Monday, October 10, 2016

October's Challenge: Horror

This is Grace.  Hello, it's been a while.  

Part of the reason this post is just now showing up is because I happen to hate this genre.  I really like sleep, and I've never had any desire to read a horror story, much less write one.  

So this month I'm going to talk about a less traditional kind of horror.  It's still technically in that genre, but it doesn't involve monsters and demons and curses and creepy music.  

I don't know if there's a specific name for this category, but I happen to kind of like it (or at least I like it better than my other option).  I'm talking about a more dystopian horror, the kind that sends chills up your spine once you realize "that could be me".  This sort of story plays with your mind.  There's actually a very good example of this on Netflix.  It's called The Twilight Zone, and was once a TV show in the 50's and 60's.  It can be kind of dorky, but some episodes actually make you think.

One episode, "Mirror Image", deals with a girl who is convinced her doppelganger is attempting to take over her life.  Everyone else things she's going crazy, but she knows she's not and you as the viewer could back up her story.  She meets a man who at first thinks she's losing it, but eventually realizes she's right.  Another episode, "What You Need", is about a peddler who sells people exactly what they'll need, even if it's something as small as a bottle of stain remover or some matches.  They believe he's crazy until a little while later, when they end up needing exactly what they bought.  I liked this episode just for it's uniqueness until my dad told me that this man would also need the ability to see every possible outcome of the situation based on what he gave them.  Absolutely amazing.  The last episode I'll talk about is "Where Is Everybody?", where a man finds himself alone in a town.  Everything is functioning just as it would have were people there, a movie is even playing.  The ending is really kind of strange, but it definitely has an element of horror.  I don't want to give it away, but I would highly recommend watching the episode.  One thing to remember with the series is that often the part which you perceive to be an ordinary story will go on for a very long time, and you don't see the big twist until the very end.  So be patient. 

I guess now would be a good time to define the meaning of the word "horror".  Merriam Webster defines it as a "painful and intense fear, dread, or dismay".  So here's some advice on how to write a horror story that doesn't involve anyone getting cursed or coming back from the dead. 

1. Illusions are your friend.
This is the perfect case to use the "illusion of a perfect world".  This is where you tell your story (at least in the beginning) in a way which makes the reader believe that the story world is fine and there's nothing wrong with it.  The Twilight Zone does this splendidly.  One of the benefits to adding this element?  It helps contribute to the "that could be me" effect that makes your reader second-guess everything they know to be real.  Let's say, for example, you have a peaceful countryside.  What could possibly go wrong on a cool and sunny spring day?  Something to be careful of when writing this genre is the jump-scare.  This isn't a movie, it's really hard to spring something on people fast enough to get the same effect.  In fact, a better technique would be to have a slow build, where life is still some version of normal, even though something's going wrong.  Make it believable to the point where the reader believes they're still reading about everyday life.  Some kind of flu might work in that situation. 

2. Use unreliable narrators and destroy trust.
Something I've always wanted to write (or read) is a traditional murder mystery, written with all the expected elements of a good mystery story, but the last line, the last sentence of the book reveal that the detective solving the case was actually the murderer.  If you were to read the book over again, you'd be able to find things in the story that you hadn't really noticed before or gave you the sense that something was off but you didn't know what, only this time you can see why the detective might have done one thing instead of the norm.  That is my dream, and that was my monologue.  If you write this book, please tell me so I can read it!  Please!  

Anyway, this is an example of an unreliable narrator.  Now this narrator doesn't have to be the bad guy, a child actually has the potential to be highly effective in this setting.  Someone who's crazy but believes they're sane could also be chilling.  No matter who you use, remember that this narrator is unreliable because they're looking at the events from a very biased or twisted point of view, and you might get a totally different story if you used, say, third person omniscient.  There might be a blog post on this later, because I absolutely love them.  

Destroying trust is also important, because if you discover that you cannot trust the person who's telling the story or someone close to them, you lose your sense of what is really going on.  You as the reader have just lost all ability to tell what is reality and what is imagined.  KA-POW!  You have a horror story. 

3. Fairy tales
Oh fairy tales.  To think that there used to be children's stories about people cutting off their toes to fit into a glass slipper.  What a way to teach children good behavior and social skills.  Last month I mentioned the Hero's Guide trilogy by Christopher Healy, in which the fairy tales are changed to make a delightful and hilarious children's adventure story.  But they also have strong potential to change into a terrifying horror story.  This is where we cross the line into curses and witches and the like.  This is where I stop.  
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I hope these have been helpful.  I'll stick to watching The Twilight Zone and attempting unreliable narrators.  If you have any questions, I'll be in my hobbit-hole and tea is at four.  And no adventures here please!  (you might check down the hill)


  1. Great post! I love all of your points. I'm also a huge fan of The Twilight Zone. Have you ever seen the movie The Haunting? It's a black-and-white horror film, but more akin to the "Twilight Zone" style of horror. It's the best horror movie I've ever seen...very classy and messing with your mind, not blood and chainsaws. =D I think you'd enjoy it.

    Anyway, awesome post! I'm actually working on a Twilight Zone-ish short story, so you gave me some good ideas.

  2. Thanks! No, I have not seen The Haunting, but I might look into it. (If you're into Sherlock, the Christmas Special did this too. I should have mentioned it. Maybe I will sometime). Glad you liked this!