Learning how to write horror is a useful for any writer. The genre contains storytelling elements that are useful beyond it. Read a concise guide to horror. We explore what horror is, key elements of horror, plus tips and quotes from masters of horror film and fiction.
What is horror? Elements of horror
The horror genre is speculative or fantastical fiction that evokes fear, suspense, and dread.
Horror often gives readers or viewers the sense of relief by the end of the story.
Stephen King calls this ‘reintegration’. Writes King in his non-fiction book on horror, Danse Macabre (1981), about the release from terror in reintegration:
For now, the worst has been faced and it wasn’t so bad at all. There was that magic moment of reintegration and safety at the end, that same feeling that comes when the roller coaster stops at the end of its run and you get off with your best girl, both of you whole and unhurt.Stephen King, Dance Macabre (1981), p. 27 (Kindle version)
I believe it’s this feeling of reintegration, arising from a field specializing in death, fear, and monstrosity, that makes the danse macabre so rewarding and magical … that, and the boundless ability of the human imagination to create endless dreamworlds and then put them to work.
A brief history of the horror genre
Horror, like most genres, has evolved substantially.
Modern horror stories’ precursors were Gothic tales, stretching back to the 1700s. Even stretching beyond that, into gory myths and legends such as Grimm’s folktales.
In early Gothic fiction, the horrifying aspects (such as ghostly apparitions) tended to stem from characters’ tortured psyches. For example, the ghostly shenanigans in Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (1898). It was often ambiguous whether or not supernatural events depicted were real or imagined by a typically unreliable, tortured narrator.
More modern horror turned increasingly towards ‘psychological horror’. Here, the source of horror is more interior. Or else an external monster or supernatural figure is no figment but completely real.
See Noël Carroll’s The Philosophy of Horror: Or, Paradoxes of the Heart for further interesting information on the genres history, as well as Stephen King’s Danse Macabre.
8 elements of horror
Eight recurring elements in classic and contemporary horror, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) to the contemporary horror films of Ari Aster, are:
- Suspense (the anticipation of terror or bad things). Horror builds suspense by evoking our fear of the known (for example, fear of the dark). Also fear of the unknown (what could be lurking in said dark).
- Fear. The genre plays with primal fears such as fear of injury, accident, evil, our mistakes, whether evil faces accountability (see Thomas Fahy’s The Philosophy of Horror for more on the philosophy of horror and moral questions horror asks).
- Atmosphere. Horror relies extensively on the emotional effects of atmosphere. Just think of the claustrophobic atmosphere of the ship, the aliens’ human-hunting paradise, in the Alien film franchise.
- Vulnerability. The horror genre plays with our vulnerability, makes us remember it. Horror often asks ‘what if the other is overtly or insidiously malevolent? In asking this, it reminds us of the values of both caution and courage.
- Survival. Many horror subgenres explore themes of survival, from zombie horror to slasher films. Like tragedy, survival stories explore the rippling-out consequences of making ‘the wrong choice’.
- The Supernatural. Horror stories also plumb the unseen and unknown, terrors our physics, beliefs and assumptions can’t always explain.
- Psychological terror. Horror typically manipulates the perceptions of readers/viewers (and characters) to create a sense of unease. ‘What’s thumping under that locked cellar door?’
- The monstrous. Whether actual monsters or the monstrous possible in ordinary human behavior, horror explores the dark and what terrifies or disgusts.
Further elements and themes that appear often include death, the demonic, isolation, madness, grief and revenge.
What does horror offer readers/viewers?
In The Philosophy of Horror (2010), Thomas Fahy compares horror to a reluctant skydiving trip taken with friends, referencing King’s concept of reintegration, the ‘return to safety’:
In many ways, the horror genre promises a similar experience [to skydiving]: The anticipation of terror, the mixture of fear and exhilaration as events unfold, the opportunity to confront the unpredictable and dangerous, the promise of relative safety (both in the context of a darkened theater and through a narrative structure that lasts a finite amount of time and/or number of pages), and the feeling of relief and regained control when it’s over.Thomas Fahy (Ed.), ‘Introduction’, The Philosophy of Horror (2010).
Horror also appeals to the pleasures of repetition. The darkly amusing absurdity and existentialism of how characters are bumped off one by one in a slasher film, for example.
Audiences also flock to horror for tension (produced by suspense, fear, shock, terror, gore and other common elements), personal relevance (the way horror explores themes we can relate to), and the pleasure of the surreal or unreality.
What do you love about the horror genre? Tell us in the comments!
How to write horror: 10 tips (plus examples and quotes)
Explore ten ideas on how to write a horror story:
- Pace the big horror scares for suspense
Jump scares and sudden gore might punctuate the story, but if they appear every page they risk becoming predictable.
