You, the author, create a terrifying monster, the monster terrorizes everyone, and maybe one person survives – maybe. But as the horror landscape changes and grows and reinvigorates, the tropes of the genre are finding root around new, potentially more sustainable qualities.
Sure, there are new monsters to create, new motivation for vengeful ghosts, but much of modern horror has found new life in shaking off some traditional, B-movie horror tropes and moving toward multifaceted stories that stick in your craw and don’t let go, ones about friends, family, love. Oh, and there’s a monster, a demon, a ghost as well, of course. But the primary attraction, the name in lights, isn’t the terror; it’s the heart of the story that the terror upsets.
In short, there needs to be more emotional resonance in a horror story than cheap scares. Nothing embodies the modern horror genre more than this quote by Helen Oyeyemi:
“The way that people feel changes everything. Feelings are forces. They cause us to time travel. And to leave ourselves, to leave our bodies. I would be that kind of psychologist who says, ‘You’re absolutely right – there are monsters under the bed.’”
That monster under that bed is feeling. It’s the idea of fear more than an actual monster itself. And if there’s a monster too, hey, that’s fine, but it shouldn’t be just about the monster.
Let’s talk movies
You can’t have a discussion about writing great horror without at least briefly talking about horror movies. And as the former host of “Scary Movie Tuesday” while in college, I have many opinions, but the only relevant one is this: There is always a moment of reckoning in any horror movie or story. A moment when the monster is revealed. If that monster isn’t absolutely terrifying, the movie loses all its tension. It deflates like a sad balloon.
And guess what? After watching one new scary movie a week for two straight years, eventually, you realize it becomes difficult to sustain the tension of a movie based on the monster alone. They all start to blend into one, and it’s a reason why you’ll see some horror movies landing pretty awful reviews. What is there beyond the fright in these films? Nothing. Meaning: Once you lose the fright, what do you have? Nothing.
The same is true of written horror.
Don’t sacrifice your traditional story elements in favor of bigger scares, bloodier gore, more frequent startles. Your monster can only have so many teeth, your graveyard only so many bodies. Eventually, your reader is going to crave a deeper connection than what is offered by terrible, horrible, bloodcurdling scares.
Think of The Haunting of Hill House, both the TV series and the story by Shirley Jackson. Let’s first talk about the Netflix adaptation: Sure, there are some jumps and startles in the show, some freaky moments and background terrors. But what makes this show truly scary is the fact that the paranormal circumstances are affecting people you actually care about. Characters who feel real, who have actual relationships, who love and cherish each other despite their flaws and, in any other scenario, would be a happy family.
Essentially, the horror is being used to disrupt the status quo. It isn’t the status quo.
Without a family you care about, without characters you’re rooting for and want to see survive and thrive and be a happy family, this show loses so much of what makes it effective. It loses the ability to linger. Even years removed from watching, I still think about the repercussions for this family. I think about how life might have been had the house not intervened. What would Luke have grown up to become? How would the family have stayed together beyond the empty nest years?
Now back to books
In the original The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, it’s not a family occupying Hill House, but the thread of the story remains the same. The horror elements are actually rather tame, unseen, hearsay. A knock on the door, suspected possession, but nothing that reaches out and physically grabs you by the collar. No, the terror comes from the complex relationships woven by Jackson. Between Eleanor and Theodora, between Dr. Montague and Luke, between the caretakers Mr. and Mrs. Dudley.
That’s why this story stands the test of time. It’s story first, terror second. (And, let’s be honest, that’s what Jackson does in Hill House and beyond.) If you ever want to see what great horror looks like, horror that is built on the pillars of stellar storytelling, look no further.
But there are more and more modern examples as well. Let’s start in the middle grade sector, because while we often think of horror as an adults-only affair, there are so many wonderful, innovative scary stories for kids.
Look at The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier. Two abandoned Irish siblings are going to work as servants at a decrepit English manor. Seems pretty standard for a premise. There’s (spoiler!) something up with the house, the family isn’t what they seem, and, yes, the book’s namesake does, in fact, make an appearance. That’s all well and good and adds a beautifully creepy element to the story, but what elevates this story above the rest is the fantastic sibling relationship that Auxier builds between Molly and Kip. It’s a complex relationship rooted in abandonment, where Molly has to serve as protector to Kip while also nurturing like a mother and being a true friend. It’s beautifully done, and if you take away the horror, you’d still have a beautiful story. That makes this, and every other effective horror story, stand out from the masses.
If Auxier had written about Molly and Kip going to be servants at a perfectly normal English manor with a perfectly adequate family, you’d still take away so much from how these two adapt to having to mature much sooner than they otherwise would and how they stick together throughout the forced growing pains.
Another example is Wonderland by Zoje Stage. Again, when you look at the premise – a family moves onto a big swath of land in the Adirondacks and finds sinister forces lurking outside… and below – you get those goosebumps of anticipation built around fear.
And again – that fear is there. It’s a really scary story. But it’s a story built on a family. Orla and Shaw, mother and father, with their two kids, are at risk, and Orla is in charge of saving the family. Without first connecting us to the family, without building such touching family dynamics and making us root for these characters, Orla’s quest to rid the family of this evil falls flat. There’s a reason this novel is likened to Jackson’s work and The Shining. What do both have in common?
Dynamic storytelling is the entrée. Horror is the side.
It’s all in the family
Of course, there is always going to be a cult following around Saw-esque stories that gorge off the violence, torture, and gore departments. But so, so many horror stories get left behind when they rely solely on their ability to scare and not on their ability to get the reader to care. The same can be said of other genres, too: You could build the best fantasy world in the history of literature, but if you don’t fill it with compelling characters, it doesn’t matter. You could invent the greatest technology to ever cruise through space, but if you don’t fill the ship with a crew that readers root for, then who cares?
So if you want to write horror that sticks with the reader, that suits the modern horror-scape, then tell the story first and bring the scares second.
—Josh Sippie is the Director of Conferences and Contests at Gotham Writers Workshop in New York City, where he also teaches. His work has appeared in The Guardian, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Hobart, and more. Twitter: @sippenator101; more at joshsippie.com.