Writing horror represents a mastery of controlling and releasing tension.
A W.I.P. Around the Workshop: Column Four
Content warning: mentions of horror, gore
Think back to when you were a child.
It was after dark, and your parents or caregivers had turned out your lights. You were lying in bed alone, breathing quietly, so quietly you barely made a sound even in the suffocating silence.
It wasn’t the dark you were afraid of but what was in the dark, in the closet, under the bed. Everything came alive with sinister intent if you looked hard enough. The shadows of trees were hands with claws. The coat on your door was the figure of an intruder. The curtains hid you from the outside well enough but there was always the thought that if you pulled them back, you might find a face staring at you from the other side of the window.
If you were like me, you scared easily (and maybe still do). My imagination held that unique terror we invent for ourselves. The kind that sets your heart racing, pits sweating, skin shivering, stomach churning, and stands your hairs on end. These aren’t sensations we’re supposed to enjoy experiencing. Not in theory.
So why on Earth do some of us seek out the blood-curdling thrills of horror, when this is the exact physiological and psychological response it’s supposed to inspire? Better yet, who comes up with these disturbing ideas in the first place?
The answers to these questions will, quite predictably, vary from person to person, and even vary within a person. The way I feel about consuming horror content is very different to the way I feel about producing it. With the former, I am a pissbaby who has very little stomach for gore and hates jump scares with a passion. As a rule, I refuse to watch a horror movie unless it is certifiably terrible and I am in the company of friends who are there to laugh at said terribleness.
However, my opinion changes when presented with horror in a written format. Suddenly, I am not only curious about the twisted contents of a novel or story, but I am also unflinching enough to satisfy my curiosity. We might argue that is because reading horror is not nearly as frightening as watching it.
We would be wrong.
The difference occurs in the way the media resonates with us which, according to Harvard University professor Dr Steven Schlozman, are two different experiences at a neurological level. Reading horror lights up the parts of your brain that deal with space and time, to provide a context for the visualisation of what you’re reading. In watching horror, that work is being done for you, so your experience then becomes a challenge of pattern recognition as you’re visually and audibly led through the story.
To be put simply, you watch a film for an intense, physiological arousal produced in mere minutes, and you read a book for a slower, more dreadful build-up in the hopes that there will be a richer payoff that will stay with you long after you have finished. Even though I have already exposed where I stand, I’m not here to start a turf war between Film Buffs and Bookworms. Done well, both can viscerally petrify you. But books aren’t always afforded the same storytelling conventions as in film or television, so they must create their own.
Anatomy of a horror story
Sadie Trombetta, a freelance writer and book reviewer gives several reasons why reading horror is so effective at producing a fear response. For starters, it’s a commitment. You’re signing up to be scared for days, potentially weeks as you sift through the pages of a King novel, and that’s not a commitment you should take lightly. Let’s face it, ruminating alone on a homicidal clown and its connection to the poisonous depravities of a small town in Maine is going to alter your mental state. And that’s the other thing: reading is a solo adventure. Even if you are reading the same book alongside another person, they will never experience it the way you do. That fear is intimately yours and it is not easily conveyed.
However, the most important part of written horror—the still-beating heart it holds out to you in its cadaverous hands—is the way it hijacks your imagination and forces you to conjure the version of its “big bad” that is tailored to scare you the most. That right there is the power of suggestion. And in those moments where your mind is racing with flashes of an evil that is yet to be properly defined, you become an integral part of the story, to the point where you believe you are experiencing this trauma first-hand. You are placed in the body of the narrator and this time you don’t get to look away.
So, we’ve dissected the mutant zombie that is literary horror and found where it keeps all its brains. Cool. That doesn’t explain why we like it though.
‘Lessons from a terrified horror researcher’
Mathias Clasen has dedicated his academic career to studying horror and combines his research with natural and social sciences. The contention he presented to his audience in 2017 was this: horror exploits an ancient and evolved set of biological defence mechanisms which we may call a “fear system”. This system was an evolutionary development from our distant ancestors who lived in a world full of dangers. Predators, disease and other humans all posed potential threats and the vigilance developed by their fear afforded them survival.
Clasen also claimed that we don’t experience the same kind of dangers as intensely or as often as our ancestors but again, this was the rosy era of 2017. Clasen didn’t have 2020 vision back then and neither did we. I digress. In the modern world, we are no less vigilant than our ancestors and this is the key to our morbid fascination.
The first horror story I read that properly terrified me into a state of existential crisis was a young adult novel by Norwegian author Johan Harstad called 172 Hours on the Moon. I picked it up from the fiction section of my school library thinking that the premise was interesting. But it was its eeriness that convinced me to begin reading it right there at the circulation desk. “Do you want to go to the Moon?” it asked on a flyer several pages in. My knee jerk response was “sure”, except the flyer with its half-obscured moon in a sea of black began to unsettle me. 48 hours of binge-reading later, I found out why. “Eerie” was a goddamn understatement. In the process, the narrowband radio signal, 6EQUJ5—the Wow! Signal—was branded onto my brain, never to be forgotten for fear that a real astrophysical phenomenon from the 70s might come back to haunt humanity with apocalyptic consequences.
Reading Harstad’s book was psychologically harrowing and bleak. I couldn’t look at the face of the moon for months without feeling a cold sense of dread. Yet it remains one of the best stories I have ever encountered, horror or otherwise, and it began my appreciation of horror as a literary genre. The respect I have for it is almost reverential. Sorry, Stephen.
We seek to be confronted by the horrific in a controlled environment where we otherwise perceive ourselves to be safe because we have evolved an appetite for vicarious experience with threat scenarios. In Clasen’s opinion, these scenarios work because they are structured to exploit the evolved fear system. Our exposure to horror allows us to test this system and calibrate it. We learn what it means to be afraid, how to handle negative emotions and develop coping mechanisms. By building a tolerance to horror, we build a sense of mastery that is transferrable to how much negative stimulation we can handle.
The place in which horrors are invented.
Horror is moulded from confronting some of the worst human fallibilities and the concept of our own mortality. As such, there are many reasons why a writer might choose to dedicate their craft to it. Harnessing the element of fear could be a writer’s way of leaning into their natural instincts, or it could be an exercise with a distinct purpose. For example, writing horror can be used as a method of working through trauma by giving a person the sense that not only can they face their fears, but they can control them. Perhaps even befriend them. Alternatively, some enjoy finding the spirit that prevails in the face of adversity and feel it is just as cathartic as extrapolating on worst-case scenarios.
With writing, there is often a sense of playing God, but that increases tenfold when considering the best ways to raise the adrenaline of a reader. I cannot claim to be an expert author in this field, though the method of constructing prose that elicits such a primal response is one in which I hold immense curiosity. Mostly, I write with the aim to frighten myself, for then I will surely be on the right track toward frightening others—for the sake of entertainment, of course. To me, writing horror represents a mastery of controlling and releasing tension. It gives us the chance to expose the darker side of humanity and wield mythic, supernatural forces that reflect our demons, and help us destroy them.