1. Ulramar
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    Ulramar Contributing Member Contributor

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    Horror How to write Psychological Horror?

    Discussion in 'By the Genre' started by Ulramar, Sep 24, 2014.

    So tonight I'm taking my first stab at a psychological horror story that I'm dubbing "The Bitter Cold". Pretty self explanatory; there's a third ice age and temperatures keep dropping and it follows one family through their sort-of-survival. In the end the brother who was slowly going insane the entire time murders his sister and walks out into the cold in the middle of the night, never to be seen again.

    So I've found little on how to actually write psychological horror. It revolves around peoples' own faults and failures, sometimes employing supernatural things.

    I'm interested on to make this scary. I don't read psychological horror (closest I've come is watching The Shining). Any tips on how to make this work? Any special keywords to create fear, or words to avoid?
     
  2. Who
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    Psychological horror, the way I understand it, is more about the psychology of your reader than the psychology of your characters. But, both come into play. You play on the little idiosyncrasies, the common thoughts and wonderings. The more relatable your main characters are to the reader, especially the ones that are going to do the terrible things, the more your story gets in the head of the reader. If your main character seems mostly normal except a few issues, it is all the more terrifying when they flip their lid. It makes the reader wonder if they would do the same thing in the same situation.

    Also, psych. horror is more about making the reader uneasy with suspense, anticipation and dread. The acts themselves can be scary, but only if the lead up is proper. I've seen some horror movies that some people say are scary but really the only thing scary about a lot of them is the shock scares, which are easy to do in cinema but not in written word. There is no way to have someone randomly scream to terrify your reader. For your ending, when the brother kills his sister it will actually be more shocking and horrific given that there was suspense and dread behind it. Your reader should worry whether he's going to do it but have second thoughts. That way, when it happens, each detail is more terrifying.

    In short, psychological horror usually is more to do with the break down of humanity in a person and is usually done in a way that suggests the reader could be a perpetrator in the same situation. While many horror stories might portray hideous actions and sadistic killers and monsters from hell itself, psychological horror stories usually focus on the ordinary person breaking down into monsters themselves.

    The major focus points:
    - A flawed but otherwise not-unaverage main character.
    - Strong character development with reasonable twisting of those traits as the story progresses.
    - An unusually egregious situation or complication to motivate that character.
    - Focused balance on sympathy for the killer and horror at their atrocities.
    - A psychological rather than purely supernatural or born-this-way reasoning for their actions.

    Why I think psychological horror is superior to many forms of horror:

    Many forms of horror rely on obscene visuals or concepts. Things that make you want to shake the image out of your head before you sleep at night. Those images, depending on who you are, might haunt you for a day or they might haunt you for a month. But, life moves on. You forget what you saw, you eventually become desensitized to some extent.

    Psychological horror relies on using the reader's mind against them. This kind of horror is not always 'scary scary' per se, but it embeds itself deeper. It gets in your head. It alters the way you think about things. For instance, the visual of a decomposing body might be disturbing but it doesn't cause you to look around every curtain and to lock your doors every night. The idea that someone might be in those places you don't check? That is what is terrifying. Because it is playing on your natural fears, the things you don't know and can't know until you check. If you check... maybe there will be someone there. Maybe it will be too late. Maybe death lies behind that curtain, but until you look it is left unknown. The question is, what are you more afraid of? If it's death, then maybe you don't look. Maybe there's no one there. But, if you are afraid of the unknown, you'll have to look. Maybe there's nothing there. Maybe you'll never leave that room with your heart still beating.

    That is psychological horror. To me, anyway.
     
    Last edited: Sep 25, 2014
  3. daemon
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    What is his insanity? What is the concept that makes this story what it is? The spark of imagination that got you interested in writing it?

    In The Shining, the concept is that the hotel is haunted, among other ghosts, by the ghost of a former caretaker who murdered his family and himself and who persuades Jack to do the same, but Danny has a vague premonition of this, which saves him and Wendy. All of this, of course, is in the context of cabin fever -- maybe the story is a way of bringing to life the madness one might experience when cooped up and isolated for so long. There may or may not also be an endless cycle of winter caretakers, each of whom goes crazy, kills himself, haunts the hotel, and persuades the next caretaker to do the same.

