Real horror isn’t necessarily something gory, or something that makes us jump in start. It’s not always fear of some unknown, hockey-masked killer wielding a machete, and it’s not always a burn victim with razor blades on a glove invading our sleep.
Real horror, sometimes, involves spring boarding off one of our very real, very close fears, and making them become more tangible.
For example – and I just saw this illustration on another blog today – Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. One of my favorite books, actually. I read it and it reminded me of when my family moved to a strange new place – Georgia. In my imagination, as I read, the book’s events took place where we’d relocated, and in my mind’s eye, I saw the streets and houses I experienced there.
But the illustration of King’s masterpiece was how something very real, very possible – the death of a child – was used to bring the reader into the fantastic, the strange. From known to unknown. The death of the child didn’t impact me like it would now, of course, because I have children now. But it was horrible even then.
So good horror writers find the weak spot, the real fear in themselves and in us, their audience, and then tug on it, pry it loose, rip it out of us.
Sometimes, though, the horror isn’t in a book or movie. It’s in our every day lives.
I read the news and there are things that horrify me there, but the horrors are more distant, masses we can’t always relate to, faceless, far away. It’s hard to sympathize with those, because we’re removed, safe and happy here at home.
The best horror writers find a way to take something we can relate to, something with a face and name, and make readers identify with the horror. A shark attack on a teen makes the news. The thousands upon thousands of teens dying of disease every year don’t. We can visualize and sympathize with the shark attack victim more readily.
What scares each of us is different. I’m afraid of a lot of things, but some will be more realistic than others, touch me on a different level. Some is phobia (getting worse as I get older, it seems), but some is just plain ol’ been-there-done-that. At least for me. Put me on a thin ledge of a thirty story building and I’ll freeze, faint maybe. Phobia. But hand me notice that my job has been eliminated and I enter heart attack country, and it stays with me. Very different, but very real, both.
Learning to write what scares us is a must for horror writers, and being able to set pliers to the fingernails of close-in fears and use them as tools to move us toward the bigger, harder to believe scares, the ones that require us to suspend disbelief, is what real horror writing is about.
What about you? What scares you?
See you next time.