When man first developed language, life was harsh and merciless to say the least.
Back then horror stories must have been quite common, only that they often had to do with everyday happenings. Tragic happenings.
Given that storytelling is most likely as old as language itself, also the essential elements of a horror story must be just as old.
Indeed, some of them crystallized a long time ago and, in a way, never really changed.
In this post I’m going to focus on descriptions. In particular, on why it can be so difficult to strike the right balance between detail and vagueness when writing horror fiction. I mean, this is a difficult feat in any genre, but in horror fiction it is even more so.
Elements of a horror story – from the beginning
We humans are made the way we are made because it paid well from an evolutive point of view.
For example, when a man looks at a woman for just a brief moment he tends to overestimate her beauty.
In fact, it was better to stop, go back, have a second look and maybe get laid with miss cave woman rather than simply go on with our everyday chores and then, maybe, get killed in a mammoth hunt without having first passed on our precious pool of genes.
The same goes for any strange small noise. I mean, any noise whose source we didn’t readily recognize as harmless. The reason was simple: again, it was much better to be mistakenly scared out of our skin because the leaves rustled in the wind, rather than being eaten alive by a big feline which we mistook for leaves rustling in the wind.
The truth is that the world was, and still is, a dangerous place. So we have developed a series of automatic responses to negotiate it without having to reinvent the wheel every time a potentially dangerous situation presents itself.
This natural mindset in which fear, aggression, heightened alertness all mix up is like having a ton of dynamite ready to explode.
If to this mix we add the almost unique human ability to empathize with someone else, thanks to mirror neurons , (1) all of a sudden we have provided our dynamite with a perfect fuse.
And this is when the elements of a horror story can work their magic.
Just think about it. The writer shows us a door with rusty hinges and a curious symbol painted on it. The main character is standing in front of it, uncertain about what to do.
Or think of the noises the old pipes of the heating system can make in a ancient Victorian house. They stab the otherwise quiet of the night with hisses and gurgles while the landlord is taking a suspiciously long bath.
It’s just a matter of a couple of lines, yet our mind immediately begins to work hard to come up with reasonable hypothesis about what might lurk beyond the door, or why the landlord is taking such a long time for his bath.
Ours isn’t just a mental reaction. As a matter of fact, when we read a horror novel our pressure rises, our heartbeat quickens, and we tend to sweat more.
In short, all of a sudden, we are both reading a book and into the book.
Writing horror fiction is simple, isn’t it?
As we have seen, readers can quite easily identify themselves with the characters of a story. However when they read horror fiction their process of identification can be deeper and more radical that in any other genre.
Consequently, we might end up thinking that writing a good horror story should be quite simple. Just a matter of pressing the right metaphorical buttons to make sure all the elements of a horror story fall in place.
Unfortunately, this isn’t only an inaccurate supposition. It is outright wrong. The reality is that writing good horror stories is as hard as it can get.
I mean, if you read a romance and you’re not into the genre you can be bored out of your mind. The same goes for science fiction novels or cozy mysteries. Even thrillers filled up with chases can be boring.
For horror books things are quite different.
If you read one and you’re not into the genre you tend more often than not to have way more basic reactions.
You might end up loathing the book. You might stop reading it in disgust. You might feel outraged. You might consider the idea of using the book to kindle the fire in the fireplace.
Because horror novels tend to elicit our flight or fight response. Because they delve with one of the most ancient and deep emotions we possess: fear.
As a result, while on the one hand they can be incredibly upsetting if well crafted, on the other hand they can fall on their faces as soon as they sway, even marginally, from perfection.
I mean, given that the flight or fight response and the emotions spawning from fear are all as primeval as powerful, they should be handled with extreme caution.
In fact, a scene in a horror book can go from terrifying to “hey dude stop this crap” in a matter of a handful of words.
This transition is really unnervingly easy – just like the use of two consecutive adverbs – but it’s what happens every time we stop reading because we think the writer has gone overboard.
It’s like with the cave dwellers I mentioned before. At first they are fine. Then, when they hear the rustle they grow tense and scared. As the rustle increases they get even more scared.
However if after a good while nothing happens the spell breaks. They end up deciding that today is just a particularly windy day. In horror fiction this can be a way a writer might choose to sway readers into believing nothing is really going to happen. Only to subsequently deliver a sudden punch.
In horror fiction, also if the rustle grows too much and too rapidly the spell breaks. In fact too much information can lead to an unpleasant outcome from a narrative point of view: an unwanted breakdown, or simply too much confusion.
Because while it’s from chaos that often emerge horror. It does so through a retrospective narration.
The beauty of horror fiction: synergy
The elements of a horror story can be various. However I think that the first and most important of them is the ability to craft descriptions in which gory details, actions, and purposeful vagueness all work together to keep the story going.
I mean, if you have a story that is all gore you have a splatter. If it’s all action you might have been writing a potential thriller. If the story is filled up with vagueness you don’t have anything. Anything at all.
You see, if taken one by one the elements of a horror story are quite mundane. It’s only when you manage to infuse them with your own vision, and to mix them up artfully to create a masterpiece, that they come to life. That they can dance together to recreate that ancient tribal dance our ancestors took part in once upon a time.
The dance to keep fears at bay. The exorcism.
(1)edit: as of early in 2018 it seems mirror neurons alone aren’t enough. The explanation may be a bit more complex.),