- Use characterization to make readers care
Who in your ensemble will your reader or viewer want to survive or triumph over horrifying events, and why?
- Make the known scary, not just the unknown
Often horror flips between everyday fears (a young couple’s fears about becoming parents, for example) and a symbolic, scarier level.
- Don’t feel you have to explain everything
Great horror stories often live on in reader/viewer debate about what ‘really’ happened. They reward rewatching.
- Play with the terror of plausibility
Horror stories make terrifying events (such as an author being abducted by a homicidal superfan in King’s Misery) seem plausible. We believe their worlds.
- Scare horror audiences when they least expect
Who can forget the infamous shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho? Horror often scares us where we think we’re safest.
- Deepen the story with layers of fear
Play with multiple layers and levels of fear – fear of the known, unknown, of real monsters and the make-believe monsters of perception.
- Add subtler hints of something wrong
What will create that feeling that something’s just a little off, unexpected?
- Balance gore with the unseen (subgenre depending)
Some horror subgenres (e.g. splatterpunk or slasher horror) go all-out on gore. Violence isn’t the only way to unsettle your reader, though. Play with the fear of the unseen – imagination can supply the possibilities.
- Tell a good story first, scare readers second
Focusing solely on scaring readers may end up with a story that is more style and provocation than substance. Think about character and story arcs, using setting to create tone and atmosphere, other elements that make up good stories.
Pace the big horror scares for suspense
Let’s explore each of the preceding ideas on how to write horror. First: Pacing.
See how the script for the classic 1973 horror film The Exorcist (adapted from William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel of the same name) begins? Not with immediate, obvious demonic possession, but the suspense of an archaeological dig. There are no jump scares, and no gore – just quiet unease.
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Pacing in horror-writing example: Slow-building tension in The Exorcist
EXTERIOR- IRAQ- EXCATVATION SITE- NINEVEH- DAYThe Exorcist screenplay. Source: Script Slug
Pickaxes and shovels weld into the air as hundreds of excavators
tear at the desert. The camera pans around the area where
hundreds of Iraqi workmen dig for ancient finds. […]
(In Iraqi language)
They’ve found something… small pieces.
(In Iraqi language)
This is a long way – geographically and tonally – from a young girl walking backwards downstairs or her head turning around like an owl’s.
A seemingly innocent archaeological dig turns into something more sinister. A link is implied between the statue of a demon unearthed in the dig and two dogs starting to fight:
EXTERIOR – IRAQ- NINEVEH- DAYThe Exorcist screenplay. Source: Script Slug
[…] The old man walks up the rocky mound and sees a huge
statue of the demon Pazuzu, which has the head of the small rock
he earlier found. He climbs to a higher point to get a closer
look. When he reaches the highest point he looks at the statue
dead on. He then turns his head as we hear rocks falling and sees
a guard standing behind him. He then turns again when he hears
two dogs savagely attacking each other. The noise is something of
an evil nature. He looks again at the statue and we are then
presented with a classic stand off side view of the old man and
the statue as the noises rage on. We then fade to the sun slowly
setting as the noises lower in volume.
The suspense in this opening builds up a sense of something horrifying being unleashed on the world unwittingly.
Use characterization to make readers care
Great horror stories may use stock character types, flat arcs. For example, in slasher films where some characters’ main purpose is to die in some creative, absurd way.
Yet subtler horror writing uses characterization to make the reader care.
Part of the truly horrifying aspect of The Exorcist , for example, is knowing that an innocent child is possessed. Tormented by evil through no fault of her own.
The care is palpable in her mother Chris’ (Ellen Burstyn) horror and anxiety in reaction. Empathy is a natural response to having an unwell child (and ‘unwell’ is putting it mildly, in this case).
We empathize with characters grappling with dark forces beyond their control. Life tests everyone with destructive or painful experiences at some point in time. The sense of powerlessness (and tenacity that emerges through that) is a testament to the human spirit, to perseverance.
A horror story itself may have a bleaker reading, of course. Yet we struggle on with the intrepid heroines in their attempts to overcome.
Three horror character archetypes that make us care
In Danse Macabre, Stephen King discusses three common character archetypes in horror and Gothic fiction:
- The Thing – for example, Frankenstein’s monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which expresses pain at having been created.
- The Vampire – often represented as suffering eternal life/return (similar in this regard to ghosts and poltergeists).
- The Werewolf – a horror character who transforms, typically against their will and usually with great suffering, into a beast.
King explores examples of these three horror archetypes from books and films such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Gothic novella Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) and Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal psychological horror film, Psycho (1960).
