Three Things Horror Movies Can Teach Us About Writing Gruesome Horror Fiction (That Is Actually Scary)

One of the interesting things I’ve noticed since I got back into watching films again (and rediscovered the joys of horror movies recently) is how differently horror movies can sometimes handle scenes of gruesome and gory horror when compared to horror novels.

Although each medium obviously has it’s own set of techniques that are designed to make the most of the format’s strengths, horror films can still offer a few interesting lessons about how to make your story’s gruesome moments actually scary.

1) Less is more: This one is fairly well-known, but it is worth mentioning nonetheless. One of the classic features of some types of horror fiction – especially horror novels from the 1980s (such as Shaun Huton’s “Erebus” or “Breeding Ground) – is ludicrously “over the top” gruesome descriptions. After all, unlike films, horror novels don’t have to pass a censor before publication. So, they can devote entire pages to lavish descriptions of death, injury, decay etc… However, whilst this technique can be used to create a grim atmosphere and/or to gross out inexperienced horror readers, it isn’t exactly scary.

Horror “works” best when it takes place in the reader’s imagination. So, what you don’t describe can often be more effective than what you do describe. Whilst a detailed gruesome description of a horrific event might briefly shock the reader – a slightly less gruesome scene that implies these horrific events will linger in your reader’s imagination for much longer. And, because your reader’s imagination has to provide the descriptions, then they will instantly be more disturbing than anything you could actually write. Remember, most horror novel readers are already fans of the horror genre.

I recently saw an absolutely great example of this technique in a scary 1990s sci-fi horror film called “Event Horizon“. Whilst the film certainly splashes a lot of stage blood around, the grimmest and most horrifying moments are often left to the viewer’s imagination – and are all the more disturbing for it. It is a film that will show you something really gruesome, whilst also leaving the extremely gruesome elements of what is happening to your imagination through clever editing, camera angles etc…. This instantly makes the special effects much more “realistic” than they would be if the film-makers showed you literally every detail.

So, whilst there is a tradition of extended passages of ultra-gruesome descriptions in horror fiction, don’t be afraid to leave the most horrific details to your reader’s imagination sometimes. This can make the difference between a cartoonishly “over the top” moment and a genuinely scary scene of horror.

2) Plot matters more than descriptions: If you actually want to make your story’s gruesome moments scary, then they need to be something that would still be scary even if they were completely bloodless.

In other words, you need to pay attention to the concept and situation surrounding your story’s gruesome events rather than the results of those events. If the situation is inherently disturbing or has an extremely dark sense of humour and/or a shocking level of cruel inventiveness to it, then it will be frightening even if it doesn’t include that much in the way of gruesome descriptions.

A great cinematic example of this is probably Dario Argento’s “Suspiria“. Despite this film’s fearsome reputation, there’s relatively little stage blood on screen. Most of the film’s gruesome moments also use fairly low-budget and/or unrealistic effects. Yet, not only will these scenes make you grimace in horror but they will probably also haunt you for a while after you’ve finished watching.

Why? Because the horror comes from the events rather than the stage blood. This is a film where characters die in drawn-out, bizarre and often extremely painful ways. These things are what horrifies the viewer. Even without a single drop of stage blood, these scenes would still be incredibly difficult to watch.

Another good example of this technique is the French horror film “Martyrs” (2008) – a film that I have watched once and will probably never watch again. It’s that shocking and horrific! Yet, whilst it certainly includes it’s fair share of gruesome special effects, they aren’t what makes the film so horribly traumatic to watch. It is the film’s brutal, nihilistic, cruel and just generally grim plot that makes it such a gruelling experience. Like with “Suspiria”, it would be just as difficult to watch even without the gruesome special effects.

So, if you want to make your story’s gruesome moments scary, then you need to think carefully about what is happening. If the horror in your story comes from the plot itself, then your story will be frightening. But, if the horror comes from the gruesome descriptions, then your story will be less frightening.

3) Realism and fantasy: Following on from this point, scenes of gruesome horror are generally more frightening and disturbing if the audience thinks that they could theoretically happen in real life. This is why a very gory comedy horror movie like “Cockneys Vs. Zombies” (2012) is hilariously funny to watch, but a much less gruesome movie like “Suspiria” is genuinely shocking and disturbing.

In “Cockneys Vs. Zombies”, the main antagonists are literally zombies. Zombies don’t exist. On the other hand, although “Suspiria” includes some paranormal events, most of the film’s more shocking and grotesque scenes are very much “realistic” examples of human evil and cruelty.

