Unsettling, spine-chilling horror is something that, if done correctly, can have a lasting and profound effect. It’s an assault on the reader’s senses that they often enter into willingly. Well-written fear will resonate inside them, lingering long after they have shut the book. It doesn’t only reside in the horror genre, but can seep into novels and short stories of any kind.
Films and programmes are able to generate this kind of fear in viewers through tools such as music and lighting, and ominous prowling figures in the background that the characters are yet to spot. But writers have only words. Here are eight techniques authors have used to invoke unsettling fear and dread within a reader.
Less is More
Fear is subjective and personalised to each and every reader. Real fear lies within all of us, tailored to our own interpretation. Therefore writing in a minimal way and allowing the reader to use their own imagination to understand what is happening can be far more effectively terrifying than allowing them to see what you have thought up.
“Fear lies in what you don’t show, not in what you do.”
Fear is subjective; what scares you won’t scare all of your readers, and what scares some of them won’t scare the rest. Everyone has their own idea of horror and this technique draws it out, allowing the reader to fill in the gaps you leave with their own fears. You, as a writer, merely need to sow the seed of fear and the reader will grow their own hideously terrifying tree of horror.
We all fear the unknown. Once something is understood and can be rationalised, it is no longer quite as frightening. We are all, to different degrees, afraid of death. Regardless of religious beliefs, we do not conclusively know what happens to us after we die, and this—for me, at least—is terrifying. If we knew for a fact that we went absolutely nowhere after death, would we fear death less, because it is no longer unknown?
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
The Road by Cormac McCarthy tells of a man and a boy pushing their shopping trolley of possessions along a road in a post-apocalyptic future that is scattered with bodies. We learn this without any shock in the description, because the man and the boy are not shocked, so we assume they must come across dead bodies all the time, and we are left to wonder why. McCarthy never explains what happened to the world, only offering a few slight hints, so all we as readers can do is guess at possible scenarios as to why things have become this way. With no limitations to our guesses we can think up a whole list of horrific possibilities and narrow down on the ones that personally scare us the most.
Suspense is arguable the most practised tool to invoke fear in writing. It is the knowing and foreboding feeling that a situation will not end with a positive outcome. It’s a feeling that either the reader and character can both feel together, or just the reader can realise, and have the added suspense of waiting for the character to catch up. It can come as an eerie sensation or a full on chase, where the suspense is wondering what will happen if and when the pursuer catches the prey.
The Rain—Part One by Joseph A. Turkoi depicts a dystopian future where it rains and never stops. Land barely exists and people live on worn-out boats, constantly bailing water to avoid sinking, covering themselves in tarp and fearing people known as ‘face-eaters’ who have taken to devouring fellow humans to survive. The teenage protagonist, Tanner, knows two face-eaters are in a boat behind her and her guardian, following, always getting closer. When they duck onto a small mud island to camp and sleep she knows the face eaters are gaining time on them. For pages and pages of the book Tanner is living her life of survival with the ominous, looming suspense of being followed by cannibals that will eat her and her guardian if they catch them. Then the face-eaters are only twenty, maybe ten minutes behind. Then they are right there, looking across at them. Face to face.
Let the character and the reader think they have a few moments to let their guard down. Let them find a safe haven; let them think they are home. Let them relax, put away their weapons, close their eyes. And then, whether you choose to do so suddenly or opt for a slow, unsettling reveal, let them realize they are actually the last place they want to be, because what they thought they knew isn’t what they thought it was at all.
“Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute.”
The above Stephen King quote explains that unsettling inkling when we know something is not quite right, but we cannot place our finger on it. Everything is exactly how it should be, familiar, and yet you feel there is something very, very wrong. If using this example, the way the character could realise their safe haven isn’t actually safe at all would be to pick up an item they have had for years, that they know has a small imperfection, yet the one they are holding is perfect.
An example of a quick reveal is in an episode of Doctor Who, which even though I watched years ago I still can’t shake the memory of the shock this particular reveal gave me. The Doctor is in a bedroom, supposedly safe from the particular monster of the episode, and relaxing. His guard is down. The viewers guard is down. In the corner of the bedroom is a big old grandfather clock that is ticking loudly. The minutes pass with no apparent threat. We relax more. But then the Doctor notices the time on the clock is wrong. It’s stopped, broken. But the loud ticking continues on. It’s coming from under the bed—the monster the Doctor is afraid of is under the bed, producing a freaky ticking noise, and has been hiding there the whole time, waiting for the right moment to attack.
This could possibly also fall under not rationalising, but using the same old stories, ideas, monsters and villains somewhat kills any scare left. No one is afraid of werewolves because we all know what they are, but new things are truly frightening as they are unknown to us. We fear them because we have no idea what they are, what they can do, and why they are doing it. Monsters that already exist can be done again successfully, but why not create your own, and let the reader get sucked into the story by trying to rationalise and understand them? Let the reader work to imagine your new monster, instead of easily drawing upon a mental image of one that has been done countless times before.