It doesn’t end with the Thing, the Vampire, and the Werewolf; there are other bogeys out there in the shadows as well. But these three account of a large bloc of modern horror fiction.King, Danse Macarbre, p. 96.
Why horror character archetypes make us care
Horror lovers care about ‘the thing’ archetype often because ‘the thing’, the monster, is misunderstood or blameless for its creation. Think of Frankenstein’s monster, who bargains with his creator for release and freedom.
‘The vampire’ is often a relatable figure because of the inevitable loneliness of eternal life. The vampire is imprisoned by limitations such as not being allowed the rest of death (or even natural pleasures such as sunlight – as glamorous as it might be to sparkle like Stephenie Meyer’s diamante vamps).
King writes about the werewolf and how it represents human duality. The respectable public persona or façade, on one hand, and a world of hidden, private horror on the other. A duality many who carry private trauma can relate to.
Each archetype is relatable on some level. This empathic element makes one care for (or at least understand) the monstrous and inhuman in more literary horror stories. Evil (though some don’t like to admit it) has a face and a backstory, a history of becoming, most of the time.
Read more about how to create characters readers can picture and care about in our complete guide to character creation.
Make the known scary (not just the unknown)
Many horror movies tap into the terror of the known, the common human experience, and not only absurd (but campy and fun) nightmares like clowns hiding in stormwater drains.
Common, relatable parts of familiar human experience to mine for horror and terror include:
- Birth and death (e.g. Rosemary’s Baby)
- Loss and grief (e.g. Hereditary)
- Childhood fears (e.g. It)
- Loss of control (e.g. An American Werewolf in London)
- Ritual and community (e.g. Midsommar)
- Exploring the unknown (e.g. Alien)
Filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan writes in the script for the 2000 film Unbreakable:
Do you know what the scariest thing is? To not know your place in this world, to not know why you’re here. That’s – that’s just an awful feeling.
Often, it is this mundane, relatable element of horror – such as the horror of not having a place in the world – that supplies the psychological or inner aspect.
For example, a bereaved family’s struggle with an occult family history (the outer horror) provides the figurative, metaphorical means to explore the painful reality of grief and intergenerational trauma (inner horror) in Ari Aster’s psychological horror film, Hereditary.
Don’t feel you have to explain everything
Although King’s concept of ‘reintegration’ applies in many horror stories where a sunnier ending promises relief, many modern horror narratives eschew tidy resolution.
It’s a classic ploy in horror series, for example, for there to be troubling alarm bells at the end, inferring that a persistent terror lives on. For example, the jump scare at the end of the original A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) [warning: implied violence, spoilers].
The shock comes through the juxtaposition of an ‘everyone’s safe at last moment’ and terror striking from inside the house without warning, undoing the sense of resolution attained. The main character having woken from the dreams where the bulk of terrifying events occur adds to this false sense of security.
There is no graphic gore or violence. The scene doesn’t show or tell every detail. Instead, the audience has to interpret the event and what it implies about the the status of the conflict between the main characters and the supernatural villain, Freddy Krueger – whether it is truly over.
Play with the terror of plausibility
What is most terrifying is often what is plausible. For example, the crazed fan who abducts her favorite author in Stephen King’s Misery (1987), for hobbling instead of autographs. Celebrity stalking is a well-documented modern cultural phenomenon. It is hard to eyeroll at after John Lennon.
Why is plausibility worth thinking about when exploring how to write horror?
- Suspension of disbelief. If events in a horror story seem plausible (at least for the horror world created), the audience is less inclined to roll their eyes and groan, ‘That would never happen’.
- Relatability. A novel and film such as The Exorcist plays on the natural fear many have that loved ones will fall unwell or depart, in body, spirit or mind.
- Tension and unpredictability: It is more tense and unpredictable when everything is ‘normal’ to start. Ruptures in the fabric of this normalcy create tension, the sense ‘anything could happen’ (that sense requires the bedrock of plausibility first).
Scare horror audiences when they least expect
Like that jump scare in the final scene of A Nightmare on Elm Street, horror often scares the shoes off us when we least expect it.
Take, for example, the infamous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), where Marion Crane is attacked in the shower.
The shower, usually associated with privacy, relaxation, is nothing like an abandoned side street, dark wood at night, or other traditionally ‘creepy’ setting. This coupled with the intensity of Hitchcock’s shots – the raised hand clutching a knife – creates a chilling scene.
Horror mastery lies in a push and pull, lulling your audience into a false sense of security, then pulling the rug out from under them when they least expect it.Tweet This
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Deepen the story with layers of fear
Horror, like other fantastical genres, deals in layers and dualities. In fantasy fiction, we often have a primary world and a secondary one. In horror, the duality is often an internal horror doing a ‘danse macabre’ with an external one.
