The challenge of any horror pusher is to create something that sends shivers down a fan’s spine later. It’s to craft something that — once the book is done or the movie credits roll — causes people to go, “Man, that’s messed up” after the fact. The best horror grabs its audience by the shoulders and says, “LOOK AT THIS THING AND BE AFRAID” and that monster or scene lingers in the recesses of the audience’s mind indefinitely. They think about it when faced with the darkness later. They hesitate before going to bed alone.
I know there are some who’d argue that horror is a broad stroke, that sometimes a creepy mood is enough to give something a horror label, but for me, that doesn’t fly. I want to be terrified. A general discomfort while reading is nice, but it’s not something that will stick with me in the long run. I’ll go, “Yeah, that was good” but once the book is down, I won’t think about it again. And I want to think about it again! I want the memory of the reading/watching experience to be so strong that I’m forced to talk about it to exorcise the horror demon trying to claim my soul. I want to shove the book/movie into a friend’s hands so they can share my pain. I guess that makes me kind of a jerk, but I’m okay with that.
Act surprised – your hostess is being a dick again.
As a horror writer, the ultimate goal with any of my creations is to brand my audience with my scary. I want them throwing my book across the room and screaming UNCLEAN! because I freaked them out. Unfortunately, fear is such a personal, complicated thing that it’s easier said than done. What scares me doesn’t necessarily scare other folks and that’s true across the boards. My challenge, then, is to present my monster/scary thing in different ways as to hit as many touch points as possible. I have to take my scary concept and cast a wide net with it, hoping to snare as many people as possible with my creepy. I have to present multiple layers of fear within my horror so that if one chord doesn’t resonate, another will.
Want an example of a scene done masterfully because it fires on multiple cylinders?
Not only is the main character doing something unnatural with her posture — that crabwalk on its own is enough to make me jerk away from my TV screen — but there’s the mother’s terror to contend with as well as Reagan’s palpable misery. Her expression is heartbreaking. Add to it that bloody mouth at the end for a little shot of gross and you’ve got a perfect storm of terror. I’m sure there’s some mutant out there that thinks this is a nothing scene, but most people I know watch it and go WHOA. There’s a reason this scene didn’t see the theaters. It was just too goddamned freaky for public consumption at the time of The Exorcist’s release. And why does this work so well? Because even if the crabwalk doesn’t get you, something else will. The horror isn’t one dimensional.
Another great example of this in action?
Let’s start with the creepy-as-shit music. Joy! Then there’s the maze-like hallways! Oh, good! The twins themselves are horrifying, especially with their raspy, dead voices, but combined with those horrible flashbacks of violence from the past? Poop your pants worthy! Look, they’re advancing on Danny now, and he’s got that awful, terrified expression on his face. His little shoulders are shaking! OH, GOODY! Something in this scene is bound to grab a viewer. When one thing doesn’t scare them another thing will because (once again) Kubrick layered his scares.
That layering has to exist for horror to work for a mass audience, regardless of forum. Authors have it rougher than movies because we don’t have the benefit of the visual terror to help us make our points, but our task remains the same. We want/need to create lasting scares that will snag a reader regardless of their fear tastes. And we can accomplish that by touching on multiple things in a scene. An example of perfect execution in fiction would be Charlie Higson’s YA novel The Enemy. His Small Sam chapters have so many wonderful, horrifying components. There’s the fight for survival, the zombies themselves, Sam’s helplessness, and an awful sense of claustrophobia. If the zombies aren’t enough to get you, the cloying foreboding will, or maybe how sweet Sam is in contrast to his disgusting surroundings. Higson weaves so may disconcerting threads together, no one’s going to walk away from those chapters unscathed.
Which means, at the end of the day, he did it right.