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Writing Terrifying Horror


Writing a horror novel is an art form that involves tapping into the darkest corners of the human psyche, evoking fear, dread, and terror. In this article, we'll explore some of the essential elements of writing a terrifying horror novel.


Building Atmosphere

One of the fundamental elements of a great horror novel is setting the right atmosphere. A well-crafted environment can be just as terrifying as any monster or supernatural entity. Consider Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House." The sinister, looming presence of the mansion itself is the source of horror. To build a spine-tingling atmosphere:

  • Detailed Descriptions: Paint a vivid picture of your setting, focusing on eerie and unsettling details. For instance, describe how the shadows seem to move on their own in a decrepit, abandoned asylum, like H.P. Lovecraft did in "The Rats in the Walls."

  • Utilize Weather: Weather can be an excellent tool for creating an ominous atmosphere. A stormy, lightning-lit night or an impenetrable fog can intensify the sense of foreboding.


Creating Complex Characters

Relatable, multidimensional characters are crucial for a horror novel. Readers should care about what happens to them, making their terror all the more palpable. Take Stephen King's "The Shining" as an example, where the family's disintegration and descent into madness is as terrifying as the haunted hotel. To create terror through characters:

  • Emotional Vulnerability: Develop characters with flaws, traumas, or vulnerabilities that can be exploited by the supernatural or otherworldly. This vulnerability makes their fear and suffering more relatable to readers.

  • Moral Dilemmas: Place your characters in morally ambiguous situations, where they must make decisions that challenge their ethics. This adds depth and complexity to their fear, as seen in Cormac McCarthy's "The Road."


Use Psychological Horror

Psychological horror delves into the darkest recesses of the human mind. It preys on our fears, anxieties, and irrational thoughts. An excellent example is Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart," where the narrator's descent into madness terrifies the reader. To utilize psychological horror:

  • Unreliable Narrators: Create characters who may not be entirely trustworthy. Their subjective, distorted perceptions can lead to a sense of unease. Readers won't be sure if what they're reading is true or a product of the character's deteriorating mental state.

  • Inception of Doubt: Introduce elements that make the reader question the characters' sanity, like strange occurrences that could be interpreted as mere hallucinations or paranoia.


Master the Art of Suggestion

Sometimes, less is more when it comes to horror. Suggestive writing can be more terrifying than explicit descriptions. Consider Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," where the unspeakable horror is only hinted at. To master suggestion:

  • Imply the Unseen: Describe the aftermath of horror without explicitly revealing the source. Readers' imaginations will fill in the gaps, making it more personal and horrifying.

  • Build Tension Through Hints: Drop subtle hints and clues throughout the narrative, gradually intensifying the tension. This anticipation can be far more frightening than the actual reveal.


Building Tension

Another key element of delivering bone-chilling terror to the reader, is to build tension. And building tension is all about pacing. A good example of this comes from the novel, The Exorcist, by William Peter Blatty.

Blatty uses atmospheric elements and sound to start the tension. Chris MacNeil, Regan's mother, begins to hear noises coming from the attic. Her daughter's room begins to chill. This creates an overshadowing dread as the story progresses.

Then there is tension that rises up faster. Take the novel, Psycho, by Robert Bloch. The famous shower scene is probably the first scene that comes to most people's mind.

Mary is taking a shower. The 'roar' of the shower is 'deafening.' The bathroom begins to 'steam up.' The door to Mary's room opens. She doesn't hear the footsteps approaching the bathroom. The steam from the shower obscures Norman's face at first. But then she sees

two 'glassy' eyes staring at her. The face appears to have been powdered; it's dead-white. The curtains part further and then the hand with the knife appears. Mary's screams are stalled by the blade.

It's a creepy and terrifying scene. Bloch creates an atmosphere using visual and auditory elements. At first, Mary doesn't see the person's face. A mystery! When she finally does see the face, it's too late. The knife comes.


Writing a horror novel is about engaging readers' deepest fears and anxieties. By building atmosphere, creating complex characters, using psychological horror, and mastering the art of suggestion, authors can craft a story that keeps readers awake at night. Remember, the most terrifying monsters are often those lurking within the human mind, and the scariest tales are the ones that leave much to the imagination.

The monsters we read about in a novel are, in part, symbols. They symbolize the things we're most afraid of. They are predatory. There's a reason why we fear those sinister eyes and snarling mouths. From an evolutionary perspective, we unconsciously recognize danger by looking at an animal's or a person's eyes. There's a predacious glint in their eyes. I think most everyone has seen an angry dog snarl and show its teeth.

Good horror, in my opinion, begins with understanding those base fears that most everyone has and playing on them.

Go forth into that dark realm and explore. Just don't get lost in it.

Happy writing!

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