Horror and the Writer

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

Horror and Location

Location is, of course, important in every genre of fiction; it is in horror, however, that it goes beyond simply being the setting a story takes place in and becomes almost a character in and of itself.
This might be literally like The Overlook Hotel in The Shining which can be interpreted as having its own goals and motivations and which has a strange and inconsistent layout, for example ‘rooms with windows that should not be there and doors that couldn’t possibly lead to anywhere, rooms appear to be in one place in one scene and another place in another, wall fixtures and furniture pieces appear and disappear from scene to scene, props move from one room to another, and the layout of the Overlook makes no physical sense’ (Alcott 2010), explained by Jan Harlan, the film’s Executive Producer, as being because ‘the set was very deliberately built to be offbeat and off the track… It’s a ghost movie. It’s not supposed to make sense’ (Brooks 2012).
Setting can also be classed almost as a character in the less literal sense, in that it is such an integral part of the story being told that it is as significant as the characters who inhabit its world, such as in The Thing where the Antarctic setting impacts heavily on the film’s atmosphere as well as acting as an antagonist itself by preventing the characters from escaping the alien threat.
Location in horror is typically characterised by two things: isolation and recognisability. It can be said that the first of these ‘is at the base of nearly every horror film ever made… isolation is one of the key elements that creates the suspense and dread necessary for a film to be considered horror.’ (Vander Kaay and Fernandez-Vander Kaay 2016: 158) The reason for isolation being such an important factor in horror may be because of the way it plays on the innate fear in humans that we will suddenly loose our support systems and be forced to fend for ourselves. As naturally social creatures who work most effectively in groups, isolation works to highlight our weaknesses. As Matthew Lewis wrote in his famous gothic novel The Monk, a precursor of the horror genre, ‘Man was born for society’ and without it he grows ‘despondent and dissatisfied, and wakes only to pass a day as joyless, as monotonous as the former.’ Ultimately, this means horror is at its most frightening ‘when the victim is alone, in the dark or someplace where screams can’t be heard’, perhaps ‘trapped in… a broken elevator, a car, or a farmhouse.’ (Vander Kaay and Fernandez-Vander Kaay 2016: 158) What these places have in common is the idea that the characters inhabiting them can’t rely on outside help to rescue them; they are alone and, in turn, vulnerable.
Recognisability can be said to be an equally important factor of location in horror. As explained by the critic Brewer, horror ‘must be anchored solidly in a believable, realistic setting… familiar surroundings that provide a mating ground for the natural and supernatural… a context of normality, a true-to-life back-drop that accentuates the grotesque.’ (Brewer 2008: 111) Superimposing the horrific on the mundane creates a sense of the uncanny – the idea that something is at once both familiar and frightening – in the audience, this contrast allowing writers to explore ‘shocking’ themes such as ‘innocence defiled or order destroyed’ (Carpenter 2012).
Furthermore, recognisability in horror locations allows for greater relatability in the audience, as they’re better able to sympathise with the character’s plight and also feel a higher level of threat to themselves because setting horror in a familiar location makes the audience more inclined to believe this is something that could happen to them. After all, horror stories are ‘exploiting the frightened child within, who is… hoping the bogeyman is not lurking in his closet. The bogeyman is so frightening because he’s in the closet close enough to pounce, not in a remote castle’ (Carpenter 2012).
The Stephen King short story ‘The Gingerbread Girl’ utilises both isolation and recognisability in its location. Though the isolation of the setting, Vermillion Key, initially appears to be a good thing, being something the protagonist, Emily Owensby, craves, this is soon turned on its head when the danger sets in. Much like in the story of ‘Hansel and Gretel’ alluded to in King’s title, Emily learns that what may first seem to be a blessing can in fact hold hidden dangers. As the tension rises, King isolates Emily more and more thoroughly, having Pickering kill first Deke and then the Latino man who tries to help Emily, making her situation seem increasingly dire and adding to the suspense the reader feels. The isolation of Vermillion Key, which, until Pickering arrives, is occupied by few others than Emily and Deke, gives the strip of expensive, beach size houses that we feel should be bursting with life, a sense of the uncanny. In addition, King’s choice to use a location Emily associates with safety and turn it dangerous, threatens the reader’s own safe places in their lives, creating the sense of unsettlement and fear associated with horror.



