How to Scare Your Reader

Horror films, for the most part, have it easy when it comes to scaring an audience. What’s needed? Some loud noises, creepy effects, oh and buckets and buckets of fake blood. After watching scary movies most viewers are afraid to sleep at night and (of course) afraid of turning out the lights. Once the movie is over, however, it is merely turned into something tangible. The actors are fine, no one really died and one can always switch the tube to a comedy before falling asleep.

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Horror writers, however, create prose which not only consumes the reader, but leaves them with a lingering feeling of uneasiness. Those feelings don’t go away with the click of a remote. Words embed themselves in memory and haunt in an invasive, personal way. One creates his or her own vision of what the protagonist feels, sees, and experiences. Horror writers tap into the subconscious fears of every reader.

The Initial Incident

The protagonists of horror novels usually embark on their mysterious (dare I say murderous) travels after a catalyst or event sends them into unknown waters. For example, Bill Denbrough from Stephen King’s It, is propelled into a world of monsters and fears once his younger brother George is killed. He suspects something foul about the incident, however it isn’t until the album which held George’s picture starts to bleed that he realizes he is out of his depth.

Once the protagonist experiences otherworldly events, he or she can never go back. The feeling of not being able to return is truly haunting because in our real world, the finiteness of decisions constantly weighs on the average person. A portal has opened, a choice has been made and there is no return.  Both reader and protagonist have learned too much, seen too much, and the horrors that come after are both concerning to the characters as well as the readers who identify with them. 

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Suspenseful Prose

All writers have different methods of story-telling. Creating suspenseful prose depends on an author’s creative choices regarding diction, syntax and adjectives. The adjectives used need to make the blood tangible for it to be frightening. In his short horror story, “The Thing on the Doorstep”, H. P. Lovecraft writes: “They have tried weakly to concoct a theory of ghastly jest or warning by discharged servants, yet they know in their hearts that the truth is something infinitely more terrible and incredible.” His protagonist tries to defend himself to the reader, as he has murdered his best friend, but the language that Lovecraft uses is what is most interesting. He says that outside influences are “weak”, therefore, outside help cannot be solicited. Using adjectives like “ghastly”, “terrible and incredible”, draws readers into this dark reality.

Reader Experience

The projection of subconscious fears is what truly terrifies readers. Horror writers can attempt different methods of writing, using italics and line breaks. What it really comes down to is the fact that every individual mind has certain repressed fears that are transferred to the protagonist or other characters. For example, Daphne du Maurier in her classic Gothic tale, Rebecca, writes: 

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me as I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and a chain upon the gate. I called in my dream to the lodge-keeper, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spokes of the gate I saw that the lodge was uninhabited.    

Dreamlike situations and the feeling of abandonment and desolation surface in this opening paragraph. Readers are at once thrown into a fantasy-version of reality and therefore recall their own hazy, half-remembered dreams. Like waking from nap, we struggle to make sense of what’s real.

 It’s difficult to tell what will scare each and every individual reader. In both horror novels and scary short stories writers attempt to reach the psyche by providing stories that readers can relate to. In truth: readers scare themselves, but we owe it to the writers whom have made these stories so thrilling that we just can’t seem to put our books down!


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