Although this is an article about writing genuinely scary horror fiction and/or comics, I’m going to have to start by talking about TV shows (again) for a while. There’s a good reason for this that I hope will become clear after a couple of paragraphs.
Anyway, as I mentioned yesterday, I’ve been watching an American TV series called “Supernatural” recently. This is a TV show about two brothers who travel across America to search for their missing father and, along the way, they often end up investigating various malevolent paranormal phenomena that they encounter (eg: vengeful ghosts, evil creatures, ancient curses etc…).
Since “Supernatural” is the first proper horror-related thing that I’ve watched for a while, I eventually asked myself “Why are the first eight episodes of this particular show so scary, when other horror-related shows I’ve seen in the past usually only have one or two genuinely scary episodes every season?”
Although I worked out a lot of reasons for this, I also realised a universal truth about the horror genre and – more importantly – what makes a horror story frightening.
That truth is that “A good horror story is also a mystery story”.
Genuinely scary horror stories often rely on one of the most primitive fears known to humanity – the fear of the unknown. This fear is behind a lot of common fears – such as a fear of the dark (since you can’t see what may be lurking in it) and, most commonly of all, the fear of death (since no-one knows for certain what, if anything, awaits everyone after death).
The unknown is a powerful thing for the simple reason that our imaginations often have to “fill the gap” and make sense of something we know nothing about. If there’s even a hint of danger, then our imaginations are probably going to assume the absolute worst due to thousands of millennia of evolved survival instincts (I’m not a neuroscientist, so I don’t know the exact details of how or why this works – but I can make a good guess).
We all know that a mysterious abandoned house in a horror movie we’re watching on TV will not pose any direct threat to us, but the parts of our brains that evolved many thousands of years ago to protect us from actual genuine danger can’t always quite make that distinction (after all, prehistoric people didn’t have TVs). So, parts of our brains see this and think “DANGER!“. Voila! We are scared by something that doesn’t actually endanger us.
But, in addition to this, people are naturally curious. This is another one of our ancient natural instincts that has served us well – I mean, you wouldn’t be reading this on a computer if it wasn’t for several centuries of natural human curiosity about physics, mathematics, chemistry and electricity. Curiosity is also another natural instinct that horror writers can use to their advantage.
Whilst the unknown might be frightening, it’s also absolutely fascinating. After all, we have to make the unknown known.
In other words, whilst one part of our brain is shouting “DANGER!“, another part of our brain is shouting “FIND OUT MORE!” And, it is in the tension between these two parts of our minds that genuinely scary horror can be found.
To use a classic example, this is why – when we watch part of a horror movie that absolutely terrifies us – we usually won’t just turn it off and refuse to watch more.
Instead, we’ll usually cover our eyes, but still peek at the screen occasionally (and, yes, I’ve done this at least once when watching “Supernatural”). Two ancient parts of our brains are vying for dominance and this tension adds extra drama to something that is already frightening.
So, if you’re writing a horror story or making a horror comic, then don’t make the mistake of telling your audience everything early in the story. Leave things mysterious until later in the story. Your readers will be terrified by these mysterious things, but they’ll also instinctively want to know more about them…
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