Making Something Old Scary Again and Something New Scary For The First Time

Posted: April 5, 2015 in ideas, Living and Life, Novel, Reflections, Scary Stuff, Writing
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People from outside the horror genre think it’s pretty easy to scare people. Just add a monster/ghost/serial killer, people running in terror, and a creepy forest that is called “creepy” by the author, and it’s terrifying.

Bullshit. It’s actually really tough to make things scary. It takes more than a bunch of scary words, a dark forest, and a monster to make something scary. I should know, every time I get on the laptop to write I’m struggling to set atmosphere and arrange words and try to make something old new and terrifying again.

That last bit is one of the toughest things to do. Horror is a genre that’s full of cliches, and we enthusiasts and creators are both proud of it and trying to subvert or get around them while writing. Part of that is trying to make an old monster–a ghost, a serial killer, an evil house, etc.–seem different, seem new, seem like it hasn’t been done before. Remember my review of It Follows? That movie had taken an old concept in horror (sex equals death) and had found a brilliant way to reinvent it. To some degree, all authors of horror are trying to create that, a story that takes an old concept or monster and make it scary in a brand new way.

Sounds easy, right? Wrong. You have to look at all these other works dealing with the concept and wonder to yourself, what can I do that hasn’t been done? And sometimes the idea you’re running with has been done hundreds of times over already. Vampires, werewolves, zombies, witches, aliens, serial killers, ghosts, etc. They’ve all been done and you’re trying to find some new angle, something that hasn’t been tried or done before with them. It’s made even more difficult when you consider that there are probably piles and piles and piles of other novels that you haven’t read and they might have done the same things you’re considering doing. With all that, looking for something old to make new and scary again is quite the challenge.

It’s even more difficult to make entirely new things scary. Every writer wants to do a Cell or a Night of the Living Dead or a Paranormal Activity, to make something scary for the first time. It’s even better than taking something old and making it scary again, because you’re making a mark, you’re doing something that all those afterwards will have to measure themselves by. It’s just about any novelist’s dream, but in genres like horror where you see a lot of the same stuff over and over again (and a lot of it is trash), it’s only a few degrees away from striving for the Holy Grail.

Yesterday I had an idea for a novel involving a small town in Texas and a secret surrounding flooded rivers. As far as I’m aware, the particular angle I’d be going with this novel has not been done before. I’d like to think it’ll make for some interesting fiction, make some people wish they could do something similar. Honestly, I don’t know. But I’m excited that I have something like Night of the Living Dead or Cell or Paranormal Activity, something that hasn’t been done before and others might have to measure up to someday. That’s how big a deal it is to me and to other authors in my position. And when I finally begin to write this story, I’ll do it so that not only will I strive not to disappoint my readers, but I won’t disappoint myself.

How do we come up with these ideas? There’s no set way. We just read a lot, write a lo. We go to the films and watch the TV shows, we look at what’s been done, what hasn’t and what could be done. Is it easy? Not in the least. This is a genre where the road is well worn most of the time, where many have trod before. We’re looking for new ways to trod and for a path hidden behind foliage that we can cut a path through with our pens like machetes. And we don’t stop looking, no matter what. That’s just how we are as writers of all things dark and creepy.

Ultimately, we are not doing what we do because it’s easy to do. We’re doing it because we love it and because we love it we want to make it good. To do that we have to try to make our stories fresh, new, unpredictable, something we haven’t seen done before. It’s a difficult job, but if we do it right, then we’re doing something right as horror writers.

Do you have tips for making something old seem new and scary again?

What’s something you’ve seen not done before? What stuck you about it that made it seem original?

  1. Pat Bertram says:

    To make something scary, whether old or new, play on people’s fears. Most of the horror movies don’t play on fears, they play on scare tactics, startle reflexes, monsters, blood, gore. True horror plays on people’s fears. For example, I read a survey once that said most women are afraid of being homeless, so that would make a good counter point to the haunted house scenario. When there is no house. When the woman is alone and defenseless, bewildered by what life has done to her, terrified of moving out of the shadows lest someone harm her. And then have (whatever) find her. That’s horror.

    • Careful Pat, you’re giving me ideas.

      But you’re right, to truly make something scary, you have to play on what people fear. All the other stuff–the tactics, the monsters, the gore–all that should be secondary. I’m not sure why many storytellers put the other stuff first and wonder why they get bad reviews and sales.

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