1. cmcpress
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    cmcpress Senior Member

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    What makes a story scary?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by cmcpress, Dec 14, 2010.

    A Friend and I were discussing what makes something scary - and how best to present monster fiction. I maintain that it's not necessary - in fact more effective if you never see the monster. My Friend maintains that you need the payoff at the end.

    So what do you guys think? What makes a story scary?

    Also - what are the most genuinely scary stories you've read?
     
  2. Show
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    Show Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think what genuinely makes a story scary is the horror being realistic; something you could see happening in real life. Fake monsters scare little kids, but it's the real monsters out there that scare everyone else. That's just my take of course.
     
  3. FrankABlissett
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    FrankABlissett Active Member

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    You are absolutely correct.

    Think of it this way - why is nighttime more frightening than daytime? Let the reader's imagination do the heavy lifting for you.

    You could describe a monster as "arthropod like" and a reader who hates spiders will see spider shapes, while one who is freaked out by crabs will see crab shapes and another who is afraid of ants will see ant shapes. Meticulously describe the monster, however, and it will not be quite as frightening to many of your readers.

    Now, there is a place for description, certainly. That's part of the art of writing. However, your reader's mind is excellent at creating horror - use it to your advantage.

    -Frank
     
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  4. FrailBeauty
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    FrailBeauty Member

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    Realistic, evasive, and often superantural characteristics do the trick. It's difficult to be descriptive enough to make the reader feel chills while keeping the actual cause of fear hidden, but it if you get the balance of those two aspects right you can have an epic story.
     
  5. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    I prefer the psychological aspects of a book for them to be scary - Agatha Christie was for me the mistress of horror - her horror short stories terrified the life out of me and went on to influence so many writers probably now when read they seem cliched and overdone lol

    Ruth Rendall is amazing so is Roald Dahl. I think warmth and humour are important in a scary book, the humanity portrayed. I don't think realistic is all that important in scary - I think the two most current authors that illustrate it for me are Kathy Reichs and Patricia Cornwell, both use similar subject matter garnered during a professional career. Both tell what should be scary stories - I enjoy Patricia Cornwell but they are too realistic - the main character is what they do etc Too clinical. Kathy Reichs are realistic but she puts the story before the realism.

    For me psychologically the Japanese version of the Ring, the original Village of the Dammed, the original Wickerman, the Torchwood episode about Fairies are some of the scariest things I have seen - the scariest thing I have ever seen is a 80s episode of Dr Who called Happiness Patrol the villans had pink hair and the executioner looked like a Bertie Bassett - nothing realistic about it. However haven't looked at a box of Liquorice Allsorts the same since.
     
  6. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Different medium, but one of the creepiest films I ever saw was the original (1957, I think) "Invasion of the Body Snatchers". Low budget film, grainy black and white, no blood or monsters or outrageous costumes, but all those calm, placid people...gives me the willies even now.
     
  7. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    I agree with the "what you don't see is scarier than what you do see" argument. Meticulously describing the monster is a bad idea.

    I"m writing a kids' horror novel right now (think along the lines of Goosebumps), and for that, descriptions can be helpful....there's a blob/alien eggsac in it, so describing all the goo and bristles and tentacles is a plus to my target audience of 8-10-year-olds....but for an adults' horror fic, leave it to the imagination.

    Also, as Frank said, play on people's fears and phobias. I have a cockroach phobia and The Metamorphosis was a great horror story to me because he made the MC giant-cockroach-ish enough without spelling it out too much. My imagination got to wander.

    Also, things can be much scarier if you don't outright say or describe or even show what the "big bad" is. Hint at it. Give us enough information to make us draw the connections ourselves and then have that heavy, cold "OHhhhhh..." feeling.
     
  8. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Yes - hints, things just out of the vision of the reader. Vague images that set the reader's imagination to work. These are the scary things in my view.

