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What Makes Something Scary?

I’ve written about this topic before, because it’s so endlessly fascinating. Why do certain things freak us out? After all, we’re all unique human beings with our own sets of fears and neuroses, so why do particular horror books scare us all universally?

In short – are there certain underlying themes that frighten us? The answer, I believe, is yes.

A Childhood Competition

Back in my youth (admittedly a long time ago), I used to spend a lot of time lurking in my best friend’s Skoda, eating chocolate and talking about scary stuff. What can I say, we were odd young adults!

Our conversations frequently turned to the classic ‘who’s scarier’ topic. Sitting in darkened car parks (gosh, that makes us sound like real weirdos, doesn’t it?) we used to discuss what would be more frightening to see outside the car window – the creature from Jeepers Creepers, or the raptors from Jurassic Park.

Of course, we had a whole range of terrifying creations to include in this game. Werewolves, the girl from The Ring, axe-wielding maniacs… the list went on. However, as I look back on this with the hindsight of age, I realise that all those creatures had things in common.

  • They can’t be reasoned with.
  • They enjoy inflicting pain / fear.
  • They look unnatural in some way. (Even the axe-murderer had a definite maniacal gleam in his eye).
  • They’re either stronger or sneakier than you.

So, there you have it. All very different horrible creatures, united by some universal traits – which illustrates perfectly what we humans are frightened of. We fear pain. We fear not being able to escape from pain. And we’re terrified of things that don’t look like us. Because psychologically, we can’t relate to them.

Spooky Settings

The setting is another aspect of horror writing that’s so important to get right. Again, settings are often quite different, aren’t they? A lonely forest in the dead of night. An empty house, complete with creaking doors and other horrid noises. A mental asylum, filled with the screams of past victims. Sometimes, horror can occur in familiar places – a shopping centre or even your own home. I read a fabulous short story a while back, set in Disneyland – and believe me, it was frightening.

But again, there are traits that unite them all. Regardless of whether it’s a familiar or unfamiliar place, the protagonist is often alone. This makes them vulnerable – and thus at risk of experiencing pain. There’s usually unseen rooms, hidden corners or concealed paths – as the unknown is something else that terrifies us. And let’s face it, there’s something horrific about the thought that something could be watching you without you knowing it. Eep.

How to Write Horror

Whenever writing horror, it’s important to keep these traits in mind. Be aware of what people are frightened of, then play to it. However, that doesn’t mean you need to stick to what every other writer has done in the past. Some of the best horror books veer right off the well-trodden path – whilst still keeping to the universal rules of fear. IT by Stephen King is a classic example… after all, who would have thought clowns could be so god-damned sinister, eh?

The Best Horror Books?

There are so many fabulous horror books out there, it would be impossible to list them all. Here’s just a few that I particularly love, which have also provided me with endless inspiration over the years.

  • The Woman in Black – Susan Hill. Modern gothic horror at its best. Expect gradual, pervasive dread, a gripping narration, and some truly unnatural images that will stay in your mind for a loooong time. If you haven’t read it, you really should.

  • Gerald’s Game – Stephen King. One of King’s most underrated books. It runs a little like this. Couple go to the woods for a bout of kinky sex. Wife boots husband in a rather sensitive spot and kills him… then spends the rest of the weekend chained to a bed, completely helpless, and seeing horrible things in the corner of the room. Amazing use of creeping paranoia – not much happens, but trust me, you’ll be rattled as hell after you read it.

  • The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson. An amazing book. Jackson lures you into a sense of security with a sprightly beginning, only to let the psychological horror of the unnatural Hill House work its magic. I’ll never be able to view a self-closing door in the same way again.

  • Frankenstein – Mary Shelley. I saved the best ‘til last. Frankenstein may be an oldie, but it’s also a goodie. It’s not the murderous creature or the gruesome use of body-parts that makes this book so horrible. It’s the overriding warning that comes with it; that mankind’s overwhelming ambition could one day land it in serious trouble. It’s horror with a powerful message – which makes it the best kind of horror there is.

If you’re a horror buff and think I’ve missed out on a real beauty, please recommend it! I love receiving book recommendations, and am always happy to recommend in return. (Basically I just love talking about books all day long. Tee hee!)

On another note, it’s just seven weeks until the release of The Case of the Green-Dressed Ghost. Which officially evokes a little squeeee of excitement from me! You can pre-order it from Amazon UK here, or here if you’re in the US.