Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Writing Horror: Psychology

If you're going to write horror, you better know (drum roll)... Psychology!

It doesn't matter technically how much you understand dismemberment or how a zombie works, you need to know psychology because horror is based on fear and fear is an emotion based on our greatest insecurities about ourselves. Fear of heights? What if your child's life depended on you scaling a mountain rock face? Fear of social situations? What if a hillbilly gang picked you up and made you live in their cabin with them? Fear of the dark? What if your car breaks down on a mountain pass?

Let's look at some examples that the story line isn't nearly as important as how people handle the situation when under stress--

"The Mist" There was a division in the people trapped in the grocery store. Roles played on the outside became more pronounced. In the end, the hero had to make a heinous decision, showing that sometimes we panic.  

"Halloween" Showed that the studious and responsible babysitter wins. The teen who made the best decisions along the way showed that "the way you do anything, is the way you do everything. 

"The Shining" Showed us that a woman who is weak and meek can become a regular mama bear when her child's life is at stake. Who would have thought she could rise to the occasion?

How do people act in stressful and terrifying situations? There is no pat answer to that one.

Some people joke when they feel nervous.

Some people blank out, can't make a decision and are frozen in place.

Some people want to take charge and mechanically do what needs to get done because having tasks takes away from the gravity of the situation.

Some people look to others to make the decisions and want to be protected.

Think of horror as a written nightmare. In your dreams, depending on how you feel about your coping skills, you react differently to scary situations. It goes the same for horror. A terrible plot is unfolding and the best stories are driven by someone whose way of handling fear creates both roadblocks and opportunities to eventually prevail. He has to adapt.

But, first he should start out with some great character flaw or weakness that makes him an unlikely hero. Mr. Perfect, strong and stable makes for a boring hero. But, you take a drunken lazy character and make him sobered up by the experience and the reader is completely engaged in the story. Ultimately, the message is "there is a hero inside the common man."  

And that, my writer friends, is how the reader identifies by inserting himself in that situation with the equally flawed hero.


  1. Terrific post! I think typical personalities and how they interact in situations that are not typical is an important element to a story that not all authors take advantage of. Thanks for the reminder!

  2. Like Robert Wise's excellent film The Haunting, the story is much more about how one reacts to a haunted house rather than the haunted house itself.

    The atrocious remake is the other way round.