I, on the other hand, have always been fascinated by the other-worldly. And since I was raised in the church, I am pretty much hardwired to have a healthy respect of the supernatural. If a guy comes at me with a knife, it's either him or me, loser buys the farm. That's scary, but it's not, you know...scary. On the other hand, when the walls start bleeding, and objects begin to move by themselves, and you suddenly feel a soft, feather-light touch on the back of your neck, when you're alone, that's what gives me the heebie-jeebies! I mean, what the crap do you do about that? What can you do? Most of us don't have a priest on speed dial.
That's just preference. But don't get it twisted. I can watch any number of slasher flicks with great pleasure. I love Halloween, Friday the 13th, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and a bunch more. I watch them every year during the Howling Season (coming soon, my friends). And my friend is quite happy to watch a well-done supernatural horror movie. We just have different ideas of what truly creeps us out.
That's only one level, though. The kind of horror is only one part of the fear equation. After all, I've seen supernatural horror movies that made me laugh my ass off, while few movies are as terrifying as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or, say, Hostel. There has to be something beyond the well-known tropes of horror that compels you to read or watch (and me to write) horror, of whatever stripe you're into. What is that?
On my homepage, I give the definition of the word 'harrow': "To disturb keenly or painfully...To cause intense fear or dread." As in any genre, you manipulate the readers' emotions by holding a mirror to their faces, and showing them the things they already know, deep down in their hearts. In horror, that mirror shows a dark reflection of mankind's deepest fears, the old, atavistic terrors that haunt us in the hours before dawn, and the superstitions and dreads that remind us how small and vulnerable we are. Think about how you would feel if you turned and saw a message written in blood on the wall that hadn't been there before. How would you feel walking alone on a sidewalk at night, and hearing a set of echoing footsteps behind you, stealthily keeping pace. The uncertainty, turning to fear, becoming outright terror, maybe mixed with awe, or a sense of hopelessness. And what kind of terror? Terror of losing one's life, one's sanity, or even one's soul. Terror of losing one's family. How might those things manifest themselves? How do they change the atmosphere? And how do they affect thoughts, words, and actions?
These are some of the things I like to consider when I'm writing. Because the silent, hulking giant holding the knife, and the creaking door on a moonless, windless night, are only part of the story. You've got to get the reader on that sidewalk or in that dark room, feeling the tingle as it works its way up the spine. You do that by getting the reader inside the character's head. By showing what the character notices through his senses--feeling the bite of a cold wind, or the muffled thump of a footfall in another room--or her reaction to what she is sensing; the character swallows nervously, sweats with fear as she imagines the face of the man behind her, imagines his hand falling on her shoulder.
Use descriptive sensual imagery, internal thoughts and perceptions, and physical responses to create an atmosphere of dread in your story. With those tools, you're sure to have your readers sleeping with the lights on!
Until next time.