I recently had the opportunity to give a presentation at the When Words Collide writers’ conference in Calgary, Alberta. The topic? How to scare people with words.
Specifically, how to write a horror novel.
When I tell people I write horror, I sometimes get a funny look. See, horror writers are the serial killers of the fiction world. People say, “He’s such a nice, mild-mannered guy. I lived next to him for years. I never suspected he wrote horror.”
Why do I write it? It’s FUN. That, and my imagination can really soar. Good horror breaks boundaries, makes us uncomfortable, asks disturbing questions. It’s writing at the edge of human nature. You get to probe some pretty dark territory and then flush it all out of your head.
Maybe that’s why horror writers are so nice. In the fiction world, the nice, happy horror writer is something of a stereotype. As an attendee of the World Horror Convention, the annual meeting of the Horror Writers Association, over the past few years, I can personally attest the stereotype is fairly true.
So that’s why I’m writing it. What’s in it for the reader?
Horror is “painful and intense fear, dread or dismay” (Websters). Horor fiction “scares or startles readers by inducing feelings of horror or terror” (Wikipedia).
The first question that should leap to your mind is, “Why would anybody want to read THAT?”
Experts have theories as to why people are attracted to horror in movies and fiction. Dr. Frank Farley, psychologist at Temple University, says horror media allow people to satisfy their curiosity about and fascination with the bizarre, and make sense of it. Think people rubbernecking a car crash.
Dr. Glenn Sparks says that people have a basic need to seek situations outside their comfort zone. Professor Emeritus Stuart Fischoff points out that people want to face danger and survive the encounter (catharsis), the same impulse that puts people on rollercoasters. He adds that people who seek out horror tend to like exciting experiences.
The psychiological changes that occur while consuming good horror media include an adrenaline rush, pounding heart, sweaty hands. Says Farley, “There’s almost nothing else, including sex, that can match it in terms of the incredible sensory experience the body is put through.”
A quote attributed to author Stephen King puts it simply: “Terror [is] the finest emotion, and so I will try to terrorize the reader.”
That’s powerful stuff and a testament to the magic of reading. How do we bottle that in a book?
This series of articles isn’t meant to teach you how to be a writer. The purpose of this article is to tell you, as a writer, the basics of becoming a horror writer—from one writer’s point of view.
Check back tomorrow for Part 2. In Part 2, we’ll explore the black heart of the horror novel, the horror element.