Go Freak Yourself (Out)

How to Write a Scary Story. Sheesh, there are probably hundreds of essays on that subject floating. A few of them have even popped up on my recommended list. So, why am I writing about this with no platform and no credentials? Who the hell do I think I am, anyway?

I’m a horror fan. I adore this genre. I get all riled up when people roll their eyes, and call it trashy or immature. I love scary books and scary movies. I’m a Gen X-er who got traumatized by the illustrations in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and read Stephen King at far too young an age. I’ve been consuming horror content and writing horror fiction for years.

For me, writing horror fiction arises quite naturally as an offshoot of being a creep. I sit down to write a story, and the story turns out to be a creepy story nearly every time. I have some opinions on writing horror fiction.

Here’s one: don’t sit down to write with the goal of writing a scary story.

Writing “a scary story” is an impossibly high fence to swing for. Nothing you or I write is going to scare everybody. Probably not even most people. However, if you really do want to flip that shiver switch, I’ve got some advice for you.

It’s not enough to just hit the bullet points of good fiction writing —

  • sympathetic characters
  • vivid atmosphere
  • dramatic tension

— and then try to make the story really scary by adding some BLOOOOOOD!

No. Just no. Stop. That’s not gonna work. It’s cheap.

You don’t need blood. You don’t need somebody discovering a severed finger in their sandwich. You don’t need cackling demons rising from the pits of Hell. You don’t need any of these things. Personally, I enjoy all of them, and I’ll read about them until my eyeballs fall out of my skull, but they are not required. A shock of blood and gore actually releases dramatic tension by triggering a visceral recoil in the reader.

More importantly, perhaps most importantly, this approach misses the entire point of what makes a scary story, y’know — actually scary.

Here’s a quote from Danse Macabre, Stephen King’s incredible nonfiction brick of a book all about the horror genre:

“I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud. ”

Note that “the gross-out” is at the bottom of King’s list.

Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, widely regarded as one of the most exquisitely terrifying books ever written, and one of my favorite books ever — has no blood, no gore, and only the faintest whiff of violence. Barely a smidge.

How do you write a scary story, then? How do you create the finest emotion of terror?

Simple. You have to scare yourself. If you can’t scare yourself, you have no business trying to scare anybody else.

That’s it. Full stop. Write about what scares you.

Should you bother with compelling characters, honest emotional struggles, and an engaging plot? Yeah, absolutely. I wish more horror writers would do that. But, if you want to write a story that raises the hair on your readers’ arms, look first to your own arm hairs, my friend.

Here’s an idea I have, that I haven’t yet found a story plot for. I’m lying in bed late one night. My cat is snoozing at the foot of the bed. I pick up my phone so I can surf Reddit for a little while before I turn out the light, but I accidentally turn on the front-facing camera. Something is there in my bedroom. It’s invisible to my eyes; only the camera can see it. But it’s looking right at me.

I hate that I had this idea. It genuinely freaks me out. Every time I pick up my phone at night and accidentally turn on the camera, I find myself tensing up. There’s something about that weird grainy yellow view of the corner and the closet door that makes the idea absolutely convincing for just a moment.

Is the idea original? Not at all. There are plenty of stories where an otherworldly entity can’t be seen by the naked eye, but it can be seen by a camera. Originality isn’t the point. The point is that this idea gives me the heebie jeebies for real.

Go back in your mind to when you were a kid. What scared you then? Was it ridiculous? Do you look back on it now, chuckle and shake your head at your own innocent foolishness? Stop doing that immediately. If you’re going to open the basement door, then reach up to the doorknob as if you were a child. Stand on your tiptoes at the top of the basement stairs, and stretch your arm toward the dangling pull chain for the lightbulb. Can you reach it? Maybe not. Maybe your fingertips barely brush it, set it swinging. It’s tantalizingly out of reach and those basement stairs… geez, they’re pretty dark. They’re extremely dark.

Go down those stairs. What you’re looking for is all the way at the bottom. It’s been waiting patiently, down there in the darkness, for all these years. It’s going to be so very happy to see you again.

Artwork by the author.