Although good horror fiction relies on using multiple types of horror to frighten the reader by keeping things unpredictable, there is something to be said for focusing on one type of horror. This was something that I was reminded of by a computer game, of all things.
Although it might be a while until I review it, I’ve been occasionally playing a modern survival horror game called “Remothered: Tormented Fathers” (2018) recently and, unlike many of the survival horror games I played during my youth, it is terrifying. Literal heart-pounding, adrenaline-pumping, panicked “I shouldn’t be this scared by a game!” terrifying. Yet, the game mostly focuses on just one type of horror. Suspense.
A lot of what I’ve played so far involves sneaking around, hiding and/or constantly worrying that danger is nearby. Yes, the game includes other types of horror (eg: jump scares, gory horror, ominous horror, creepy locations, creepy characters etc..) but the main type of horror here is suspense. Everything from the relative lack of weapons, to the scarcity of save points, to the sound design is designed to create a constant feeling of suspense. And it is terrifying
But, what does any of this have to do with horror fiction?
Well, horror fiction and horror computer games are two very different mediums, but this game can teach us a few things about focusing on one type of horror. The first is that everything in your story should be set up to emphasise that one type of horror. The characters, the premise, the plot and even the writing style need to emphasise this type of horror.
For example, if you’re focusing on psychological horror, then you should think about using things like unreliable narration, settings that will unnerve the reader, characters that don’t seem entirely trustworthy, subtly creepy descriptions etc…
All of these elements may not be directly related to the main plot, but they will help to emphasise the psychological horror elements of your story. They will make the reader feel constantly on edge because everything in your story seems to be a potential source of psychological horror.
The second thing that this game can teach us is that focusing on one type of horror doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t include other types of horror. Again, good horror fiction relies on multiple types of horror. If you focus on one type of horror, then you still need to include small amounts of other types of horror too. These don’t have to be the main focus of the story, but they need to be there to keep the reader on their toes.
Not only that, including a brief moment of another type of horror will make it even more dramatic because your reader won’t be expecting it. A great literary example (SPOILERS ahoy!) is Ryu Murakami’s 1997 novel “In The Miso Soup”. This novel mostly focuses on suspenseful horror and character-based horror, so the novel’s one scene of gory horror is considerably more shocking because of its suddenness.
The brutal grisly violence of this scene has much more impact than similar scenes in splatterpunk novels for the simple reason that the reader has got used to other types of horror and isn’t expecting gory horror. So, remember to include other types of horror occasionally.
The third thing that this game can teach us is the value of allusions and knowing your chosen type of horror. Amongst other things, the game possibly seems to take inspiration from 1970s/80s “giallo” horror films. Everything from the style of the settings, the characters, the focus on suspense and even the style of acting made me think of the time, when I was about fourteen or fifteen, I tried to watch Dario Argento’s “Suspiria” on TV and stopped after about half an hour because I was too scared to watch any more.
So, know the type of horror that you are focusing on. Know how and why it works, know what the cliches are (and either play with them or avoid them) and find ways to subtly evoke other things in the genre that may have terrified your audience in the past.
If done well, subtle allusions to other works in the genre will make the reader feel scared without knowing exactly why and, if done less well, then it’s still a fun little easter egg for fans. A way of saying “I’ve seen this horror movie too. So, you’re going to enjoy this…”
Finally, the game can teach us about the value of pacing. In short, less can sometimes be more when focusing on one type of horror. For most of what I’ve played of “Remothered: Tormented Fathers” so far, there isn’t a terrifying murderer in sight. Yes, you’re constantly worried that one might appear, but there are long stretches of time where the nearest murderer is several flights of stairs away. This means that the moments when one does appear and you have to run for your life are considerably more scary.
One of the reasons why horror writers are often advised to use multiple types of horror is because too much of one type of horror will desensitise the reader and make them more difficult to scare. For example, the first gruesome moment in a novel that focuses on gory horror will be shocking. The twentieth one will just be “oh, this again”. This is important to remember if you’re focusing on one type of horror.
So, choose your moments of horror carefully. Be sure that there are more subtle moments of horror between the stronger moments of horror. Give your reader a little bit of a break, so that your more dramatic moments of horror will actually be shocking.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