    My favorite psychological horror movie, my favorite horror movie, and really one of my favorite movies, is Psycho. I highly recommend you watch it and extensively analyze the concept of Norman Bates.
     
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  4. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    As Daemon said, what is his insanity?

    Having a daughter who works in mental health, I've become aware of how complicated "insanity" is, and how misunderstood.
     
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  5. Ulramar
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    Ulramar Contributing Member Contributor

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    So the story is going to start off with the nuclear family. The mom works at home (modernizing the stay at home mom), dad goes to work, two smart, beautiful daughters, and an athletic son. Everything is normal and 'average'.

    Things start to happen as they would in a new ice age. People get desperate. The son kills a man trying to rape his sister. When the neighbors die he loots their house for supplies even though it's 'wrong'. When food runs out he suggests cannibalism as a viable food source. While starving he kills his sister, chops off and cooks her leg, takes a few bites, and walks out of the house into the cold.

    The idea is that he's normal. It could happen to anyone. And, if done right, this could maybe be scary. Which is my goal, but I'm not sure how it will work.

    For the 'type' of insanity, I was just going for cabin fever. As it gets colder they stop using parts of the house, boarding it up. The house gets smaller and smaller, people get more condensed, and the MC gets crazier and crazier with that. It may make sense, may not.
     
  6. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    Googled Cabin Fever:
    Cabin fever is an idiomatic term, first recorded in 1918,[1] for a claustrophobic reaction that takes place when a person or group is isolated and/or shut in a small space, with nothing to do for an extended period. Cabin fever describes the extreme irritability and restlessness a person may feel in these situations.[2]
    A person may experience cabin fever in a situation such as being in a simple country vacation cottage. When experiencing cabin fever, a person may tend to sleep, have distrust of anyone they are with, and an urge to go outside even in the rain, snow, dark or hail. The phrase is also used humorously to indicate simple boredom from being home alone.[3]

    Irritability and boredom seem a very weak reason for "going insane"...most mental illnesses have an underlying cause, and stress may be enough to trigger them, but I think that you'd need to build some trauma into his backstory to justify this, and then prefigure his breakdown with some subtle behavioural and verbal hints. I think that the prefiguring is the key...done subtly enough it could be absolutely chilling.

    Cannibalism when there's not enough to eat HAS happened (that plane crash in the Andes around 1980) and that was controversial enough, and they were just eating bodies that had died in the crash (incidentally, why doesn't the brother eat the dead neighbours? And how does he manage to kill his sister when the whole family is crammed into the same room?)
     
  7. Ulramar
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    Ulramar Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yeah I saw the same thing on wikipedia. I'm looking for more things to add to the character to lessen the idea of it being cabin fever. I don't really need to even explain why he does that. Wouldn't the not knowing be even more frightening?

    And it's more of just a sign of him going downhill. I haven't totally decided on the cannibalism yet, I might replace him bringing up eating humans (like the dead neighbors for example) with wanting to kill and eat the family dog. On how he'll kill his sister, it's the middle of the night, he goes up to her, smothers her so she can't scream and stabs her repeatedly.
     
  8. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    In most horrors that are psychological ( that I've read ) the perfect family or marriage only seems that way at the beginning but as the story plays out, past issues, regrets, anger build towards the climax. There are no real key words accept whatever grows from your story. Think about your characters maybe they can give you an idea - what if the daughter is a sports nut, the apple of her family's eye and the boy feels emasculated by her. With her out of the way he could save the family. Maybe he's into fantasy games or mythology and has built the sister into kindof a witch/jinx - she becomes a sacrifice to appease the storm. I'd work from the dynamic of your characters and see where it takes you.
     
