Hello from Texas!
No introductions needed this time. Let’s get into the heart of horror – where it is unique and stands apart from other genres. Last week I covered horror as a feeling meant to be ripped from a reader like a botfly. Knowing how to define our subgenre within the overarching horror-sphere will help us target readers, and make sure we’re within some established bounds (to meet at least some reader expectations).
First we’ll look at Themes and Motifs in horror, then on to the subgenres themselves and how the meld nicely into a pulsing, breathing pie (That’s a Thinner by Stephen King reference). Themes are central, underlying concepts or ideas. It is the fundamental message we want to convey.
In horror we explore Fear. Common themes associated with Fear include:
Fear of the Unknown: The fear of what is beyond our understanding or control. “There might be something in the dark” versus “there IS something in the dark.” Fear of the Unknown is easy to rationalize as characters’ lives are spiraling out of control and they seek to regain some semblance of agency. Fear of the Unknown lets you rip that from your characters.
Isolation: Most people don’t want to be alone. Sure, some people desire to live or die alone. Some people want to be weaseled away in a mountain cabin with a lot of books (me), but I want my family with me. Without them, I would feel isolated. Isolation is interesting because the feeling associated with isolation is vulnerability or helplessness. Put me in my cabin without my books and without my family and you’re damn sure I’d feel isolated. This is different than claustrophobia because the person (or character) suffering may not be physically confined though they might feel that they are, versus claustrophobia which is literal confinement.
Mortality and Death: Clearly, themes of mortality, death and thoughts of “what comes next” are present in horror. Is it horror is people aren’t dying? I’d argue that real horror is where reality is worse than death. Can anyone relate to death? Or can they relate to loss?
In sub-Saharan Africa, there is a practice of torturing women through genital mutilation. They aren’t killed, they are tortured and left alive, often unable to bear children or experience pleasure. (Not including the lasting psychological effects) I’d argue that’s a terrible reality. No ghost. No monster. Just people. Sometimes, death is unrelatable. When crafting your stories, consider if reality is scarier than death.
Monsters: Monsters and Aberrations are a staple in horror. Recently, I wrote a short story about a lā'au. The original folklore is about a “kahuna lā'au lapa'au” or a spiritual healer who connects with the plant spirits. I took that lore and crafted a terrifying story about a “trauma” spirit that rides on its victim’s back and forces them to walk of high cliffs. It wanders the vegetation around volcanos searching for sources of trauma.
In the story, a young teenager carries the lā'au with her until her father arrives. Her father, an alcoholic, was the source. True horror comes from the imagery of imagining the young toddler choking down a gallon of charcoal water because she accidently got into her father’s bottle.
The point here is this, the lā'au represents something greater than the scary thing in the dark. The manifestation is one fear. The lā'au’s representation is more than the monster itself. A Wendigo represents cannibalism, desperation, and hunger – it explores the depravity of man. The succubus represents lust. Your monster is more than a monster – it is a message.
Consider your sub-genre when you’re at the early stages of writing. I don’t want to pigeon-hole you into plotting or pantsing your stories, that’s not the intention. The point is to consider the direction of your story. What does the scary thing represent? What themes or motifs are explored and is reality worse than death? There are many more themes and motifs but I wanted to hammer out a few I find particularly common and versatile.
An interesting exercise in crafting truly, terrifying horror, the kind that wakes a reader from a dream or makes them want to snuggle their cat when something falls in the kitchen – is this.
Pick your worst fears and monsters and write them on a few scraps of paper divided into two piles. Shuffle them up and pair them together, even if its non-sensible. I’ll go first.
Monster: Jeffrey Dahmer.
Interesting. I’d label this as horrifying – Stuck on a train where I know a passenger is a cannable, but I don’t know which one. We’ve got fears, phobias, motifs and even genres outlined all in a sentence.
Use your fears. Use the genre. Use the motifs and themes. Start there and see what nightmare scenarios unfold.
Psychological Horror vs. supernatural horror
I’ll cover this section briefly as what I’ve written above speaks to these distinct horror types to some regard already.
Plainly put, psychological horror is internalized in the character. You, the author, then has the responsibility of making the characters relatable enough that the reader internalizes the character’s feelings. Basically, you have to make them give a shit what happens.
Psychological horror focuses on uncertainty, paranoia and the blending of reality. H.P. Lovecraft does this masterfully in his cosmic horror. I am particularly fond of this type of horror. My book Not Okay is distinctly psychological horror.
In that story, Marvin May is losing time, and starts to hallucinate. He questions what is real, and if others are experiencing the same thing. The “horror” or the scary thing in this story is when you realize all that Marvin May has done while wrapped in his delusions, and then his subsequent acknowledgement that he is sick. Disney reference incoming: This is the equivalent of Dory from Finding Dory realizing she’s already met Marlin and revealing to him she has memory loss. She knows her memory is spotty. Want a great psychological movie (more of a thriller, but the concepts are great), watch Memento.
Psychological horror is rooted in the human mind and projects outward. In a psychological ward, patients are sometimes restrained so they don’t hurt themselves. In supernatural horror, the scary thing injects feelings into the characters, which we’ll cover next.
While not all horror genres can be slotted into supernatural or psychological, most can, and there is a lot of crossover. Horror is such a malleable genre, able to fit our needs as writers as we call upon the terrors that best suite our story.
Sometimes, that means some good ol’ fashioned supernatural stuff. Supernatural horror includes every entity, haunted house, ghost story, lock ness monster, Wendigo and that thing from Lights Out. It includes Cujo who won’t seem to die and it includes the demon from The Exorcist. Supernatural horror induces fear in the reader – an external force (which should represent something else to the beholder) that injects fear. Nothing need more be said about this topic for now, the differences should be clear. There are exceptions and as I said, crossovers, but most of what horror writers gravitate to will be psychological or supernatural at the core.
What’s the point in all this?
The point in clarifying my thoughts on horror is not to prove one theory or another. I want to provide you with another perspective. I find this stuff interesting. I’ve studied it and live it on a day to day.
I’ve gone into buildings alone at night to arrest a guy with a knife that I know was willing to kill me.
I’ve smelled a dead body inside a house all the way at the mailbox and kicked down the door by myself.
I’ve watched a man burn alive in the front seat of his Porsche.
But I’d pick those things any day over getting on a damn train.
I find this curious. Horror speaks to me. Writing it isn’t rejuvenating or exploring some trauma safely or whatever justification people spout when interviewed about why they write horror. No, its simpler than that. I connect with fear. And I think that’s okay.
I hope you found this post interesting and full of applicable knowledge. Feel free to send me any comments or questions.
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Officer Friendly, Out!
P.S: I'll be setting this up so ALL previous emails are available for reference. No need to save or copy/paste all this. More later.