Three Tips For Writing Subtle Horror (That I Learnt From Playing A Computer Game)

(Sorry about all of the recycled title art, I was busy making a webcomic [for late November] at the time of writing)

(Sorry about all of the recycled title art, I was busy making a webcomic [for late November] at the time of writing)

Well, with Halloween only a couple of weeks away, I thought that I’d write another article about the horror genre. In particular, I thought that I’d focus on how to write subtle horror.

This was mostly inspired by the fact that, a few days before writing this article, I’d bought and had started playing a classic mid-2000s gothic horror computer game called “Vampire: The Masquerade- Bloodlines” (Note: This article may contain some mild SPOILERS for it).

Although it’ll be a few days until I review this game properly, one of the interesting things about it is that there don’t really seem to be any moments that will really make you jump or make you feel intensely terrified. Seriously, even moments that could be jump scares just tend to seem more like joyously affectionate tributes to the horror genre. Like this:

 To be honest, I'd be more surprised if creepy writing HADN'T  suddenly appeared on the wall of this haunted room!

To be honest, I’d be more surprised if creepy writing HADN’T suddenly appeared on the wall of this haunted room!

But, if you play it for a while then it can leave you in a slightly bleak, apprehensive and creeped-out kind of mood afterwards. In other words, it’s the perfect example of subtle horror done well. The horror is so subtle that you don’t notice it at the time (since you’re too engrossed in the game’s story etc..) – but it gradually builds up over time.

But, how can any of this stuff translate into horror fiction? Well, the game contains a lot of very interesting horror techniques. Here are three of them – the first one is kind of obvious, but the other two are techniques you might not have heard of before.

1) Atmosphere and worldbuilding: One of the best ways to add subtle horror to any of your stories is to make the “world” of your story slightly creepy and/or menacing. This can be done through lots of subtly disturbing and/or depressing descriptions. But, it’s also worth thinking about the “atmosphere” of your setting as a whole.

For example, although “Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines” is set in a really cool-looking film-noir version of early-2000s Los Angeles (which is reminiscent of the TV show “Angel), this location is shown to be a place where crime is rampant, where everyone has some kind of agenda, where shadowy conspiracies move in the background etc.. In other words, it’s a bleak and hostile environment. It’s a place that feels hollow and menacing. But, this isn’t immediately obvious to the player, since it looks so amazingly cool on the surface.

All of this horror seeps into the player’s imagination through lots of subtle details. Whether it’s comments from some of the background characters you encounter, whether it’s the ominous disused buildings you see sometimes, whether it’s the fact that your character has to keep their vampiric nature hidden from ordinary people etc.. all of these things add up to a suitably creepy atmosphere. Even if, on their own, none of these things would be particularly creepy.

2) Dark comedy… with a sting: One of the best ways to introduce some subtle, creeping horror into your story is to include some dark comedy which makes the audience laugh at first, until they eventually happen to think through the implications of what they’ve just been laughing at.

For example, your character in “Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines” is a vampire and, as such, has to drink blood occasionally. One way that your character can obtain blood is to discreetly buy it from the blood bank at the local hospital. The medical technician selling the blood is pretty much the dictionary definition of “probably a serial killer”. The fact that a character like this is somehow working in a hospital without anyone noticing, is a classic example of subtle dark humour.

Of course, later in the game, you can save someone from being drained of blood by this guy. When he notices that you’ve done this, he indignantly storms off in a huff and refuses to sell you any blood unless you find him another victim. The way that this scene is scripted is absolutely hilarious in about the most twisted way possible. But, when you actually think about it a while later, it’ll probably send a shiver down your spine.

The trick to adding a bit of a sting to the dark humour in your story is to make sure that the comedic parts rely heavily on both implications and on character reactions, but to also show some of the reality of whatever horrible events are or were happening. So, when the audience eventually stops laughing, they have something to be horrified by.

3) Morality and circumstance: One way to add some subtle creepiness to your story is to place the main character and/or the supporting characters in situations where they pretty much have to do something immoral.

It doesn’t matter whether this action is illegal or not, it has to be immoral if it is going to disturb the audience (eg: a private detective breaking into a building to solve a serious crime might be illegal, but not always immoral – and it is a common non-scary part of the detective genre. On the other hand, the private detective having to work for someone slightly dodgy because they need the cash would be legal, but immoral.. and much more disturbing).

Contrary to what critics of the horror genre might say, a lot of horror is horrifying because the audience has a moral compass.

Going back to the game I’ve been talking about, there are almost too many examples of this to list. Although it’s probably theoretically possible to play the game as some kind of paragon of virtue, the ridiculous difficulty of doing so pretty much forces you to play as a slightly evil character. In many situations, the “evil” choice is actually presented as the easier or more rewarding one. Even though the game does contain a morality system, it has countless blind spots and a generous tolerance for “breaking the rules”.

And this is how the game can creep you out in a subtle way that you don’t even notice until you’ve been playing for an hour or two. Because you’re so immersed in the events of the story, and so eager to progress – you’re more likely to make moral decisions which, when you think about them later, will leave you feeling slightly disgusted at yourself.

So, yes, morality is a huge part of the horror genre. If you find a way to place a sympathetic character in a situation where they are forced to act immorally (even in a subtle way), then you’ll be able to creep out your audience in a fairly subtle way.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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