Says horror filmmaking veteran John Carpenter in conversation with Vulture:
There are two different stories in horror: internal and external. In external horror films, the evil comes from the outside, the other tribe, this thing in the darkness that we don’t understand. Internal is the human heart.Simon Abrams, ‘The Soft-Spoken John Carpenter on How He Chooses Projects and His Box-Office Failures’, July 6 2011.
In a story using the ‘werewolf’ archetype, for example, the rational, untransformed side of a protagonist may fear the revelation of their monstrous side, the consequences this would have for their daily life (whether they are a literal werewolf or this is figurative). Transformed, the werewolf, like the ‘elephant man’, may experience the external horror and fear of others’ revulsion or animosity (which then feeds the internal, in a vicious cycle).
Having both internal and external conflicts in a horror story moves horror beyond simple disgust and shock tactics. The audience can connect deeper with characters, the cycles of violence they endure or triumph over.
Tapping into common fears for horror writing
If the point of horror writing (and horror elements in other genres such as paranormal romance) is to arouse fear, shock or disgust, think of the things people are most commonly afraid of.
Live Science places an interest choice at number one: The dentist. It’s true that you can feel powerless when you’re in the dentist’s chair. Couple this with the pain of certain dental procedures and it’s plain to see why a malevolent dentist is the stuff of horror nightmares.
Making readers scared creates tension and increases the pace of your story. Even so there should be a reason for making readers fearful.
Here are some of the most common fears people have:
- Fear of animals (dogs, snakes, sharks, mythical creatures such as the deep sea-dwelling kraken)
- Fear of flying (film producers combined the previous fear and this other common fear to make the spoof horror movie Snakes on a Plane)
- The dark – one of the most fundamental fears of the unfamiliar
- Perilous heights
- Other people and their often unknown desires or intentions
- Ugly or disorienting environments
Think of how common fears can be evoked in your horror fiction. Some are more often exploited in horror writing than others. A less precise fear (such as the fear of certain spaces) will let you tell the horror story you want with fewer specified must-haves.
Add subtler hints of something wrong
Returning to core elements of horror – fear, suspense, and atmosphere – how do you make horror scary even when Freddy isn’t dragging anyone through a solid wood door?
Tone and atmosphere emerge in the subtle hints and clues something is wrong.
Hints and signs of horrors to come could include:
- Unsettling sounds. Dripping, humming, chanting, singing, banging, knocking, drumming. What are sounds that imply trouble and the ghastly unknown coming to visit?
- Creepy imagery. What are images and signs that suggest comfort (for example, a lamp burning in a window to signal someone’s home)? Blow those candles out, play with the unhomely.
- Unsettling change. Changes in light, a companion’s tone, a pet’s behavior. Small harbingers of trouble add tension.
- Missing objects. What is not continuous in a way that unsettles and defies expectations? For example, in the reboot of Twin Peaks, an attempt to go home again leads to the dread of everything being different, that sense of ‘you can’t go home again’.
- Discomforting communication. Sometimes horror hinges on a repeated word or phrase (‘Candyman’), or someone saying something creepily unexpected.
The above are just a few ways to imply that something is very wrong.
Balance gore with the unseen (subgenre depending)
Gore in horror has the capability to shock, disgust, make your audience squeamish. Yet a relentless gore-fest may quickly desensitize readers or viewers to the element of surprise.
How much gore you include in a horror will of course depend on your subgenre and story scenario. Slasher stories and subgenres such as splatterpunk (a horror subgenre characterized by extreme violence) will have audiences who demand gore and may lament something tame.
Reasons to balance gore with the terror of the unseen, otherwise:
- Maintaining tension. Periods of calm between violent scenes create suspense, nervous tension for when there’ll be blood again.
- Deepening the story. Great stories with broad appeal take more than blood and guts – meaningful character arcs and genuine scares and horrifying scenes can coexist.
- Artful storytelling. Relying on inference, plot twists, atmosphere, tension for fright and shock is arguably more artful than leaping straight for shock-value. Critical succcesses in the horror genre often don’t rely solely on the cheapest, easiest scares. The story often earns them by building plausibility or deeper symbolic and metaphorical resonance.
Tell a good story first, scare readers second
That last idea boils down to this: Focus on telling a good story, first.
If your sole focus is how most you can shock and manipulate your audience, some may critique this as cheap exploitation.
Some authors – deliberate provocateurs – may wear that label as a badge of pride, of course. Careers are sometimes made in attracting controversy, even bans and censorship for extreme shock value.
Yet the stories that endure often make excellent uses of all the parts of storytelling and encapsulate some of the qualities that make storytelling universal – humanity, insight, the empathy and truth-finding that imagining and exploring ‘dreamworlds’ offers.
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