The 3 Types of Terror

Posted: January 18, 2014 in Reflections, Scary Stuff, Writing
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

I came across this post by Stephen King on Facebook the other day and I thought it’d be interesting to write about. The post goes like this:

The 3 types of terror: The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it’s when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm. The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it’s when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worse one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It’s when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there…

Words of wisdom from the King himself.

When I read this, it struck a certain chord with me. I realized that a lot of horror writers and filmmakers can easily gain an understanding of the first two, but it takes a long time to get into the third type, and an even longer time to gain a mastery of it. For example, there are a lot of films out there (of varying quality) that utilize Gross-out and Horror. They have serial killers, they have vampires and demons, but they’re kind of low on terror. The Evil Dead films and many bad slasher flicks are prime examples of this (I’m talking to you, Friday the 13th remake). Even I had trouble with this early on in my writing career. I could easily write a story about vampires or demons that had plenty of blood  and fight sequences, but I was lacking in the terror department. Even worse, I rarely thought about including the terror factor, and when I did I didn’t really do it as best as I could.

But at that age though, and in that point of my development as a writer, all I thought I needed was a monster, someone’s life in danger, and the rest would take care of itself. I learned later on that adding terror to the story is a process, something that has to be consciously done before you can go about actually adding it in unconsciously. This is something I’ve had to comprehend with lately and which I’ve been working on with some of my latest stories. With The Loneliest Roads, I tried to put in a sense of unreality and strangeness even before my protagonist entered the limo, and slowly heightened it once she got into the limo. with some of the short stories I’m planning on writing now, I’m looking for ways to increase that terror without seeming silly or absurd. And in future novels, I hope to add that factor in with more skill and precision than I have in the past.

Perhaps adding terror in is the most difficult part of horror writing because, as King said, it’s the worst. It’s what really makes a horror story memorable to those who read or see it, and the thing about it is that it’s often an underlying element in the story, something that’s a factor in the scary elements of the story but rarely the main element. That goes to the Horror, which usually causes in one way or another the Gross-out. But the Terror? It’s what hails the coming of the horror, what prepares you for the jumps and scream the Horror will cause. And getting someone prepared for that can be really difficult, all told.

Although I’m still trying to get mastery of all 3 elements, I’m hoping that in the future I’ll be able to get a better handle on them, and to do that I just have to keep writing, to keep practicing and see where it takes me. As I write, I learn, and hopefully I learn how to tell scary stories much better than I have in the past. It’s an ongoing process, but I feel it’s one I must take part in. Wish me luck.

And for those horror writers out there, how do you deal with the 3 elements listed above? Do you have any advice on utilizing any of them? What?

(Don’t say “limit Gross-out” though, because I’ve already figured that one out. Too many horror films rely on Gross-out as it is, and it’s annoying after a while.)

  1. napow27 says:

    It is an art to scare. And terror does take practice to perfect.

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