This isn’t to say that you can’t include fantastical elements if you want your story to be scary, but they have to be “realistic” in some way or another. For example, whilst the gruesome events of “Event Horizon” are set in deep space and in the future, the film is still scary because it takes a very understated and “realistic” attitude to how everything is presented. The spaceships are grimy and utilitarian places rather than unrealistically utopian “Star Trek”-like spaceships. The characters all have fairly realistic personalities, flaws and emotions.

Even when horrific stuff starts happening, most of the more “fantastical” elements are deliberately left vague or unreliable in some way. Although the film’s sci-fi setting means that it will take longer before you start to suspend your disbelief and feel fear, it is still able to scare you because it takes a very “realistic” approach to it’s story. So, if you want to make a gruesome story scary, you need to make sure that your reader feels that the events of your story could theoretically happen somewhere or someplace.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Reasons Why Gruesome Horror Fiction Isn’t Scary

Well, although I’ve written about the topic of gruesomeness in horror fiction before, I ended up thinking about it again after watching a few episodes of a hilarious comedy horror TV show called “Ash Vs. Evil Dead”. Although television and prose fiction are two very different mediums, one of the interesting things about “Ash Vs. Evil Dead” is that it is almost as cartoonishly ultra-gruesome as many classic 1980s British horror novels are. And, seeing this level of gruesomeness in a visual medium rather than a written one made me think of more reasons why gruesomeness isn’t inherently scary in horror fiction.

Don’t get me wrong, horror fiction can and should be gruesome. When used well, gruesome moments can really intensify any other types of horror that your story uses. Likewise, gruesomeness not being inherently scary can actually be a good thing sometimes – especially in the comedy horror genre or for those moments when you want to sneakily dial back the scariness in order to make your readers feel more courageous and/or to lull them into a false sense of security.

Gruesomeness in horror fiction isn’t a bad thing. But it isn’t scary either, and here’s a few reasons why:

1) Spectacle, shock and craft: This is a bit like the old rule about using profanity in fiction – you can use as much of it as you like, but every time will have slightly less dramatic impact than the previous one. In other words, gruesome horror fiction isn’t scary because the audience gets used to it fairly quickly. It goes from a horrifying unexpected thing to just an ordinary part of the story.

And, when this happens, the audience is more likely to see these moments as spectacle rather than horror. Yes, they can still be dramatic, but it will be in a more theatrical way than the “realistic” way you should be aiming for if you want to write scary horror fiction. In other words, because the audience no longer feels shocked, they are much more likely to pay attention to the craft behind these scenes. And this reminds the audience that they’re just reading a novel or watching a film. In other words, something artificial that cannot scare them.

In the case of a TV show like “Ash Vs. Evil Dead”, this will probably mean that you’ll end up thinking “Wow! I wonder how many gallons of stage blood they used in this scene?” or “Was that blood spatter CGI?” rather than “Oh my god! An evil zombie!“. In a horror novel, it will probably mean that you’ll pay more attention to the – surprisingly poetic – descriptions and turns of phrase that are a hallmark of old-school British splatterpunk fiction and/or to any characteristic phrases that the author uses in these scenes (eg: Shaun Hutson’s frequent use of words like “coppery”, “putrescent”, “mucoid”, “liquescent”, “orb” etc…)

So, frequent gruesome moments in horror fiction are less scary than you might think because not only do they lose their shock value quickly, but they also focus the audience’s attention on the craft of the scene – which can break their immersion in the story.

2) Slapstick, exaggeration and realism: By their very nature, the kind of ultra-gruesome descriptions that you’ll see in horror fiction or the special effects you’ll see in a gruesome horror film, are unrealistic. After all, they have to be as gruesome as possible to shock or gross out the audience. And this usually lends these scenes a certain level of exaggeration and melodrama that can often come across as a more macabre form of slapstick comedy. This is, of course, absolutely great for things in the comedy horror genre (like “Ash Vs. Evil Dead”), but it makes “serious” horror feel a bit less serious.

After all, truly scary horror – the type that will haunt the reader’s nightmares for days afterwards- relies on verisimilitude. The feeling that the story could actually happen. To you.

However, outside of a Halloween party, no-one is going to see a gruesome zombie or monster lurching towards them. Likewise, although horrific things unfortunately do happen in real life, the chances of actually seeing or experiencing them are thankfully relatively low (despite the frightening impression that reading or watching the news may give you).