Alcott, T. (2010) Kubrick: Five Films: An Analysis (What Does the Protagonist Want?), Los Angeles: independently published
Brewer, R. (2008) The Craft & Business of Writing: Essential Tools for Writing Success, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books
Brooks, X. (2012) Shining a Light Inside Room 237. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2012/oct/18/inside-room-237-the-shining [accessed 22 February 2018]
Carpenter, C. (2012) Horror, Mysteries and Setting: Playing on the Unexpected. Available at: http://www.writersdigest.com/tip-of-the-day/horror-mysteries-and-setting-playing-on-the-unexpected [accessed 22 February 2018]
King, S. ‘The Gingerbread Girl’, in Just After Sunset, UK: Hodder and Stoughton
Lewis, M. (1796) The Monk
The Shining, Stanley Kubrick (1980)
The Thing, John Carpenter (1982)
Vander Kaay, C., Fernandez-Vander Kaay, K. (2016) Horror Films by Subgenre: A Viewer’s Guide, North Carolina: McFarland & Company Inc. Publishers


Horror and Me

Horror is a genre I’m only just beginning to explore. For a long time, my philosophy was ‘if I’m already afraid of much in real life, why would I want to frighten myself with fiction?’ It took my introduction to the TV show American Horror Story for me to see I’d been missing out.

Admittedly, even now I’m apprehensive before beginning a new book, film, or TV programme from the horror genre; my fear of feeling fear generally more potent than any actual fear the content causes. This ‘phobophobia’ is known as a secondary emotion in Dialectical Behaviour Therapy.

My last post discussed reasons why someone might enjoy horror. Out of those listed I relate to an extent to sensation seeking, whether that be shock from an unexpected jump-scare or disgust at gore. However, I’ve found I enjoy horror most when paired with mystery, either who-dun-it style, as in the TV series ‘Scream’, or trying to figure out what’s going on and why, like in ‘The Mist’, based on the Stephen King novella of the same name.

According to reader response theory, a text lacks meaning until it has been consumed by an audience; their thoughts, feelings and experiences giving it this meaning. In horror fiction we can consider how everyone has different responses to various fear stimuli. E.g. whilst I find ghosts frightening, I have a friend who doesn’t but is afraid of dogs.

Why are our fears so varied? Partly due to classical conditioning: we learn to fear people, places, objects or ideas by repeated exposure under negative circumstances. In the case of my friend who’s afraid of dogs, this theory proposes they have experiences of a dog acting aggressively towards them.

Not all fears are learnt this way. The critic Watson proposes some fears are innate, being hard-coded into our DNA, suggesting these are the fear of loud noises, sudden loss of support, pain, and the dark. These fears are largely universal due to natural selection which dictates the biological traits best aiding survival are passed on. Having these fears coded into your DNA makes it easier to stay alive.

I tend to find horror containing ghosts most frightening. When considering why, I was initially confused. Neither have I had bad experiences with ghosts, nor do I believe in them, and they aren’t on the list of innate fears. Upon further reflection I realised that whilst an unstoppable supernatural force intent on inflicting harm, often with the ability to effect lighting, isn’t a literal innate fear, it’s clearly linked to and has the ability to bring them about.

My own fears have changed drastically throughout my life. My parents informed me that as a toddler I believed peacocks were a herald of the apocalypse. As a child, monsters were my biggest concern. Hitting teenage-hood brought with it my fear of social interaction. Though that last is something I still struggle with, I’m glad loud noises setting me bawling and sleepless nights waiting for monsters to eat me, aren’t things that followed me into adulthood.

Beyond the difference between childhood fears and adult ones, our perception of fear also continues to change, and specifically diminish, into adulthood. Studies have found the amygdala shrinks with age and older people rate various situations and people as less dangerous than their younger counterparts do. Whether this means that my own experiences with fear will get less intense as I continue to get older is something I eagerly await discovering the answer too.




