Harnessing Terror To Tell A Great Story

Deep down, everyone experiences fear. Sometimes it can motivate us to do things we otherwise wouldn’t do. Sometimes it prevents us from doing what we know we should. Now that Halloween is upon us, I thought it might be a good idea to look at how this emotion can be used to drive not just the horror genre, but fiction in general.

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The Basis of Fear

“…fear is a fighter’s best friend… it ain’t nothing to be ashamed of. See, fear keeps you sharp, it keeps you awake, you know, it makes you want to survive. You know what I mean? But the thing is, you gotta learn how to control it. All right? ‘Cause fear is like this fire, all right? And it’s burning deep inside.”

– Sylvester Stallone as Rocky in Rocky V

At its most fundamental level, fear is a reaction to a perceived threat or dangerous situation.

When you recognize a threat, your amygdalae (almost-shaped clusters of nuclei in your brain’s cerebrum) release hormones like epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol. This rush of hormones dilates your blood vessels and airway, quickens your pulses, increases blood flow to skeletal muscles and elevates blood sugar levels. In short, it triggers an intense degree of alertness, focused on the threat, and enables quick defensive or aggressive actions. This is quite commonly referred to as the “fight or flight” response. When seen through the lens of evolution, this stimulus-response reaction makes a lot of sense. That hyperaware state might make you notice the snake slithering in the branches over your head, or the panther crouching in the bushes.

As a writer, you can tap into that heightened focus, using your story as stimulus.

Classical Horror

The specifics of what people fear are fascinating, particularly in a classical sense, before our collective psyches were desensitized through repeated televised exposures.

Anthony Camara, an associate professor with the University of Calgary, argues that vampires, werewolves and mummies first appeared in the 19th century. For a very long time in western human culture the human body was seen as divine, and separate from the animal kingdom, but as we came to understand evolution, this worldview had to shift.

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Classical werewolves are a shape-shifter archetype. At the risk of speculating, the shifter, as a fear, may derive from a fear body dysmorphia… that a body does not look “as it should.” At the same time an argument can be made that this archetype has a root in fear of change. Thinking back to Michael J Fox in 1985’s Teen Wolf, there is a strong parallel with puberty. Suddenly you’re hairier than you used to be, emotions are more intense, you can venture out into the night, and you’re a lot more powerful than you were as a kid. Connected to this, there is also a fear of an inner animal, that uncontrollable unbridled emotional element of the human psyche that doesn’t obey the rules and brings forth chaos … Jeckel and Hyde… and from this even the Incredible Hulk.

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Zombies although “re-animated,” are often a symbolic (if not literal) representation of death. They embody both death’s random nature and its relentless forward march. You can keep ahead of them and stay safe for brief periods of time if you follow some simple rules, but horde doesn’t stop. The stories that evolve against the zombie background rise from those moments of humanity (or the hope for it) in the face of an unstoppable tide. That said, there are other elements of symbolism in the zombie milieu. It’s been argued that 1968’s Night of the Living Dead was a response to much of the imagery coming out of the Vietnam war.

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Monsters like Godzilla, or the Alien “xenomorph”, or even our fascination with the dinosaurs, can be seen to represent the fear of our place in the world, that despite all of the great advances of our technology, we human are not at the top of the food chain. In a more subtle way you could even lump vampire characters… those monsters of the night that feed on us, and to whom we must surrender our free will.

Our Biggest Fears

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”

– Marianne Williamson

According to a 2014 survey published in the Washington Post, the number one fear in the US was public speaking with over 25% of people reporting this fear. More broadly, this can be lumped in more generally with social fears or anxieties.

Fear of heights is up there too.

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Creepy crawlies… snakes, spiders, bugs. This fear is very much rooted in evolution. In that link they talk about reactions that babies have to pictures of snakes and spiders that trigger an innate disgust response. Interestingly, pictures of animals like bears or rhinos (presumably far more dangerous) don’t invoke a similar response. There is likely an evolutionary advantage in noticing and keeping away from creatures that hunt or defend themselves with venom. Presumably without this, we wouldn’t move. But when there’s a bear or a rhino close, you’ll have other reasons to get out of its way, even if from a distance you think it’s kind of cute.

Closed spaces… claustrophobia. People with this fear can find small enclosed spaces unbearable. Movement and even air supply can fell limited and they can be overcome with a sensation of compression.

There are a lot of other common ones too… fear of flying, the dark or being unable to see, fear of disease, of blood, extreme weather, and death all round out the top 10.

Using Fear to Drive Story

Now that we know a little something about fear, how can writers, including non-horror writers, use this to make their stories engaging? I would argue that even in cozy romance, there reader will have a desire to see the two characters get together, but underneath that, is a fear that they won’t, a fear that some blundering misunderstanding, some bad decision or some inherent character flaw will keep them from finding their happiness.

There are two kinds of fear to be aware of in storycraft… the fear experienced by the characters in the story and the fear experienced by the reader as they watch what happens. Sometimes they are the same, but not always. In first draft, I find it’s important to think about what emotions the characters are experiencing, but then in subsequent drafts, think specifically about the reader.

To use fear effectively, you first need a character the reader cares about. Establishing that reader-character bond quickly is critical. I don’t think there’s ever a sure-fire way of doing it, but some things that help are giving the character a clear goal, forcing them to confront problems that are relatable to your audience, giving them interesting quirks, and having the character care deeply about something or someone.

Next you need a stimulus or a trigger… something that will put that character in peril. And it doesn’t always have to be physical peril. Remember, some people are just as afraid (if not more so) of being made to speak at the front of a full lecture hall as they are of standing in front of a hungry tiger. Ideally that peril will also oppose any goal that character has.

Now crank it up. Add a ticking clock so that the reader can measure and track the impending confrontation. Give the reader some information the character doesn’t have. (Or at very least don’t go the other way–it’s hard to create a satisfying story where the character is aware of something the reader is not.)

Compound the threats. One dramatic way to escalate the tension is to have the character search for, and attempt to solve the problem, but then have each attempt at a solution somehow draw the real threat closer, or add another one.

Avoid comfort. Sometimes it’s necessary for the story pace to slow down. The characters and the reader need to catch their breath, experience the less immediate emotions that come from whatever is happening to them, and plan for the next phase of the story so they can take agency for the outcome. But don’t let them get too comfortable, otherwise the reader will feel as though they have reached a comfortable spot to put the book down.

Surprises need to make sense in hindsight. Occasionally they can work out of the blue, but the reader needs to trust that the characters are working on a solvable problem.

The Hail Mary

“I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out.”

– Stephen King

This quote from Stephen King sums up a last resort… the old gross out. But I recommend using such techniques sparingly.

Too often I think writers go straight for the vivid imagery but in doing so, lose sight of the story they really want to tell and what they’re actually putting out into the world. I’m not the story police, but I think it’s important for all writers to remember that what they are writing will have an audience, and ideally they’re going to be impacted, sometimes deeply, by the story. And sometimes in ways that were not intended. Readers carry their own fears, and hopes, and personal histories, including sometimes very real traumas into the story with them.

Happy Halloween