In other words, gruesome moments of horror will seem unrealistic (and therefore less scary) because not only will most people be lucky enough never to see anything like it in real life, but also because the only way to write “shocking” gruesome moments is to exaggerate them to the point where they almost seem like a grim type of slapstick comedy.

3) Focus and consequences: Most gruesome horror isn’t scary because of what it focuses on. In other words, it focuses more on the messy physical consequences of horrific events rather than the much more disturbing emotional and psychological consequences of them.

For example, one of the most genuinely shocking and disturbing “gruesome” moments I’ve read in a novel during the past couple of years is actually less “gruesome” than a typical scene in a splatterpunk horror novel. I am, of course, talking about the opening chapter of Jack O’Connell’s “Word Made Flesh” (read it at your own peril. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!).

Although this scene is fairly gruesome, it is genuinely disturbing because – instead of just devoting page after page to gory descriptions – the chapter also focuses on things like the horrific concept of what is happening, on the agony a character suffers and on the chillingly cold cruelty of several other characters. It is also narrated by a creepy fourth wall breaking narrator who will callously crack jokes about what is happening in a way that makes it feel like someone very very evil is sitting right next to you. It is a chapter that you won’t forget reading.

And, yet, it is technically less gruesome than a splatterpunk novel. Yet, it is more shocking because of what it chooses to focus on. So, gruesome horror fiction usually isn’t that scary because it often focuses on the least scary elements of horrific moments and events.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

How Gory Should Your Horror Story Be?

Well, I thought that I’d talk about writing horror fiction today. In particular, the question of how gory a horror story should be. The short answer to this question is, of course, “it depends on the story you are telling”. But, I thought that I’d look at this topic in more detail, since the horror novel I’m reading at the moment (Shaun Hutson’s 2015 novel “Monolith”) reminded me of some interesting modern developments in this area.

In short, with the one exception of the zombie genre, modern horror novels often tend to focus less on gory horror than 1980s horror fiction did. This isn’t to say that they are completely bloodless, but gory moments aren’t usually the main focus of many modern horror stories in the way that they often were in the 1980s. There are a lot of reasons for this, but the main one is that other types of horror (eg: psychological horror, suspense, character-based horror etc..) are a lot scarier than gory horror.

Nowhere can this be seen better than in the first half of a modern Shaun Hutson novel called “Monolith” that I’m reading at the moment. Unlike Hutson’s 1980s splatterpunk novels (such as “Erebus“, “Deathday” and “Breeding Ground) that revelled in page upon page of detailed gory descriptions, the first half of “Monolith” tends to focus more on mystery, suspense, bleakness etc… with the relatively few gruesome moments so far being both shorter and less detailed than they would have been in one of his 1980s novels.

Yet, the novel’s gruesome moments still have a similar level of impact since they tend to focus more on the characters involved in these scenes (and their fear of death etc..). So, whilst “Monolith” doesn’t try to gross the reader out as much as Hutson’s older novels do, this is actually replaced with some more psychological horror. Likewise, there’s often a fair amount of suspense in these scenes too – since you know that something horrible is going to happen, but you don’t know what or when. It’s a really interesting example of how the horror genre’s attitude towards gory horror has changed over the years.

Of course, just because modern horror fiction is often less gory than 1980s horror fiction doesn’t mean that you can’t include gory horror. Pretty much every “serious” modern horror novel will include some level of gory horror – however, it is also often handled in a different (and perhaps more effective) way than it used to be during the splatterpunk heyday of the 1980s. In short, modern writers have realised that gory moments are at their most shocking when they appear less often. In short, if the reader has just read four grisly scenes, then the fifth one won’t really be that much of a surprise to them.

It’s a bit like the old rule about using profanity in fiction. You can use as much of it as you like but, every time you use it, the next time will have slightly less impact. So, gory descriptions tend to be at their most horrifying when the reader isn’t expecting one. In other words, choose your moments carefully. A great example of this is a horror novel from the 1990s called “In The Miso Soup” by Ryu Murakami. This novel only really has one gruesome moment, but it is a lot more horrifying than you’d expect because of when and how it happens.

The best way to think of gory horror is that, these days, it is just one of many tools that a horror writer can use. Truly scary horror fiction relies on keeping the reader on their toes by using lots of different types of horror. Gory horror is one of them, but don’t forget that things like psychological horror, body horror, cruel horror, character-based horror, paranormal horror, bleak horror, gothic horror, suspense etc… matter just as much these days.

