How To Scare The Reader
The Free Dictionary dot com defines ‘fear’ as a very unpleasant or disturbing feeling. Although philosophers and Vulcans insist that fear is irrational, they can’t help to feel it as well. As an evolutionary survival tactic, fear is tattooed in our genes and, as far as you know, mankind hasn’t come up with a laser strong enough to extinguish it. Fear is akin to an addiction. You know it’s bad for you, but you keep coming back for more. Over and over again.
You never dwelled on the question, ‘why do I write horror,’ because it was clear to you since the beginning. You grew up in an environment where horror movies and tales of urban legends were the norms. Growing older, you realize there were two paths to follow for the rest of your life: you either went crazy and killed a lot of people like Patrick Bateman in American Psycho or began writing your own scary, dreadful and transgressive stories. You read and wrote a lot, as it was suggested by the gods of horror fiction. After a while, you realized horror fiction must have three elements to make a good story.
First, create a false sense of security. Start with a scene everyone can familiarize with. For example, a walk in the park, a line at Walmart, or even a woman sleeping in her bed. What can be safer than that? Then, pow! Make something happen. Maybe there was a rock in the middle of the park trail, and your main character feels like this is an ominous sign of bad things to come. Perhaps you’re in the line at Walmart, and the man in front of you turns back, and you see the flesh melting off his face, his eyes rolling out of his sockets and the grunting sound coming out of his throat. Can you hear it? The woman sleeping on her bed is probably having a wet dream, enjoying herself when suddenly a hand grabs her by the leg, and she jerks out of Sleepland, her heart throbbing, menacing to burst out of her chest.
Second, you have to get into the reader’s head. Sarah Langan, the author of Audrey’s Door, once said that what readers fear in their fiction is specific to their own experiences. It’s as personal as their senses of humor. That’s not just true for this side of the page, either. It applies to the characters, too. For horror to pay, it’s got to hit home by messing with a character’s fears, ambitions, loves. Say your main character had a tough life but has always held onto one perfect memory of a perfect day with the person they once loved most. Now let them find out the memory’s not true. Then push it farther, and make that person they loved a monster. So mean! Your reader will cringe! Horror fiction ought to be exactly that personal.
Third, you have to scare yourself. You have to be shaking with fear as you put the words down on paper. I remember all the stories I’ve written, but there are two in particular that I think of all the time because of how personal they were. They feature horror writers who work at McD’s (as I did) and are experiencing a personal loss. A story doesn’t always need to feature serial killers or monsters to be scary. In one of the stories I am talking about the main character is afraid he is going to lose a loved one (The Headache), and in the other, he is afraid he is going to lose himself (The Choice).
There you have it, write this down and put it on your notes. If you are serious about honing your writing skills, make your reader comfortable, invite her in, get into her head and share that sense of dread with her. In the end, writing is a dance where the reader and the scribbler waltz to the sweet and tremulous sound of horror fiction.