Well, since I’m reading a surprisingly creepy vampire novel (“The Hunger” by Whitley Strieber) at the time of writing this article, I thought that I’d talk about the horror genre again.
In particular, I thought that I’d talk about how writers can turn the familiar monsters of the genre (eg: vampires, werewolves, zombies etc..) into something a lot scarier and more disturbing. So, here are a few tips.
1) Parallels: One of the creepy things about Strieber’s “The Hunger” is that the opening scene of the novel actually plays out more like something from a slasher movie or a crime thriller. In essence, the novel portrays vampires as serial killers and this makes them even creepier.
By drawing a parallel between these two types of monsters, the story is able to create twice the horror that you would expect because it messes with the reader’s expectations. After all, “The Hunger” is clearly labelled as a vampire novel, so the reader isn’t expecting to read something that seems to fit more into the slasher genre. Yet, because the two types of monsters have some similarities with each other, the difference isn’t large enough to make the reader feel cheated.
Good horror is all about subverting expectations and lulling the audience into a false sense of security. So, finding parallels between different types of monsters and using these in unexpected ways can be a great way to add some extra fear to your story.
2) Sympathy and revulsion: Although making the monster the protagonist is hardly a new technique, the trick to making this genuinely disturbing to read is to find exactly the right balance between sympathy and revulsion.
For example, in Strieber’s “The Hunger”, one of the main characters (Miriam) is a vampire. She is also utterly amoral, cruel and sociopathic. But, whilst this alone would make her a really creepy character, the novel takes it a step further by including several dream sequences that show tragic episodes of Miriam’s past, in addition to several descriptions of how lonely and empty the life of a vampire can be.
This means that the reader is torn between feeling sorry for Miriam and fearing her. Because the balance between these two things is so carefully handled, the reader ends up feeling freaked out at themselves that they are actually feeling sympathy for a character like this. This is a difficult balance to get right but, when it works, it works!
For a contrasting example, take a look at Clive Barker’s “Cabal“. Whilst “Cabal” is probably one of the best monster novels ever written, the main character (Boone) is presented in a much more clearly sympathetic way and is also contrasted with a “100% evil” villain too. As such, whilst he is a well-written character, he isn’t really a source of horror in the way that Miriam from “The Hunger” is because the reader doesn’t really feel torn between sympathy and revulsion.
3) Other types of horror: I’ve mentioned this at least a couple of times before, but it’s always important to remember that good horror stories will often contain multiple types of horror.
In other words, if you want to make your story’s monster scary, then you can’t just rely on “Aaargh! A monster!” style horror. After all, this gets old fairly quickly.
So, look for ways to include other types of horror. These can include things like suspense, psychological horror, gory horror, scientific/medical horror, character-based horror etc… There are lots of different types of horror out there and, the more of them you include in your story, the less predictable (and more scary) it will be.
Seriously, if you look at pretty much any well-known horror novel, it will usually contain several different types of horror. So, be sure to do this too.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