These days, I’m scared more by the horrendous things that actual humans do to each other than by some fool in clown makeup, but I still haven’t read or watched Stephen King’s It because I’ve been afraid that it’ll bring me horrible nightmares.
That’s what good horror storytellers do, isn’t it? They tap into our worst fears and nightmares and make them a reality. They play to our survival instinct.
So what makes a good horror story? For me, the sensory experience is a key factor, making the reader or viewer see, hear, and most of all, feel the fear. A spooky scene or creepy music can do that. For example, the scene in Bram Stoker’s Dracula where Jonathan Harker is riding in the carriage through the foggy dark and hears the wolves’ howling; he knows they’re out there but he can’t see them, or much of anything, and he’s wondering if he’ll even make it through the night to Dracula’s castle. Stoker did a terrific job of setting a scary scene there. Similarly, one of the things that makes the original Halloween my favorite scary movie is the music that plays throughout the film and hearing Michael Myers breathing through the mask. The sound, in that case, was the most frightening part. You hear him and you know he’s there even when you can’t see him and that’s creepy. Or you hear those first notes of the eerie soundtrack and you think, get out of there, Laurie, get out now!
Cultivating suspense is also a key element of scary stories and sensory imagery is a big part of that. Poe was great at using sound, repetition, and visual imagery to magnify the suspense in stories like “Ligeia,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and the “Telltale Heart.” Stephen King does a fabulous job of this as well. In The Shining, for example, he makes us feel Danny’s fear when he’s in room 237 by describing what Danny smells and feels and it’s creepy as hell. He uses strict anticipation in the scenes when Danny’s trying to hide from his father, similarly to the scene in ‘Salem’s Lot where Mark is held captive in the Marsten House and trying desperately to escape before the bad guy comes for him. You feel the characters’ fear building as the threat looms closer.
Sometimes, though, the most frightening stories are ones that could actually happen, where the monsters aren’t easily identifiable because they’re regular people. That’s the hallmark of Lovecraft Country for me. The supernatural elements are plenty scary, but the reality of racism and the acts done in the name of it are far more frightening.
I think another element that makes for a good scary story is the unexpected, the shock factor that some storytellers bring into their work. Seeing the main characters in Lovecraft Country held at gun point in the dark woods by racist law enforcement is scary enough. You, like the characters, are wondering what awful things these men are about to do, and then suddenly, something completely wild happens, leaving you going, “What the — ?” That sort of jaw-dropping turn is highly effective.
I’m not just a fan of vampire stories and some mildly gory tales of the supernatural, though. I like the campy stuff too. I was a huge fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer because it wasn’t scary yet incorporated elements of the horror with humor and terrific dialogue in a sort of send-up of the genre. The dark humor was what made the Evil Dead movies for me. They were gory and disgusting, sure, but they were outrageous and hilarious too, more a parody of horror films than strict horror. I adore Taika Waititi‘s What We Do In the Shadows for all of the same reasons. If I need to laugh—really laugh—I watch that movie. Dark humor is a thing of mine. Give me bloody disgusting plus ridiculous or outrageous situations and witty dialogue and I’m in love. That’s why I fell so hard for The End of the F***ing World, I think, and a huge reason why Harold and Maude is my favorite film. They’re love stories, yes, but they’re darkly, wickedly funny and, yes, very bloody and gross. They have this fabulous mix of hilarity and horrific. My dream story to read or film to watch would probably be something that’s legitimately scary but also really funny. It’s a hard combination to master, but a brilliant one; if you can pull it off, it’s golden in my book.
What are the hallmarks of a good scary/horror story for you? Who, or what, are some of your favorites?