Let’s talk about fear for a moment. You hear a strange noise in the middle of the night. You sit up in bed with one hand pressed to your chest and the other clutching the sheets. Your breath catches in your throat. Is it a harmless push of air through the vents? Your cat knocking something off a table? An intruder?
Many people scoff at the horror genre, but fear is a legitimate emotion. Fear can be paralyzing, but the resulting rush of endorphins can also provide you with the strength to get up and investigate that sound in the night.
It’s okay to be scared. It’s okay to want to be scared. When you taste the darkness and shadows of an imaginary world replete with ghosts and monsters, the fears of the real world drift far away.
Horror is controlled fear. Much like a roller coaster with a 200-foot drop or a tandem skydive. Horror writers are the architects of paper fear. Of paper tigers, waiting to swallow you whole.
People often equate horror with blood and gore and, certainly, the genre has its share, but horror can be so much more. And if you want to write effective horror, you can’t just show the reader a spot of blood on the floor. That isn’t scary. Messy, perhaps, but not scary.
You need to give them the smell of copper-bright metallic, the soft little plink as red hits wood, the push of air against the back of their neck as someone moves closer and closer still. Wrap them up in a sensory environment that makes it as real as possible.
But even before the blood hits the floor, you have to wrap them up in tension. A sense of impending doom. A hint of shadow with the promise of darker things around the corner. Again, delving deep into the senses is the best way to fully involve your reader, and horror is the perfect genre for that immersive experience.
That strange man standing at the end of the street? Let the reader smell the stink of his unwashed body or a touch of cigarette smoke. Let them hear the tune he’s humming beneath his breath and the sound of his scuffed heels on the pavement as he slips away into the night.
It’s up to you, the writer, to paint a vivid picture. To make them afraid of your creation. But you also have to make them care about your characters. Paint your characters as real as you paint the horrors, so when your characters hurt, they hurt. When the characters lose, you want the reader to gnash their teeth, and when they win, you want the readers to cheer. That is what makes a good horror story, in my opinion.
And the next time you whisper, “Come, take my hand. Let me tell you a story,” they will gladly follow you into the dark.
Damien Walters Grintalis is an Assistant Editor of the Hugo Award-winning speculative fiction magazine, Electric Velocipede, an Active member of both the Horror Writers Association and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and a staff writer with BooklifeNow. She lives in Maryland with her husband, two former shelter cats, and two rescued pit bulls. Visit her blog at http://dwgrintalis.blogspot.com or follow her on Twitter @DWGrintalis.
Her debut novel, Ink, will be released in December 2012 by Samhain Horror. A tattoo can be a work of art…or a curse.