Horror writers employ a wide range of techniques to induce feelings of fear, shock and disgust in their readers.
One of these techniques is known as artful vagueness, ‘where a few descriptive details are used to suggest the object of horror but much is also left to the reader’s imagination’ (Bowkett 2009: 97). This is particularly effective because part of the horror being drawn from the reader’s mind means that its more personal to them. Being partially evoked from their specific fears rather than a fear the writer is assuming they have, which may vary in effectiveness at creating feelings of horror from person to person, results in the horror making a more intense impact on the reader. The reader’s imagination may work to construct a horror more frightful than anything the writer could describe.
Furthermore, artful vagueness plays on fear of the unknown as the reader isn’t given enough detail to know or understand the horror being faced. After all, ‘the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown’ (Lovecraft 1927: 1). Leaving the horror as an unknown means the reader lacks knowledge and the resultant ability it would bring to plan against the horror; ‘a creature that can’t be understood within the framework of science… something that obeys no known physical laws – is something against which we are likely to be powerless’ (Lewis and Smithka 2011: 309). This powerlessness intensifies the fear the reader feels.
Artful vagueness is utilised by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the short story ‘Playing with Fire’ when he simply describes the creature the characters summon as ‘some huge thing… two strange eyes glowed…a rattle of hoofs… a long white spike, gleaming in the lamp-light’ (Haining 2007: 85-6). Keeping the description short and imprecise means the reader must work to imagine the creature themselves, imbuing it with features they as an individual find most frightening, and also means they lack the knowledge with which to understand and therefore prepare themselves against the creature.
Another technique used by horror writers is that of the unreliable narrator. In this case ‘readers are exposed to the horrific through a flawed, distorting intermediary’ and, similarly to in fear of the unknown, ‘they therefore lack the essentials of… a full and clear realisation of that which threatens. They feel incapable of warding off fear, helpless because they lack sufficient command of the facts’ (Morgan 2002: 209-10).
In addition to being a method to induce fear, the unreliable narrator is also used by horror writers to set up unexpected twists and surprises, and to keep the reader on their toes, questioning the “truth” they have been presented with. This last is particularly prevalent in horror set in asylums ‘where we are always suspicious of a subjective reality that we will learn is imaginary or somehow the events are not what they seem’ (Vander Kaay and Fernandez-Vander Kaay 2016: 21). An example of an unreliable narrator is seen in the short story ‘The Party’ by William F. Nolan in which Ashland, the narrator, is missing memories and context of the situation he finds himself in, which keeps the reader attentive as they search for answers (Haining 2007: 516-25).
Horror writers also employ a creeping sense of dread in their stories; a feeling of fear that grows in intensity as the situation their characters are put in goes from bad to worse. ‘A build-up of suspense is one of the most important elements in horror fiction’ (Castle 2007: 78) because it keeps readers engaged with the story as the tension rises, propelling them towards the climax.
Bowkett, S. (2009) Countdown to Creative Writing: Step by Step Approach to Writing Techniques for 7-12 Years, London: Routledge
Castle, M. (2007) On Writing Horror: A Handbook by the Horror Writers Association, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books
Conan Doyle, A., ‘Playing with Fire’, in (2007) The Mammoth Book of Modern Ghost Stories, ed. by Peter Haining, London: Robinson
Lewis, C. and Smithka, P. (2011) Doctor Who and Philosophy: Bigger on the Inside, Illinois: Open Court
Lovecraft, H.P. (1927) ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’, in The Recluse
Morgan, J. (2002) Biology of Horror: Gothic Literature of Film, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press
Nolan, W. F., ‘The Party’, in (2007) The Mammoth Book of Modern Ghost Stories, ed. by Peter Haining, London: Robinson
Vander Kaay, C. and Fernandez-Vander Kaay, K. (2016) Horror Films by Subgenre: A Viewer’s Guide, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers