What Makes a Great Horror Story?
As a genre, horror has the incredible power to move people to extreme emotion. Why? Because it taps into our collective fear, shame and unconscious impulses. Our earliest mythic creations like Beowulf or even Red Riding Hood stem from horror. From Stephen King to Alfred Hitchcock, horror can be a great challenge for a writer.
1. Home Terror
Notice how many horror stories take place inside the home, like Paranormal Activity or a displaced home like the hotel in The Shining. This is because safe and familiar surroundings are now subverted to become uncanny and terrifying.
Try this: A mother is putting her kids to bed when the lights go out. What next?
The same mother sits on a park bench reading her magazine. When she looks up she sees an old woman in ball gown drift by a tree. Blink. The crone is gone. At home, she sees the same dirty ball gown trail up her stairs before disappearing. Horror often uses these now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t moments. Marisa Peschel’s Night Film does this brilliantly.
Try this: Find a symbol or character that can recur in your tale.
3. Hurt so good
We go on rollercoasters even though they scare us. We date bad men even though we know they’ll end up causing heartbreak. There is a tension between pleasure and fear, sex and the possibility of dying that is used to great effect in terror. Think of the vampire’s kiss—exquisite pain and a powerful erotic connection.
Try this: Rewrite the orgy scene from Dracula in a modern way.
4. The Monster Inside
A flawed character is fascinating to watch as he is undone by the monster inside him. This taps into an inner fear—that we will snap and do dangerous or cruel things. The force of light battling against darker impulses is often used in horror, such as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde or The Dark Half.
Try this: Write down a character’s nightmare as a discussion with a therapist.
5. Urban Legends
Most horror stories devolve from urban legends. The dressing for these stories change from country to country and culture to culture—but the core story is archetypal. In South Africa, evil nurse Daisy de Melker haunts the whole of Johannesburg it seems. She’s a busy ghost.
Try this: Interview your friends about the best ghost story they’ve ever heard – see if there is a similar thread.
6. Thicker than Water
Blood, vomit, milk, semen. Fluids that can be expelled from the body in a violent and abject way work well in horror stories—think of Carrie or The Exorcist as classic examples. These fluids are primal life juices—life is blood, loss of blood is death. Blood is a powerful metaphor in horror.
Try this: A child gets a blood transfusion and seems … changed.
7. Don’t go (too) crazy
As a writer, your task is to build tension and fear in the reader—so don’t have bodies chopped up on every page, or have every sort of demonic creature show up in every chapter. Use one theme, one powerful storyline, leading up to a gut-twisting ending. Tell a good story that just happens to be a horror.
Try this: Write your high school years as a teen horror movie script.
Horror is making a comeback in film and fiction, with many classics being remade or reinvented. Maybe you have the next spinechiller in you.
Five Top Tips To Get You Started
1. Brainstorm as many ideas as you can – no matter how insane
2. Write down the things that scare you – from being stuck in a lift to getting old, from Teletubbies to toenail jam
3. Create a mood or theme board on Pinterest
4. Write out your synopsis as if it was a ghost story being narrated around a camp fire
5. Use details – the shifting tattoo on the flame thrower’s shoulder, the odd-shaped mark in the iris of a lover’s eye, the clock that stops just before three (better yet, 2:45)
Anthony has facilitated courses for Writers Write since 2007. Published both locally and internationally, he was twice a runner-up in the Mills&Boon Voice of Africa short story competition. In 2013, his crime short story was included in Bloody Satisfied, an anthology sponsored by the National Arts Festival SA. As a scriptwriter, he has written three television features. In 2014, his short films were short-listed for the Jameson First Shot competition, as well as the European Independent Film Festival.