by Allison Pang
There's that old addage that writers should write what they know.
But as much research as a writer can do, when it comes to writing horror - that can sometimes be a bit difficult. After all, most of us aren't actually going to kill someone to learn what it's like to be a murderer. (At least, I freaking hope not.)
So like anything else, in order for readers to believe in what's going on, we have to plant roots in what *is* real and what we *do* know. In the case of being scared, we have to tap into that lizard brain of the reader. What is it that truly makes a scene horrific?
Now to be honest, I don't really write a whole lot of horror scenes. But sometimes, particularly when you're writing a villain, you need something that's really going to illustrate just how awful they are. And that doesn't always mean blood and gore - sometimes teasing out that little bit of a character that makes them that much more human can be the worst thing of all. As much fun as writing an over-the-top villain/Guy Snively can be, to make it real we need to show something that we can see in ourselves. (Or in our neighbors?)
Frankly, I don't read much horror either - it's just not my thing. Movies? Maybe - though one of the things that makes horror flicks true classics is the music - after all, what would Jaws be without that familiar riff? or Halloween? The Exorcist? There's a distinct advantage of medium there, I think. Books don't usually come with a soundtrack, so then it becomes an issue of using words to unsettle readers.
I don't actually know if there's a magic button to pull that visceral response out of a sentence, but in thinking back on books that always freaked me out - Stephen King books, of course - IT and that damned clown and the way it gurgled about how "everything floats down here" just wigged me out. (Never mind I was 11 when I read it and the fact that the 10 year olds all have to have sex to defeat the alien. That's horror on another level completely.) And the other line was from Pet Cemetery - and the little boy had been hit by a truck and the dad is racing down the road and came across a Yoda sneaker and then the other one...and even though that's not specifically a horror/scary scene - it was that sort of "everyday" detail that just drove it home to me, so that 25 years later, I can still remember it.
But what I think works best is what lies the in the realm of "possibility." Many people like to be scared - slasher flicks, monster movies, etc. And I sorta wonder about that - I won't watch slasher flicks. My husband loves them. For me, they fall too close into the realm of "this could actually happen." I don't like to be entertained that way. My husband will happily spend his nights watching human centipedes or people who get dismembered by maniacs with hooks for hands.
So then I wonder is the reason why horror books/movies are so popular because it helps people process those fears? By relegating it to the level of entertainment, maybe it helps us cope with the fact that we do have wolves in our midst. (I mean just look at the news this week - girls found in recycle bins, disgruntled exes shooting up spas, a baby stolen from a murdered grandmother.) Quite frankly, there is enough horror in real world - writers don't have to dig too deep to find the worst of humanity. It's all around us.)
But those stories tend to hit too close to home for me - so as writers we can make it more palatable by using actual monsters - werewolves, aliens, Cthulu. (Though honestly, real werewolf stories are pretty goddamn horrific in their own right.) And as horrific as watching zombies shred hapless victims is, we all intrinsically know the chances of an actual zombie apocalypse is fairly slim. (So yes, I love The Walking Dead, go figure - though I'll make the argument that WD is less about gore and zombies and more about the breakdown of civilization and how people survive.)
Anyway. I leave you with the most frighting thing of all:
Actual Cannibal, Shia LeBouf