With Halloween approaching, it’s time to create some scary stories! Here’s how the best horror stories get under our skin and what writers can learn from them.
I love a good scary story any time, but there’s always something about fall that gets us thinking about the dour side of existence. The beautiful decay of nature and the oncoming dark of winter have stirred the human imagination for centuries. It’s time to curl up on the couch with some hot apple cider and a scary book or film. If you wish to contribute to the gothic and macabre world of horror, here are 5 themes used by the classics for your consideration and inspiration.
Tragedy: As Seen in ‘Frankenstein’ by Mary Shelley
One of the first things readers might notice about horror is that it rarely has a happy ending. The concept of tragedy is one of the oldest known themes of storytelling. Ancient Greek theater advertised plays based on their adherence to one of only two genres of the time, comedy or tragedy. Loss is one of the oldest and deepest fears of humankind. It is an essential component of any tragedy.
Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” is considered the first horror novel. The novel’s most prominent plot theme is the subversion of the natural order. This is evidenced by the novel’s other title, “The Modern Prometheus”. Named for the god punished by Zeus for giving the knowledge of fire to humanity.
However, the lasting takeaway is the air of intense tragedy dominating the tone of the narrative. Having realized the horrifying implications of cheating death, Victor loses his passion for his studies when he achieves his goals. The monster himself experiences loss every time he attempts to establish a human connection. He fails to inspire empathy from his creator. He is chased from the home of the blind man he befriends. He is ultimately condemned to a lonely, misunderstood existence.
In retaliation for his losses, the monster kills Victor’s new bride. This forces Victor to abandon his life and home to destroy the killer he unleashed on the world. The rising tide of hopelessness created by mounting tragedy is one way to craft an effective horror narrative. Any cautionary tale from ancient folklore to modern media uses this method to great effect. Other prominent examples of tragic horror stories are “Grimm’s Fairy Tales” or “The Sixth Sense”.
Revulsion: As Seen in ‘The Exorcist’ by William P. Blatty
Disgust is a powerful emotion that informs us subconsciously about what is safe or desirable. We recognize unsavory foods by their assault on our senses, an unpleasant smell, or non-conforming appearance. Revulsion can mean much more than disgust, though.
We are repulsed not just by things we find gross but also by things we find unexpected, strange, or disturbing. William Peter Blatty creates many offputting scenarios in “The Exorcist”. The eerie atmosphere is established by the absurdity of a young girl uttering a dead language in a man’s voice, backward no less. Just as we’re getting adjusted to that, the infamous pea-soup incident ups the ante with some traditional gross-out factor.
The crescendo has to be when Regan gets ahold of father Damien’s crucifix. That was the first and only time I’ve ever tried to shield my eyes from a book (not nearly as effective as hiding from the movie scene, just FYI…) The reaction was immediate, instinctual, and nonsensical. Basically, everything you want in attempting to create a genuine fear response from your audience.
Proper use of revulsion in your narrative has the punch of a jump scare without being cheap. It requires more effort, creativity, and artistic finesse. However, you’re guaranteed to leave a far more lasting impression. While over-the-top slasher flicks and gross-out films exist, revulsion is best used in moderation. Otherwise, you risk numbing your audience to it. The Exorcist is an excellent example of horror through revulsion in moderation. “The Thing” and “The Fly” also wield disgust to wonderful effect in their narratives.
Vulnerability: As Seen in ‘Psycho’ by Alfred Hitchcock
Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” set the standard for scary bathrooms with its infamous shower scene. But why bathrooms? These and bedrooms frequently feature in the set-piece scares of most horror stories. The common denominator here is vulnerability. We are uniquely defenseless in both instances, being naked or sleeping. “Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Paranormal Activity” also set their best scares in the bedroom or bathroom.
There are many ways to establish a sense of vulnerability in your characters. Not only by location but by age, health, or the most popular choice, solitude. A vulnerable character is a relatable one. No one is perfect, so imperfect characters make for more engaging stories. Manipulate your character’s unique flaws to create varying and believable instances of vulnerability. For example, a masochistic character might take unnecessary risks, while an anxious character might worsen situations through panic. Balance originality and realism here for the best results.
Creating a fluid dynamic between competency and vulnerability throughout your story is an excellent way to build and release tension as necessary. You can adapt Chekhov’s gun to this idea. If your protagonist finds a gun in act 1, they should lose it in act 2 before finding it and killing the monster in act 3.
The Plausible: As Seen in ‘Halloween’
Ignoring the unkillable nature of slasher icons like Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees for just a moment. There are abundant sources of horrific inspiration found in everyday life. Horror stories with very human antagonists undermine our accepted social norms to create their eerie atmosphere. They build on this with increasingly aberrant behavior culminating in horrific acts of easily replicable violence. Often with everyday household items.
Our parting message from these narratives is often one with an unsettling grain of truth. It could happen to you too! Horrific acts prompted by loss, revenge, or mental illness are just plausible enough to glimpse around every corner while being unthinkable enough to the average person to inspire chills. The plots of “Friday the 13th” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” excel through the use of this theme as well.
Grounding your story, in reality, is essential to building suspense and creating an eerie atmosphere. The most successful horror stories build a world very similar to ours before slowly revealing the cracks underneath. The trick here is to pace yourself and build suspense slowly. Invest readers in your world while moving the plot quickly enough to maintain interest.
The Unknowable: As Seen in ‘The Call of Cthulhu’
On the other end of the spectrum from the devils we know is the primal fear that walks hand-in-hand with the threat of loss; the unknown. H. P. Lovecraft is known as the father of modern horror. The real-world horrors of WWII and the creation of the atomic bomb inspired his work.
The industrial revolution had given the modern world a sense of security in its domination of the natural world. Revelations of humanity’s destructive power and limitless cruelty shattered this confidence. We had surpassed our known boundaries in unthinkable ways, and a new appreciation and dread of just what our magnanimous deities would allow for permeated the zeitgeist.
Lovecraft created stories that further undermined our preconceived notions about the cosmos. These often featured humanity as helpless insects wandering the remains of more advanced civilizations and god-like monstrosities utterly indifferent to our existence and whose intentions are unknowable.
Lovecraft’s influence is felt in any horror narrative that succeeds by drawing inspiration from the void of human ignorance or by teasing scant glimpses of an unseen creature. The “Blair Witch Project” and “Cloverfield” are some modern examples of narratives with unseen antagonists. The reader draws from their own worst fears and insecurities to fill in the blanks deliberately dotting the narrative. This method turns the mind against itself, forcing your reader to create their own personal horror story. Who knows better how to scare us than ourselves?
These are some most prevailing themes of the horror genre. Fear is as longstanding and integral a part of the human experience as joy. In between each extreme are countless stories worth telling. I hope these themes have inspired you!