Putting Some Cake Under Your Icing: Writing Horror
by Selah Janel
A few years ago, I was sitting in a meeting where I was actually told something like: Come on, horror isn’t about the story, it’s about being scary!
Excuse me, I still have to take a couple of Advil any time I think about that anecdote. Okay, back, now let us carry on.
I’m paraphrasing that incident a little, but not by much. It also brings to mind a lot of the problems that come with writing horror, problems that really have no reason existing, problems that are probably encouraged by people wanting to bank on the “it” thing of the moment (not to be confused with It, which is copyrighted), or put out a lot of work fast, hoping that momentum will carry things the rest of the way.
I get variations of this every time I do horror panels, so it’s been on my mind a little more lately. A lot of people equate the genre with monsters, with over the top gore, with tense, insane sequences. I’m not saying those aren’t great, but to actually write horror, I mean that’s all icing.
At the end of the day it’s all about humans and fear. That sounds way more esoteric than it is, I swear.
A few years ago, I was sitting in a mask making demo done by Jordu Schell. He’s a fabulous person to watch work, and he really imparted some excellent advice. I want to say it was California that had just been through an intense earthquake, and it just so happened that we were next to a film screening room, so you could hear all the screaming and rumbling through the wall. It was interesting, because he just rolled his eyes and commented that all the stuff in the business…all the monsters and weird other worldly killers and ghosts and stuff weren’t really scary. Scary is not knowing if your house is going to be there at the end of the day, scary is that loss of control, not knowing if the people you love are okay, not knowing if you’re going to get out of a situation alive. He basically went on to say that there were so many things going on in the world that are horrifying and truly terrifying, that it was a little weird for people to get worked up over horror tropes beyond entertainment.
It’s an interesting concept, whether you agree with it or not. I think he definitely has a point. Let’s face it: the real world terror of being out shopping and suddenly someone could come around the corner and put a gun in your face is exponentially freakier than the possibility of a monster stepping on you.
I think as a horror writer, it’s my job to use the emotions of a real world possibility and put it into whatever scenario I happen to be writing at the time. You can let your creatures, your curses, your whatevers be vessels for real world fear, and it’s probably a little easier in some ways to do that with the written word. This is where I feel like a lot of people depend too much on gore, too much on trying to be “edgy”, too much on trying to write “scary.” In the visual fields, this is the equivalent of five hours of blood geysers for no real reason. I get in film that’s a choice and there are debates if that actually is metaphor, but for actually developing a cohesive, reader-grabbing story, let’s go back to calling that icing for the moment.
I studied theatre in college, and a big part of that was acting. A professor of mine was a big fan of critiquing us when he thought we were too static, acting a state of being instead of a verb. Pretty much you can’t act “sexy” but you can make it your goal to seduce someone. You may not get what you want, but that’s an active pursuit. I think a lot of that is true of writing, too, especially genre writing. You can’t necessarily write “scary.” You might be able to get away with certain tricks more in film and more visual elements, but at the end of the day there has to be some soul, some core there, or else it’s all just icing. And yeah, there’s a fan base for that – I’m not saying don’t have gore – but effects tend to follow trends, so after a while you’re pretty much watching variations on a theme, and without a story that’s more than just a set up for violence, that can get a little old. Plus, think of it. In a book you maybe get two, three, five scenes of really intense violence before it becomes splatterpunk. There’s nothing wrong with the genre, but even the best of those writers (cough Clive Barker cough) still play a lot with real human situations and emotions.
In the actual story, you absolutely have to have justification for not just why things are happening, but why the characters are feeling what they are. Even if you intend for them to be stock characters and you know they’re going to die twenty pages in, there has to be something to connect the audience to them, even if it’s something primal like fear of the dark. Don’t knock darkness, man. Darkness hides things, and we have eons of conditioning to drive home the fact that predators can lurk in the dark, that they can see us and we can’t see them. That feeling you get walking through your house late at night with the lights out? Have some respect, that’s ages and ages of training there.