In James Dashner’s The Maze Runner there are monsters known as Grievers patrolling the maze at night. They are described as an experiment gone terribly wrong; part animal, part machine, resembling a giant slug, glistening with slime and partially covered in hair. They grotesquely pulsate while rolling, spinning and clicking, with sharp metal spikes protruding from their flesh every ten to fifteen seconds. Other protrusions also stick out from the creatures; mechanical arms and legs with lights and claws and various menacing, imagination provoking tools.
Dashner could have easily chosen an existing monster to patrol the maze, such as trolls, but in creating something original I feel it gives the monsters, and the novel, a much more frightening and thought provoking niche.
Vary the Fear
If you don’t want to write minimally, but you still want your reader to be terrified by the particular nightmare you create, then perhaps allow your characters to encounter a variety of different fears.
This was arguably done most successfully by Stephen King with ‘It’—as It could become anything the characters feared. Similarly, the Forbidden Game by L.J Smith gets around how horror differs from person to person by depicting a range of scenarios. The handful of teenage characters play a game where they enter different rooms, and in each room a character must face their own worst fear, from clowns to suffocation.
Veronica Roth applies the same technique in Divergent, where the protagonist, along with the other initiates, has to face her own multiple fears in a simulation and overcome them, because members of the Dauntless faction must be fearless. We get to see her attacked by crows, trapped and drowning in a tank of water, fighting against the sea’s current, bound and set on fire, attacked in her childhood bedroom by featureless murderers, be intimate with the boy she likes, and finally, be given the ultimatum of either killing her family or be killed herself. As readers we image ourselves in each of these scenarios with the hope that one or more will personally affect us deeply due to our own individual fears.
This means letting the reader grasp the fear at the exact same time the character does, through giving both of them several clues and inklings that something dreaded is looming. You allow them, the character and the reader, to work through the information at hand and have them both realise the potential peril in unison, helping the reader to feel an integral part of the story themselves.
Edgar Allen Poe uses this technique most famously in the Pit and the Pendulum—the room where the protagonist is held captive is revealed to the reader as the narrator explores it. The pit is only shown when the protagonist finds it, and the pendulum appears first in sound, then in sight, and finally in terrifying reality as it lowers. As more is revealed about the room and its horrors, the tension and peril the narrator experiences is projected onto the reader.
In Among Wolves by R.A. Hakok the protagonist is walking through an unknown, pitch black tunnel, with only a dim flashlight to aid him. He gets glimpses of something in the tunnel up ahead. Only glimpses. His imagination—and the imagination of the reader—fills in the blanks. He finds it to be a demobilized Fury, a dangerous creature who used to be human, but has now—due to the actions of mankind—become immobilised, along with all of the Furies that remain in this world. But the protagonist keeps mentioning how the walls and ceiling of the tunnel are thin, and we, the reader, get the same eerie feeling that this is somehow important, but like the protagonist, can’t quite figure out why. The protagonist also has an interesting quirk of counting his steps, and when he reaches the immobile but potentially perilous Fury he counts his steps away from it until he reaches the door at the other end of the tunnel. A day or so later, when he leaves again, he counts his steps in the darkness until he reaches where the immobile but dangerous creature should be (which is slow and lingering and hits upon technique three, Suspense). But the Fury is not there. It’s moved. Both the reader and the protagonist of the story have the same realisation from the information they have been given. The thick walls protected this Fury from the treatment which immobilised the rest of its kind. This one is mobile, deadly, and running straight at the protagonist.
We fear things because we know they could, however unlikely, actually happen. Whether tangible or ethereal, if they could exist, they can scare. Ghosts, goblins, gnomes and gargoyles have all been used to create fear, and no matter what form they appear in, if they are believable in the world you have created they will deliver a scare.
James Herbert’s Rats was frightening not because of a natural fear of rats, but because of the idea that they could work together to attack people. Rats in themselves are not scary—at least not to everyone—but they have the potential to do us harm, and the idea of thousands of rats invading your home and eating you alive in your bed is one that caused many a sleepless night.
In The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau the protagonist fears leaving the perimeter because of the stories she has heard of the creatures that live on the outside. Later she discovers that these feared creatures are not dangerous, but misunderstood humans who are deformed from generations of living outside the safe zone. We, the reader and the character, are no longer scared of these creatures, but scared of the possibility that we so easily could have become them.
When fear invoking moments within stories are written, writers should be scared and troubled by their own words. Dig deep into your fears, into the images and ideas that your mind is begging you not to explore, work out what exactly you are afraid of, and use it in your writing. When reading your work back you should get chills. You should avoid reading it alone at night. You should need to read it in broad daylight, and in public places, because if you can’t scare yourself, how can you expect to scare anyone else?
© 2016 Rebecca Delphine
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Rebecca Delphine is a Young Adult author from Thanet.