Still, saying this, you should still read old 1980s splatterpunk novels (by authors like James Herbert, Shaun Hutson, Clive Barker etc..) because not only do they offer a brilliant education in how to write effective and shocking gory descriptions but they also show off some of the effects of including lots of gore in your horror story.

In short, whilst the gruesome parts of these old novels stop becoming shocking after a few chapters, they still add a lot of horror to the story because the sheer amount of gruesome moments creates a bleak, grim and nihilistic atmosphere (comparable to something like “Game Of Thrones”) which leaves the reader in no doubt that they’re reading a horror novel.

Interestingly, the same effect is still used in modern zombie fiction. Seriously, if you’re writing a modern zombie novel, then you still need to include lots of gory horror. It’s pretty much a mandatory part of the genre because of the nihilistic feeling of bleakness that it evokes (which goes really well with zombie apocalypses).

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Basic Tips For Writing Gruesome Horror Fiction

Well, I ended up thinking about the topic of gruesome horror fiction recently after a couple of things. Firstly, one of the short story practice projects (that I probably won’t post here) that I finished the day before writing this article ended up being somewhat different from the more sanitised style of horror fiction that I seem to have drifted towards writing during the past decade. Secondly, I’m also reading another zombie novel (“Plague Town” by Dana Fredsti) at the moment too.

So, I thought that I’d offer a few basic tips for writing gruesome horror fiction.

1) Read it!: I cannot emphasise this enough – to write gruesome horror fiction you need to have read a lot of it.

And, yes, if you’re feeling put off by the idea of this, then this type of horror fiction isn’t for you (and you should probably focus on something like gothic horror or ghost stories or something like that instead). If not, then it is well worth reading several gruesome horror novels before you think about writing this type of fiction.

It’s probably best to start with the splatterpunk classics of the 1970s-90s. The books I’d recommend starting with are “Erebus” by Shaun Hutson, “The Rats” by James Herbert and/or any of “The Books Of Blood” by Clive Barker.

If you want something more modern, then just look for pretty much any zombie novel published within about the past two decades (since this is the closest thing to the splatterpunk genre still around in the present day).

When you read gruesome horror fiction, you’ll start to notice that each author has their own style, vocabulary etc.. for describing scenes of gruesome horror. And, like finding your own narrative “voice”, the best way to learn how to write gruesome horror is simply to read lots of different authors who write this type of fiction.

2) Pacing and frequency: There are two main approaches to this and each have their advantages and disadvantages. So, the best way to handle how often your gruesome scenes appear is probably to aim for something between both of these approaches.

The classic splatterpunk approach to writing gruesome horror fiction is simply to overload the reader with frequent grisly descriptions. This has the advantage of creating a grim, macabre and nihilistic atmosphere, where horrific death is never more than a few pages away.

On the downside, this lessens the shock value and/or horror value of your story’s gruesome moments, since the reader will get used to them fairly quickly. Yes, this makes the reader feel “tough” or “fearless” (since they aren’t feeling shocked or horrified) but it also severely reduces the impact of any individual gruesome scene.

The other approach is to carefully ration your story’s gruesome moments. To only include a small number of them, but to make each one especially horrific or grotesque and to build up to each one using a lot of suspense.

The main advantage of this approach is that these scenes will have a lot more dramatic impact (for a good example, read “In The Miso Soup” by Ryu Murakami). On the downside, this approach to writing gruesome horror fiction is a lot more difficult to get right than the classic splatterpunk approach.

3) Other types of horror: On it’s own, gruesome horror isn’t scary. It can be disgusting, grotesque, repulsive, macabre or grim. But, it isn’t really scary. So, you also need to include other types of horror too. Seriously, don’t just rely on gruesome horror if you’re writing a horror story.

Fortunately, most of the situations where gruesome moments of horror are likely to happen are also situations where other types of horror are to be expected.

For example, if one of your characters is about to be eaten by a monster, then this is the perfect place to add a bit of suspenseful horror. Likewise, if your story is set during a zombie apocalypse, then this is the perfect place to add some tragic horror, bleak horror and/or disease-based horror.

But, the most important thing to remember is that gruesome horror isn’t inherently scary. So, when something gruesome happens in your story, you also need to pair it with other types of horror if you want to make the scene truly shocking or frightening.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