Alright let’s talk horror. What makes a good horror story? Think back to the stories that scared, or currently scare, you. What was it about them that sent a chill down your spine?
Fifteen flavors of death? You bet.
But these are not the things one needs to think about when thinking about crafting a horror story. (Yes, if your story is a ghost story you need to think about why and how they are a ghost and the rules for that, but the core writing of a horror story is what I want to discuss today.) There are two core things to keep in mind when crafting a horror story: atmosphere and claustrophobia.
Again think back to the stories that scare you. What is it about the writing that you see?
Atmosphere (At-most-fear): Descriptions of things and situations are key to setting a creepy atmosphere. Saying your characters visit a cemetery is good. Saying your characters visit a cemetery at sunset is better. Saying you characters visit a cemetery at sunset on the outskirts of town and the silence of its expanse is heavy is best. The more you can draw your readers into the scene the more you can paint them a picture of what it’s like in the world of your nightmares. Descriptions are just one way to add to the atmosphere of your story; don’t forget about your characters. How your characters react to a situation, or setting, can add to the creepiness as well.
Claustrophobia (the fear of enclosed spaces): I don’t mean this in a literal sense (you don’t actually need someone afraid of enclosed spaces in your story). What I’m talking about is your characters feeling that the world is closing in on all sides, or the feeling that they are all alone in the world. Setting can do a lot of the heavy lifting here. Think about Evil Dead, Cabin in the Woods, Cabin Fever, or John Carpenter’s The Thing. These are all movies, but still stories, that place the characters in isolation. Sure the characters could run from the cabin(s), or the research station, but then what? They’ve got miles and miles of nothing around them, while they are “free” to leave whenever they want, they are effectively trapped by their environment. (As an added bonus these environments, if described correctly, can add much in the way of atmosphere to your story). Other films like Nightmare on Elm Street and The Ring (the American version, yeah I know, but I never got around to seeing the original), go about the claustrophobia in different ways. In Nightmare the setting is the suburbs but the claustrophobia is layered first with overbearing parents that restrict their children’s movements and then by transporting the kids into dreams where they are trapped by the environment in the dreams (a house, boiler room, any number of creepy hallways) and in the dream itself. In The Ring the main character is free to go and do whatever she wants, she even lives in a big city, in this case the claustrophobia comes from the time limit placed on her life. Not only the time limit, but as the deadline (ha, ha) approaches she feels more and more isolated from the world around her. As another example think of any zombie story you’ve ever read; the claustrophobia (the main source, not just the hiding out in fortified houses) comes from the fact that the characters may be the only humans left in the world. So again while they could, theoretically, go wherever they want, what would be the point?
If you nail atmosphere and the feeling of claustrophobia for your stories you might not even need an actual monster in the story, the idea of the monster might be enough.
As always when writing horror, think about what scares you and put that on the page. You’re not alone, someone else is probably just as scared of that thing as you.