American Horror Story, FX (2011)

Bennett, D. (2017) The Science of Fear – What Makes Us Afraid? Available at: http://www.sciencefocus.com/feature/fear/science-fear-understanding-what-makes-us-afraid [accessed 15 February 2018]

Gray, J. (1987) The Psychology of Fear and Stress, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Munger, D. (2007) The Changing Shape of Fear as we Age. Available at: http://scienceblogs.com/cognitivedaily/2007/05/08/the-changing-shape-of-fear-as/ [accessed 15 February 2018]

Reilly, K. ‘What Kids Are Scared of – and Why’, American Baby (2006)

Scream, MTV (2015)

The Mist, Spike (2017)

Winner, J. (2008) Nothing to Fear, but Fear Itself? Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/stress-remedy/200810/nothing-fear-fear-itself [accessed 15 February 2018]

The Nature of Horror

The Oxford English Dictionary defines horror as ‘an intense feeling of fear, shock, or disgust’ and claims literature or film of this genre is concerned with bringing about these feelings in their audience. The specifics of what successfully causes these feelings has altered and evolved throughout history due to: changes in belief, for example as we have moved towards being a more secular society fear of damnation has decreased; advancements in technology, for example the invention of weapons with the capacity to kill in numbers previously unheard of, like the nuclear bomb, meant throughout the First and Second World Wars and the Cold War horror fiction often centred around apocalyptic themes, like in A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. or in The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham; and the real world events which are prevalent in the minds of the consumers of horror, for example in the 1950’s the Roswell Incident preceded films such as Byron Haskin’s The War of the Worlds in 1953 and Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers in 1956.

The critic Carroll asks two questions in regard to horror, ‘how can anyone be frightened by what they know does not exist, and why would anyone ever be interested in horror, since being horrified is so unpleasant?’ (Carroll 1990: 8) An answer to the first question can be proposed by considering the field of neurocinematics which suggests that when we watch a film we experience similar responses in the brain to what we would in the real life equivalent of the same scenario. This response is particularly similar with horror due to the fact that the stimuli of observing something horrific overrides the way our brains motor regions are shut down when watching that which we know to be a film, and therefore fiction, in order to protect ourselves from the perceived threat, meaning we jump or yell before our brains have had time to process that the threat was false. When it comes to the later question, it is true that the idea that people voluntarily experience the emotions of fear, shock and disgust, all of which are typically considered to be negative, through the consumption of horror media initially seems to be against natural human instincts to avoid these things. However, the critic Fahy offers the explanation that ‘the horror genre promises… the anticipation of terror, the mixture of fear and exhilaration as events unfold, the opportunity to confront the unpredictable and dangerous, the promise of relative safety… and the feeling of relief and regained control when it’s over.’ (Fahy 2010: 1-2) In summary, the horror genre allows its audience to experience the positive sides of events they would not wish to occur in their own lives because of the harmful consequences which would result if it were reality. The idea of what these positives may be might differ from person to person. For example, people may engage with horror as a form of sensation seeking, in order to ‘prove’ to themselves that the villains committing acts of evil get their comeuppance and that no matter how bad it seems to get the status quo will always be returned too or a new one established, or as a means of releasing negative emotions such as anger in a non-destructive and harmless way.




Carroll, N. (1990) The Philosophy of Horror or Paradoxes of the Heart, London: Routledge

Eggertson, C. (2010) 100 Years of Horror: Culture Shock: The Influence of History on Horror. Available at: http://bloody-disgusting.com/editorials/20853/100-years-of-horror-culture-shock-the-influence-of-history-on-horror/ [accessed 8 February 2018]

Fahy, T. (2010) The Philosophy of Horror, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky

Griffiths, M. (2015) Why Do We Like Watching Scary Films? Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/in-excess/201510/why-do-we-watching-scary-films [accessed 8 February 2018]

Loria, K. (2017) Horror Movies Tap Into a Primal Fear Instinct in your Brain. Available at: http://uk.businessinsider.com/why-horror-films-scary-fear-neuroscience-psychology-2016-10 [accessed 8 February 2018]

University of Chicago Press Journals (2007) Why Do People Love Horror Movies? They Enjoy Being Scared. ScienceDaily. Available at: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/07/070725152040.htm [accessed 8 February 2018]


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