Which Element of Horror is Most Important?

Posted: June 21, 2016 in Living and Life, Reflections, Scary Stuff, Writing

I know I said last time that I was going to talk about work, but I’ve decided against that. After all, I’m working for the government again, in an agency where even the smallest details can be important to national security, so better to be safe than sorry.* My apologies if you were looking forward to a breakdown of my first week on the job like during my internship in Germany.

So instead, I’m going to do something I’ve been wanting to post about for a while, and that has to do with writing good horror.

So, a little backstory: recently I was at this event for young Jewish adults in Columbus, where we young Members of the Tribe can get together, socialize, and have a tasty kosher meal. The last one was a few days after Video Rage came out, so as you can imagine I was telling as many people as possible about the books in case they might be interested. One person, whom I was sitting at the same table with, asked me a question during our conversation on writing, one that really got me thinking. The question was, “Which element in horror is most important? The monster, the scares, or the atmosphere?”

I can’t remember exactly what I told him at the dinner, but I have thought about this question a bit since then. And you know what? I think that all of them are equally important. You just need the right balance of each and a good execution of each as well How to achieve that balance works depends on the story, as well as the skill of the author. Same goes for the execution, though I feel that is more based on skill than anything else.

Think about it. Obviously when you think of horror stories, you most likely think of some sort of monster, maybe a ghost, or a serial killer, or some demonic looking thing with teeth and horns. But then you think of that monster popping up and attacking you, the scare. And then you think of the fear that suffuses you, fills every inch of you, that fear of being attacked by this monster. That is the atmosphere, felt by you, the reader/viewer, an atmosphere of terror at the idea the monster will attack you. All three elements, present and essential to the story.

You can see all this in the case of Stephen King’s IT: you’ve got a terrifying monster, a shapeshifter that takes on the form of your worst nightmares and eats its victims. Every time the monster appears to attack, it’s pretty creepy to say the least. And the fact that the town It terrorizes is under Its influence to a great degree means anyplace could be where It is hiding, making nowhere safe. That’s a terrifying atmosphere to live under.

But like I said, finding a balance is difficult. One of my biggest criticisms of the movie The Forest is that it couldn’t keep up a creepy, tense atmosphere, which ruined the story despite having a great monster (Aokigahara) and decent scares. This is in contrast to a novel like Within These Walls, which manages to keep a great balance between its ghosts, the scares, and the terrifying atmosphere that builds in the house (I highly recommend reading it).

Great example of a good balance of monster, scares, and atmosphere.

This goes as well for execution. Each element, even if perfectly balanced, will not make for a great story if there’s not a good execution. I saw and reviewed The Boy earlier this year, and I felt that the true nature of the supposedly possessed doll made no sense. Seriously bad execution in the monster. Contrast that with the little girl from The Ring, which is a pretty well-thought out ghost, and you’ve got a very good execution right there.

So like I said, all three elements of the story are equally important if you want to make a truly scary story. Though that doesn’t mean that it’s easy to do the execution part. Especially for atmosphere. I find that’s a really difficult thing to create, and even harder to keep. Hopefully though, as I write and edit more and more stories, I’ll get better at all three elements (and I like to think I’m already very good at monsters and scares, so…).

That’s all for now. As you can probably guess, I’m busy with work and being an independent adult, so I might be a little restricted in the number of blog posts I write over the coming weeks. I’ll try to keep up my average of two posts a week (unless something special happens and I can’t help but blog about it), with one probably released sometime between Sunday and Tuesday and one on Friday (you know the one I’m talking about). In the meantime, I’m editing Rose and continuing to find ways to get the word out on Video Rage and all my other books. If I’m lucky, I’ll have more news on those in the weeks to come.

Until next time, my Followers of Fear. Have a good one!

*I will say though that I’m doing the same sort of work as I did in Germany, that the people in my office are the nicest people, that I’m enjoying myself, and as soon as all my basic training is out of the way, I plan to do as much as I can for the office and make the best impression possible. Wish me luck!

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