Well, I recently ended up thinking about the topic of reassuring horror fiction recently. And, yes, I know that this sounds like a contradiction in terms – but, horror fiction can be reassuring.
A day or so before I wrote this article, I was stressed out by various things and I also realised that I had to start reading another novel if I wanted to post a review here tomorrow. I’d planned to read a more high-brow novel, but I just didn’t feel in the mood for it.
So, I started reading a sci-fi horror novel (“Aliens: Rogue” by Sandy Schofield) instead. This was the kind of cheesy horror novel I used to read all the time when I was a teenager and it just felt reassuring to be reading this type of fiction again. Like watching a favourite old film or playing an old computer game you really love.
So, I thought that I’d offer a few tips for writing reassuring horror fiction because, yes, horror fiction can be reassuring. So, let’s get started:
1) Unrealistic horror: One of the first ways to write reassuring horror is to make sure that the horrors in your story are clearly unrealistic.
Whether they’re zombies, monsters, vampires etc… the trick here is to come up with a story that will be grippingly suspenseful but, when it is over, your audience will have no reason to keep feeling afraid. This helps your audience to feel tough and fearless and, as such, will make your story feel considerably more reassuring.
And, yes, familiarity helps a lot here too. A classic cinematic example of this is the first “Nightmare On Elm Street” movie. The film itself contains some inventively macabre moments and some nail-biting suspense, but the horror doesn’t linger afterwards for the simple reason that Freddy Krueger is such a pop culture icon. He’s an over-the-top, fantastical monster who is conceptually scary (eg: the idea of a monster who haunts people’s dreams) but, because he’s so well-known, he isn’t likely to shock or disturb the audience too much.
A good literary example is probably Clive Barker’s “The Scarlet Gospels“. This novel is an incredibly gruesome, fast-paced horror thriller – but it isn’t really that scary for the simple reason that the novel’s main villain is such a well-known horror monster (after all, Clive Barker created the “Hellraiser” franchise). So, the reader gets to experience a grisly trip to hell and back without feeling too scared because, chances are, they’ve already seen at least one or two of the “Hellraiser” films and know what to expect.
But, of course, if you’re writing your own horror fiction, then you’ll either have to come up with your own horror monsters (make them witty, over-the-top, slightly silly etc..) or use popular types of monsters that aren’t copyrighted (eg: vampires, werewolves, zombies etc…).
2) Tough protagonists: Real, frightening horror is all about vulnerability. It’s about being alone at night and hearing something approaching. It’s about finding yourself out of your depth. It’s about bleakness, hopelessness and sorrow. It’s about facing certain and inevitable death. All of this stuff is, as you might have guessed, not particularly reassuring.
So, a good way to make your horror fiction a bit more reassuring is to give your protagonists the means and skills to confidently fight back against the horror.
For example, I recently read a novel called “Patient Zero” by Jonathan Maberry. It’s a military action-thriller novel with zombies in it. It was quite a lot of fun to read, but not particularly scary for the simple reason that – even when the main character is unarmed – he’s a well-trained soldier with lots of martial arts experience. As such, whilst the novel is certainly gruesome and suspenseful, you get all of the drama of a horror novel without any of the lingering unease or fear.
The best examples of this sort of thing can, of course, be found in computer and video games. For example, the reason why horror-themed first-person shooter games like “Doom II“, “Left 4 Dead 2“, “Quake” etc.. aren’t very scary is because you’re usually playing as either a well-armed soldier or part of an expert team.
By contrast, a game like “Silent Hill 3” is about fifty times more terrifying for the simple reason that your character is a lone teenager who isn’t very good with weapons (and the game’s combat system is deliberately slow and imprecise to reflect this fact).
So, if your main character is tough and has the means to confidently fight back against the horrors they encounter, then your horror story will be a lot more reassuring.
3) Gory horror: This might sound counter-intuitive but, just because you’re writing a reassuring horror story, don’t be afraid to make it really gruesome. There are a couple of reasons for this.
First of all, gruesome horror is only scary when it also includes other forms of horror too. So, if you don’t include those, then you can make your story as gory as you want whilst also making your audience feel brave and tough because they aren’t feeling too scared by it.
For example, compare the films “Shaun Of The Dead” and “Saw III” – both films contain buckets of stage blood, but “Shaun Of The Dead” is a comedy about zombies. It’s gory, but it isn’t frightening because there are no other types of horror present.
On the other hand, “Saw III” is a scary, shocking, disturbing and unsettling film (people actually fainted when it was shown in cinemas) for the simple reason that all of the film’s gory scenes are accompanied by “realistic” examples of several other types of horror – such as vulnerability, cruelty/sadism, hopelessness, certain death, psychological horror etc….
Secondly, over-the-top gory horror isn’t inherently scary if it is presented in a clearly unrealistic context. In essence, the less likely something is to actually happen in real life, the less genuinely frightening it will be (and the more “fearless” your audience will feel whilst reading it).
This is why, for example, an ultra-gruesome zombie apocalypse novel probably won’t be very scary, but something like a short description of realistic horrors (eg: warfare, disease, violent crimes, natural disasters etc..) will be disturbing. So, if your horror story takes place in an unrealistic context, then you can make it as gruesome as you want without disturbing your audience too much.
So, yes, reassuring horror doesn’t have to mean sanitised horror.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