What is the trouble with psychological horror? Actually, there’s not much trouble to it. It’s just very hard to do well.
What do I mean by this? Well, let’s look at the definition of psychological horror: “a subgenre of horror fiction, film, and video games (as a narrative) which relies on the characters’ fears and emotional instability to build tension”, according to Wikipedia (I know you’re not supposed to rely on that site for information, but I couldn’t find a better website for a definition). It’s a sub-genre that, rather than relying on a traditional monster that’s out front and center for all to see, the monster is restricted to quick glimpses and shadows. If there’s a monster at all: sometimes the true villain is a character’s own brain, their fear, distrust, paranoia, suspicion, isolation.
I’ve used psychological horror before, particularly in the stories in my collection The Quiet Game (which if you haven’t read, I wish you would) and in the short story “Buried Alive”, which was published in the Strange Portals anthology last year (again, I wish you would read it). And I’ve come to the decision that while it isn’t as difficult as physics or writing comedy, it is walking a very fine line. Almost like a tightrope. And if you fall off, you can wind up veering either into the realm of the comedic with how obvious that it’s all in the character’s head, or it’s just so confusing that you find yourself losing patience with the story.
Let me give some examples (and it’s my blog, so you have to let me give some examples): have you read “Buried Alive”? I’ll keep the spoilers to a minimum for those who haven’t, but like I said above, I use quite a lot of psychological horror in that story, and for the most part, I think that I use it well (so do most of the readers I hear from on this one). For the rest, though…it’s pretty obvious that the circumstances of the main character are taking a toll on her mental state. I don’t think it gets to the point of comedic, but it is obvious, and the point of psychological horror is to make you guess whether it’s all in their heads or if it’s real or…who knows?
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s the anime film Perfect Blue, based on a novel that I wish was available here in the States. The film is about a singer-turned-actress who starts to confuse reality and fiction when her first acting job takes a turn for the traumatic. It’s a good story, but it’s not a perfect story. There’s a good section of the movie where they spend time trying to confuse both the protagonist and the viewer, and it gets a little difficult to not only what’s going on, it gets difficult to pay attention or be patient with the movie. While I admire the visuals of the movie, and I get what they were going for by showing what the protagonist is going through mentally, and I recommend checking it out if you’re interested, psychological horror shouldn’t get so strange or trippy that the reader gets frustrated with or loses interest in the story.
A great example of a psychological horror story though, manages to toe the line very easily and keeps you guessing as to what’s real or what’s mental delusion. A good contemporary example of this is The Babadook. If you read my review of that movie last year, you’ll remember that I noted that the movie kept you guessing as to whether the film’s protagonists were dealing with an actual monster or a shared psychosis, and I eventually settled on a bit of both because…I’m mostly human, and humans need to categorize things to make sense of the world. And I still say that I don’t know for sure which it is, and that’s one mark of the film’s greatness. You’re never quite sure what’s real and what’s in the heads of the characters, it stays interesting throughout, and it never gets to the point of ridiculous or obvious. All told, it’s great psychological horror.
So how do you psychological horror well? How do you toe that line?
Well, I’m definitely no expert on the subject. I usually deal in traditional horror, the monster is out front and is usually either some twisted form of human or a creature not easily defined by our standards. I dabble in psychological horror, usually making it part of a bigger story. But I can try, and I think–beyond reading/viewing as much psychological horror as possible, both good and bad, and practicing like you want to get to Carnegie Hall, of course–I’d suggest trying to write a story where you’re not sure what’s really happening. Create a scenario where strange things start happening to your character or characters, and you can’t tell what’s real or what’s just in the minds of your characters. Keep it interesting, don’t get too ridiculous or obvious, and just see where the story goes. If you can do that but still be unsure for most of the story of what’s real or not, then it’s likely your reader will be the same and want to know more.
Another marker of psychological horror is that there’s usually a twist somewhere along the way, and if it’s good it’ll change how you view the entire story (a great example is the Korean film A Tale of Two Sisters and its American remake The Uninvited). Characters are also often driven or plagued by powerful internal battles: am I doing the right thing? Is this right or wrong? Are they really out to get me? It doesn’t have to be full-blown persecution belief or fear of some unknown. It can be something as simple as a growing suspicion that something’s off or that our desires are actually evil. Again, A Tale of Two Sisters is a great example of the former.
And finally, psychological horror is often not the main focus of a story, but part of a bigger story. Take a look at The Shining by Stephen King. Obviously that hotel is actually haunted, and the kid and the cook are both psychic. But a good deal of the story deals with Jack Torrance trying to sort out what’s going on for himself. Is he just dealing with a powerful desire to get wasted again? Is he going insane? Is the hotel playing tricks on his mind? There are scenes where you really can’t tell, and that’s part of the terror. Part, but not the whole thing. After all, there’s all the stuff the hotel is doing to them, right?
Unless Jack, Danny, and the cook are all sharing some sort of shared delusion, or folie a trois, in which case…wow. New conspiracy theory right there.
In any case, it’s something to experiment with yourself. And for me to experiment with more often. Just try and see what happens…or does it happen? You’ll never know until you try.
How do you feel about psychological horror? Do you have any good examples in film or literature you’d recomend? What are some tips for effectively writing in the subgenre?