Monday, March 12, 2012

What makes a good horror story

There are so many ways to tell a horror story and really spook the reader, listener or viewer, depending on the format, that it can become hard to tell what makes a good horror story. In making or presenting a good horror story there is much to consider.

There is also much that affects its reception. There is a little of the personal taste of each audience member, a touch of their interpretations, a lot of the susceptibility of the audience to be spooked, a tad of how familiar the audience is with the storyline and a fair dollop of whether or not the horror story manages to make the audience members laugh or scream.

So what is likely to succeed?
Well, what has succeeded over the years of audience's listening to, reading and watching horror?

The basic principles of horror:

  • Tie the story to a moral, whether drawn from religion, folklore or social norms.
  • It is preferable that the moral of the tale be delivered in a bloody and/or lethal fashion.
  • Focus on issues that affect all humans, such as death, the afterlife, good and evil, the devil and the demonic.
  • Use a supernatural being to impart the moral, namely witches, werewolves, vampires, ghosts, ghouls, demons, the Devil or another such creature.
  • If the story's twist is that a while everyone believes the one visiting moralistic justice is supernatural then make the deliverer of moral justice entirely human but evil, unstable or misguided.
  • Insert Gothic aspects for a bleak view of society and allow this to couch and enhance the darkness of the moral deliverer.
  • Gothic aspects help to show either that the society is corrupt, the characters are pessimistic or the world does in fact contain the supernatural. Rules of nature can be bent and broken far more easily using this format.
  • Create a new monster or revamp an old one into something more sinister.
  • Emotional responses to aim for: fear, tension, dread, shock, disgust, outrage, nervousness, claustrophobia, agitation and to some degree self-criticism (stemming from the moral aspect).
  • If these are impossible to incite with the horror story then aim for dark humour. This is equally useful in creating a successful horror story.
  • Without a moral aspect to the horror story, use of the chaos principle can be applied. To have the protagonist/s randomly maimed, tortured or killed without apparent rhyme or reason will leave the audience wondering why and whether such a horrific thing could happen to them.
  • Another principle to use if the moral aspect is left out is to rely on the twisted, barely understandable yet eerily familiar worldview of the antagonist in creating the reason for the misfortunes of the protagonist/s.
  • If a Gothic portrayal of the world is not desirable then a gritty and realistic portrayal will work equally well. The impact of a realistic setting, if a little grim, is that the audience can accept such events as is happening to the protagonist happening to them, thereby inciting the desired range of emotional reactions.
  • To have build the most horror, first create empathy, sympathy, affection or a connection. Then move onto suspense leading to tension and dread so that when the protagonist meets the moral or random event the audience feels shock, horror, dismay, outrage, agitation and to some extent denial. Disgust can also be involved but is just a side effect of the event and their recognition of the mindset of the antagonist.
  • Another way to build horror is to have the audience sympathise and identify with the antagonist rather than the protagonist. The role reversal forces the audience to reflect of the horrors within their own minds. Used alongside event based horror this is a subtler format with regards to its emotional impact but leaves the audience thinking about the story for far longer.
  • Blurring the lines between protagonist and antagonist, with regards to motivations and actions, is effective in creating a psychological impact upon the audience.
  • Animals can be used to replace monsters but again monstrous attributes are usually applied. If monstrous attributes aren't then a starkness of the landscape, randomness in attack and an escalation of the unexpected horrific events should produce adequate horror in the audience.

There are likely more principles to making a good horror story but these will help you get started.


  1. Michael: For me, nihilism, absurdity and a sense of dread are key. A lack of sympathy for the characters helps - the idea that they are cast adrift in an openly hostile universe (think H.P. Lovecraft, Thomas Ligotti, Arthur Machen, Hanns Heinz Ewers, M.R. James and the best of Clive Barker and Ramsey Campbell's stuff) that is actively trying to destroy them. Excise the moral element and it makes things more frightening - it removes meaning or causality, and our brains find that hard to cope with. To me, that makes for true horror - and an oppressive claustrophobia doesn't hurt either, just to put some black, frozen icing on what was a pretty venomous cake to begin with.

    Rosalie: Yes, the chaos principle and random violence works well. It is one of the new versions of horror, compared to the others. I like the subtler approach too but you can't get rid of the moral part of the classic horror story, as that was one of the major factors in horror being told and written in the first place. It is hard for me to pick which style I like best but I guess I'll just have to say that as long as the moral isn't irritating, either will do. I am a fan of the classics but also love new ideas. I'm always looking for something new in story lines. I just wonder what they'll come up with next as the random horror is being used a lot nowadays.

    Michael: Have a read of some of Thomas Ligotti's stuff. It's packed with a black existential nightmare existence, is extremely well written, and reads like no other writer currently working. He never uses "classic" horror monsters, and scripts incredibly original tales - mainly short stories, but also vignettes that are sort of like a snapshot of a nightmare. They defy logic at times and evoke that claustrophobic dread I was talking about before. His best writing is as good as horror gets. If you can't find any of his stuff (most, if not all, is out of print), and you're interested, let me know and I'll sling a copy of his anthology The Nightmare Factory your way, via Simon. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

    Rosalie: Shall do then. Though I will have to wait until I'm mentally free to read another person's work. Does he have a designated antagonist or is he a universe wreaking havoc type of writer.

    Michael: That's hard to answer. There are certainly antagonists working within his stories against the protagonists/often first person narrators - but sometimes the delineation between the two is hard to work out. There's no good guy/bad guy line of demarcation - often his adversaries are ... well ... I don't want to spoil things. Don't go in expecting Cthulhu or Moriarty, or such. He's a pretty unique writer is all I'll say.

    Rosalie: Oh, hell no. Most of the horror these days is with human protagonists and antagonists and on top of that we often end up siding with the antagonists and seeing the protagonist as the aggressor. It all gets a bit confusing re who's acting sanely, who's right and who should be condemned and I really like that. Makes you think. What you're describing sounds like an extension again of this to the point where neither could be called a protagonist or antagonist at all. Just characters.

  2. Michael: I actually prefer that. People aren't protagonists or antagonists in the real world, generally speaking. While madness or obsession are present in his work, there are other elements from "outside", things he doesn't feel the need to start explaining - you just have to accept certain things based on the internal logic of the stories themselves. And that logic gets pretty damned weird at times. Part-Kafka, part-Lynch, part-Lovecraft - he never explains things. Ligotti makes you into an active rather than a passive reader. He never talks down to his reader, and that I like a lot.

    Rosalie: Me to. You're making it hard for me not to start reading! I'm a big fan of psychological horror and, in fact, any story where the weaknesses of humanity are explored without labelling as good or bad, sane or insane, reasonable or unreasonable, instinctual etc. You get my meaning, hopefully. I have found that every person I've ever met has been an interesting jumble of features and couldn't be completely classed as anything. I haven't met anyone truly rotten through and through but I know that at least this type of person does exist. (I prefer rotten to evil or bad. It explains what is going on better, I think.) You can be anything but if you are rotten then well... there's not much hope for you to recover. Also, I like works that explore the difference between thoughts and actions as most people have stoppers of a sort but not everyone or not for every aspect of their rotten sides.