The best horror stories, for me, are ones that play it straight. They’re not necessarily trying to slant things to any type of fan. They take the reader and the characters seriously. In the context of the story, vampires absolutely should exist if that’s what your book is about. Only then can you set up a system where the folklore works well or the characters interact well with each other. If witchcraft is involved, your characters can question it at first, but you better commit to pulling it off well. Half-assing things just because they fall under “scary” tropes is insulting to a reader or viewer. They can tell if you’re not sure, tell if you’re phoning it in, and they tend not to like it. The real world feel of all the various relationships in The Hellbound Heart sell everything else that happens in Clive Barker’s world. It grounds the reasoning for the Cenobites to show up. The claustrophobia of dealing with growing OCD in Stephen King’s N adds a mounting dread when you realize that it’s up to that character to prevent something horrific from being unleashed into the world. All the horrible things Sonja Blue goes through prepares you for her entry into seeing what really makes up the world, and somewhat legitimizes her vampire personality when it goes apeshit all over everything. It also makes it that much more gut wrenching when she tries to have something nice and good in her life, and can’t.
In real life certain situations may not be possible, but within the world you’re crafting (even if it’s set in the “real” world) it absolutely is real and the author plays on all the primal, real-world fears to get there. The fear of being picked off in a public place can easily be applied to some guy stalking campers or a lover turning into a creature if utilized well. The all-consuming love you felt for one of your first crushes can be used to develop the character of an obsessed stalker or killer. Evil for evil’s sake is never a good enough reason, after all. The characters in question usually don’t consider themselves wrong, but rather just doing what they’re predisposed to do. That’s what tends to make things really creepy. Your cannibals aren’t doing it for the sake of eating people, they’re doing it because it’s tradition and that’s how they’ve always lived and why are you picking on them when they’re good people and by the way they outnumber you? You have to find the truth in a situation to sell the lie (another great lesson that came out of acting class). Whether that’s by remembering how you felt in certain situations and playing on that emotion, whether it’s by developing some sense of logic to make your reader fall into your world and stay there, whether it’s some other technique, that’s really up to you as a creator. Sell your characters. Sell your world. Treat them with the respect you’d treat the world around you as you walk down the street any given day, don’t use them as a means to an end and just throw on a bunch of icing. That may work for a while, but sooner or later people will wonder why the hell there’s no cake under there if that’s what they’re paying for.
I think that’s why ghost stories and stories about demons and the like do so well. It’s not because they’re just scary creepy booga booga characters that jump out at you. It’s not even because they’re things that are unnatural and can reach you on an intimate, soul level that they shouldn’t be able to, though that’s getting warmer. Whatever you personally believe, there’s a huge history of belief systems there, and it takes just as much faith to say something terrifying doesn’t exist as it does to believe in something benevolent. Who’s to say if they’re real or not? That what if is a big fine line between reality and fantasy and stories that walk it well are amazing because they make us hesitant to question, yet hesitant to completely want to fall head over heels into things, as well. That is unnerving, and that’s exactly what you want to do to someone.
Above all else, though, take your audience seriously. If they’re sitting down and giving you their time, don’t assume that they just want a few over the top scenes or that just because your book is about zombies that it’ll sell itself based on that. There are a million zombie/werewolf/vampire/Cthulhu/Whatever stories. Either make your idea so original that people can’t look away or write it well. Better yet, do both. Treat the story seriously, and you’ll have something you can be proud of, and hopefully something your audience will enjoy.
When Selah isn’t on her soapbox about genre, she’s usually trying to write it, hoping someone will take her seriously. Check out her blog, or find her on Facebook or Twitter.
I agree so much. So many people get too wound up in the shock of it (the icing) that they neglect story and good characterization and that basic universal human experience. And yes, I fear the evils of reality a hell of a lot more than those of fantasy (particularly supernatural horror), but, as you said, those stories are ways of expressing those real-life fears. That’s what myth does: expresses the (at least seemingly) chaos of real life and gives it iconic meaning through things such as monsters, demons, ghosts, witches, what-not. Really great article!
Thanks, Steven! Writing/expressing horror well tends to be a bit of a pet peeve with me. I see so much potential in the genre that feels like it’s getting neglected over a lot of glorified, bloody sugar. You are absolutely right about the purpose and function of myth. Glad you enjoyed reading!