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In 1965, a strange story in the USA hit the world’s headlines. A man was hitchhiking, when an enormous brightly lit object hovered above his head. His eyewitness account, in isolation, would normally have been dismissed as drunken rambling, or attention-seeking lies.

However, at the same time, a woman in nearby Exeter (not the UK one) called the police, telling them that while driving, she’d been followed by a huge craft in the sky, which had flashing lights. Later, the police officer drove out with the hitchhiker to see for himself, and witnessed the same mysterious object, rising from the ground and into the air.

Strange coincidence? Or something more sinister?

Why are aliens scary?

Type in ‘alien abduction’ into Google, and at once, you’ll be presented with a wealth of ‘real life’ stories about people being chased by sinister circular aircraft, or sucked up into spaceships.

These tales never fail to frighten. The reason for that? Quite simply, it’s in our nature to be scared of ‘the other’. We’re inherently nervous of that which is different to us. Anything that behaves in an unpredictable and confusing way gives us alarm.

That’s why, in writing terms, there’s a lot to learn from these stories of aliens. I’m not saying you need to stuff your work with little green men (I certainly don’t) – but there are certain things we can take away from these tales.

What can we ‘magpie’ from an alien story?

When you’re next reading about an alien experience (as you do), think about what exactly is frightening about it. You’ll probably notice the following:

-        The lack of humanity. Aliens are typically presented as empty-eyed. They seldom communicate directly with the humans they abduct, and they perform cold, scientific experiments. They’re unrelatable, and they can’t be rationalised with.

When you’re writing a scary story, think about how you can create the same effect. Humans sometimes lack humanity too – and that makes them terrifying. It’s perhaps even more frightening when they once had it, but lost it due to a defining incident.

-        The power. Aliens often wield incredible power. Their spacecraft are faster than can be imagined, they’re able to hoover humans off the ground as though they weighed no more than a grain of sand. We’re vulnerable in the face of such power, and that puts us in an uncomfortable position.

In horror writing, it’s always worth thinking about how you can make the antagonist seem unbeatable. For example, how do you stop a malevolent ghost when they can disappear and reappear at will? How can a monster be beaten if it has impossible strength? Giving the antagonist power helps to up the stakes, and keep things tense and exciting.

-        The lack of clarification. Often, eyewitness accounts of aliens are muddled. The person claims to have seen a fleeting glimpse, an object that only hovers for a few seconds before flying off. Or a long-headed, gangly limbed creature in the woods, who darts between the trees, and is visible only for a moment.

This brevity can make for truly frightening moments in your horror writing. It’s far spookier to give the reader a hint of what the supernatural creature looks like, then let their imaginations fill in the blanks!

Should you write an alien story?

               In all honesty, I’ve never tried. However, it can’t be denied that there’s a wealth of material there. Space is a big, big place and there might be civilisations out there that are so wildly different to us that it beggars belief.

               It’s certainly a sub-genre that gives real scope, in terms of unleashing the imagination. I’d advise steering clear of the old tropes though. If you’re going to do an alien book – keep it fresh and different.