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  9. Ulramar
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    Ulramar Contributing Member Contributor

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    I've built some tension between the older sister and the brother but I'd rather keep that as basic symbol rivalry. I'm trying to keep with a standard family dynamic and have little from before the snows came affect the family. That way it'd be easier for the reader to fit themselves into the characters, if that makes any sense. But things will happen, I hope.
     
  10. ChickenFreak
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    I think that Daemon's example of The Shining is good for this as well. Before that story started, Jack already had a history of alcoholism and violence, one that he was fairly successfully fighting. Without that, and without the "explanation" of what happened (not a tidy little wall-chart, but a lot of hints and details), the story would have made much less sense, been less absorbing, and therefore been less frightening. I don't think that it's more frightening for the horror to come out of the blue with no background or explanation; I think it's less frightening.
     
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  11. Ulramar
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    Ulramar Contributing Member Contributor

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    Oh true. I guess that makes sense. I mean the guy is a teenager, maybe anxiety? I'd rather him not be overshadowed by his sisters, but it could work. He's only like 15 so it'd be hard to give him a history of violence or make him an alcoholic or anything too 'deep'.
     
  12. peachalulu
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    You don't have to go big guns for past incidents. They can be reasonably mild as long as they get their point across. Maybe he flushed his sister's horseback riding ribbons down the toilet when he was twelve or tore up her all A report card. Anything that shows an underlying conflict a step above normal sibling rivalry would make your case. Especially when the reader knows the ante will be upped in the pressure of the cabin.
     
  13. Ulramar
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    Ulramar Contributing Member Contributor

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    I might do the report card thing... they're definitely smarter than he is. Thanks!
     
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  14. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    Your welcome!
     
  15. Ulramar
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    Ulramar Contributing Member Contributor

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    Now let's see if I can do this... I'm trying to write in third person/past tense since I'm not good enough to narrate his insanity.
     
  16. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    Actually third person is quite versatile and can allow for greater suspense, rather than I - I can be more novelty.
     
  17. Ulramar
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    Ulramar Contributing Member Contributor

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    Everything else I've written was first person so this isn't a problem but a change.
     
  18. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    Oh, than that is a switch! I was going to try second person for one of the writing contests but I chickened out.
     
  19. Ulramar
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    Ulramar Contributing Member Contributor

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    I've always been interested in second person but I don't want to dedicate one of my ideas to it. If third person doesn't work out for this one, I might try this. But there may be too much 'telling' instead of 'showing' in that circumstance. I probably wouldn't use the psycho boy as the PoV in that situation, probably I'd use the twin sister.
     
  20. Shadowfax
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    A guy I played squash with told me that when he was at school, the PE teacher took him (alone) into the changing rooms and basically said "you're not going home until you get past me"...having to fight (I think literally) to get out of the situation was meant to be a "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" kind of moment, to increase his aggression on the playing field. Now, imagine your teenager had a similar situation, but it left him mentally scarred...he's a jock, so he won't admit it to anybody, but whenever he gets into a situation where his freedom is restricted, he gets a bit panicky. So prefigure with some claustrophobic behaviour.
     
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  21. Ulramar
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    Ulramar Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yeah that sounds good. If you don't mind I might steal that...
     
  22. Devlin Blake
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    Read Shirley Jackson for Psychological horror. She's the master. Specifically, you'll want to read
    The Road Through the Wall and We Have Always Lived In the Castle It deals with what lies just underneath the surface of people and both are truly disturbing.

    Poe and Lovecraft are also worth reading as many of their narrators are clearly unreliable and little bit 'off'. This contributes to the Psychological horror factor. While we're reading the story, we're caught up in it, but once we put the book down, we realize 'these people are crazy.'

    Yet, the scare factor is still there because they usually start out normal and 'go' insane without the MC noticing the change. The thought that a person starts out sane (but flawed) then goes insane is one of humanity's biggest fears. Because deep down, we fear it's 'us'.
     
  23. Ulramar
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    Ulramar Contributing Member Contributor

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    I've considered it actually making that person by doing it in second person, but I'm not sure how to work that one out yet. So for now this project is being shelved. I will pick it up later though..
     

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