice a lot of classic horror monsters—zombies, vampires, demons—are both physical predatory threats as well as existential ones. They are threats that we might be turned into, or might take over us.

When you’re concocting a new bit of horror, it's always worth taking a moment to consider:

  • What it is about your monster that triggers a fear impulse?
  • How might that fear impulse express itself in a modern social context?
  • How can you structure the story to highlight these themes, or amplify their effect on the reader?

Whatever fear makes you animal-survival brain itch: that's where you'll find some great horror paydirt. 

PS: If you're looking for more inspiration for your horror writing, I created a deck of endless writing prompts and a horror expansion that's designed to unlock your creativity! You can even get them in a bundle!

I decided to draw a few random prompts from the horror expansions and boosters in case you want some inspiration to practice with the ideas from this blog!

Horror writing prompt: A clown wants to cover up the horrifying secret of a doll.

Horror writing prompt: A clown wants to cover up the horrifying secret of a doll.

Horror writing prompt: A quaint phantom wants to perform a forbidden ritual with/in/on a painting.

Horror writing prompt: A quaint phantom wants to perform a forbidden ritual with/in/on a painting.

Horror writing prompt: A villager wants to imprison a demon inside a coffin but they must face their greatest fear.

Horror writing prompt: A villager wants to imprison a demon inside a coffin but they must face their greatest fear.

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