Horror often gets short shrift as a pop genre low on literary merit. That never fails to get my hackles up.
Telling a good horror story requires an intimate understanding of human emotions and psychology and the bravery to project yourself into the perspectives of characters in situations that test the limits of human physical and mental endurance. You have to be able to understand, and communicate, what it means to be mortal and vulnerable in situation you don't have control over.
In fact, I think horror might be the genres that does the most heavy lifting with the feeling of human vulnerability.
A good horror story needs to do more than just put something scary on the page or screen.
A good horror story makes its horror felt as well as witnessed.
We, the reader or audience, need to experience the fear through a character's vulnerability. Great horror puts characters that we identify with put in vulnerable situations whose danger we experience viscerally.
Those two elements—seeing ourselves in a character, and seeing that character put in a situation we would never want to be in—combine for a powerful double whammy of fear.
If you’ve managed to write a really scary monster idea, or a powerful horror premise, but the fear just isn’t coming through to its fullest potential, consider how to express that fear through a character’s experience of vulnerability.
Adding Psychological Vulnerability to Horror
Let's pretend your horror story is about a sentient, walking hive of spiders. (By the way, if you don't like spiders, you'll want to skip this blog! I decided to run with it for this one.)
A simple scene might include a laboratory biologist getting eaten alive by the spider monster. Gross, and definitely horrifying. But could it be more horrifying? I'd say yes.
Let's add some vulnerability.
Let's really sell your reader the helplessness the biologist feels as she's being swarmed. That's going to involve mentally projecting yourself into the vulnerable position of the character.
How would you feel as thousands of legs crawl over every inch of your skin faster than you can brush them off? You'd be panicked. They are all over you, and there is no way to get away because every movement carries them with you.
How would it feel to have the biological expertise to understand exactly what is happening to your body as it shuts down. You know the panic is making your heartrate increase, spreading the venom from hundreds of tiny bites through your bloodstream and body, but you are unable to stop it.
How would it feel to have a front row seat of your own body betraying you at the most critical moment of survival? To feel the paralysis set in and watch as the spiders begin to tuck into their meal?
That's vulnerability-driven fear. It's a rich vein to tap for horror.
It's also why horror often benefits from content warnings and trigger warnings. Writing horror with vulnerability often means exploring the depths of trauma, really putting the reader in the place of someone experiencing something horrifying, and people deserve the right to opt out of being traumatized (or often, retraumatized).
Amplifying Psychological Horror Through Character Sympathy
If you really want to put your readers through the ringer, make the horror happen to someone they care about it.
Let's take our spider monster story.
Our poor biologist is dead, but her two interns have survived. One of them ran for the observation room and shut himself in. The other sealed themself in a soundproof testing chamber. Their only way of communicating is through the intercom, or by gesturing through the shared observation window.
At first they keep their spirits up by chatting. They tell each other—and the reader—why they volunteered to work on the project. What obstacles they overcame to be here. The insecurities and fears they brought with them to the lab.
We like them. We understand those motivations. We want them to be okay.
Then the lights in the testing chamber flicker and turn emergency red. The oxygen is running low and the flow can only be restored from the control panel where their former boss' body fell, and the spider swarm seems to have settled into a dormant state.
We could frame this scene from either character's perspective to work a powerful vulnerability angle.
For the intern in the observation room, we could describe him seeing his companion bang helplessly on the glass as their oxygen-starved brain begins to panic. We could describe how they screw up their nerve and slowly open the door to the lab, creeping toward the control panel. No movement from the spiders. Now he's within inches of the dormant spiders. If the arachnid swarm wakes up, he will be covered in seconds. He's never felt so exposed. Still, he carefully steps over the dormant mass of legs and fangs and manages to reach the oxygen control. There is a gentle whoosh, and he looks up to see the relief on his companion's face through the glass porthole in the chamber door as oxygen rushes in. Then their expression turns to horror. Before he can turn around, the spiders are on him.
We could equally frame this same scene through the other intern's perspective. The feeling of panic as the emergency lights go red, the claustrophobia of the oxygen levels dropping. They see their only ally risk everything to leave safety and make their way toward the controls. Everything is on the line, and if this all goes poorly, they will be unable to help. They lurch toward the door's porthole window, desperate to keep their companion in view. He steps over the unmoving spiders. There is a moment of relief as the oxygen is restored, but then they see the spiders start to stir behind their friend, but it is too late to warn them. Just like that, the spiders strike, and our protagonist is totally on their own, watching their only ally die.
By having built up the characters, both in terms of their own goals, and the way they have come to depend on each other, the vulnerability of their situation is amplified. The horror grips us not just psychologically, but emotionally. We are there with the character as their hopes (or intestines) are eviscerated.
(You'll notice this example also plays with the dual elements of suspense and surprise, which I talk about in my previous blog. )
If you find that a horror story of yours is falling flat, consider increasing the reader's investment in the point-of-view characters, and putting those characters in a situation of vulnerability.
You might be surprised by how strong the result is.
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 expansion and boosters in case you want some inspiration to practice with the ideas from this blog!
Horror writing prompt: A werewolf wants to overcome a fear of a seaside hunt but they will have to trade their most precious resource.
Horror writing prompt: An unsleeping nomad.
Horror writing prompt: A survivalist wants to uphold a family legacy involving a hidden well but the door between the living and the dead will open.