    There's nothing less scary, either in movies or books, than gratuitous depictions of gore and violence. Those don't bother me in the least. But if the writers does a nice job, the things that she hints at or that she allows my own imagination to run with, those things can be disturbing.
     
  9. FrankABlissett
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    FrankABlissett Active Member

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    "...Also, things can be much scarier if you don't outright say or describe or even show what the "big bad" is...."

    One of the all-time classic horror stories is "Dunwich Horror", by Lovecraft. In it, the big, bad monster is invisible. A complete blank slate on which the reader projects what a proper scary monster looks like.

    -Frank
     
  10. cmcpress
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    cmcpress Senior Member

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    I think "It" is definitely up there as a scary book - although i read it when i was a teen. The clown thing - for sure.

    I haven't really read anything "scary" i don't think for a while - going back through Lovecraft there's nothing there i find particularly horrifying.

    In terms of horror - the nastiest thing i've read recently was "the rape of nanking" which depicts the Japanese invasion of China - or the Chinese holocaust. Not nice at all and worse for knowing it all happened.

    The scariest thing i've seen recently was the play "the woman in black" which gave me right goosebumps.
     
  11. Pook
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    Pook Member

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    Anything that can't be explained adds mystery IMO

    Adults claim monsters are not real but they can't prove it, can they?
     
  12. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    Well that depends on what type of monster we're talking about here, doesn't it? ;)
     
  13. FrankABlissett
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    FrankABlissett Active Member

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    @cmcpress

    Oh - absolutely, the Rape Of Nanking. Even a bare-bones encyclopedia entry on the horrors is enough to create chills and nightmares. More horrible too, knowing that it was a real event thurst upon people by people. Horror fiction is a shadow compared to what people can do to each other.
     
  14. Top Cat
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    Top Cat Senior Member

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    I wrote an essay on violence, which covered horror in great detail. :) Essentially, you have two ways of looking at it (and any story, I recommend.) THE WHAT AND THE HOW.

    Firstly, there is the representation of violence...(The HOW)

    Is it realistic? Is fantastical? Is it cartoon? Is it surreal?
    This is why I found it amusing that people are so pedantic about violence, but don't have the terms to describe why certain things are 'violent' and other things are not.
    Secondly: the purpose of the violence - is it justified or not? So not only is it realistic - why is this horror being imposed on others? Usually out of sadism, or the monster's own pleasure. POV is also important to consider.

    H.P Lovecraft defines horror as the exploration of the unknown. So as mention before, keep the unknown just that. A good example is IT by Stephen King. Fantastic story, ruined by the revelation of the monster, in my opinion. At least, the story changed tone once the monster was revealed in its true form, losing its enigmatic, symbolic appearance.

    Secondly, one should consider the content - rather than how it is portrayed. THE WHAT:

    There are key ingredients with horror. Your story needs to contain some of the following:

    Danger - (duh)

    Uncertainty - The key to horror is not really what...but when. If we become aware a serial killer wants to use your skin to make lampshades - the horror comes from not knowing when they will strike...key to tension and suspense.

    Inevitability - Your character's fate is sealed. If your character is trapped in a dead-end corridor as the Psycho approaches...makes for good horror - and aids the above.

    Claustrophobia (internal and external) - No protagonist might have no help. No one believes them that there's a monster under the bed...or it might be a literal case of claustrophobia (Eg: Alien/Descent)
     
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  15. Endricte
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    Endricte Member

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    The only times I remember being scared was when reading Salem's Lot and The Keep. It's been awhile since I've read them, so I don't remember the particulars of why I was scared, but I fully remember being so at one point.

    When it comes to monster fiction, the only way I can think of is to build tension. And the base for building tension might start with creating likable characters thrown into a horrific scenario. It's not so much about the monster, but the characters the reader wants to follow through the story. And if danger can lurk around any corner, it definitely adds tension for the reader.

    Also, unpredictability.
     
  16. DeviouSquirrel
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    DeviouSquirrel Member

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    Scariest book I've ever read was "The Birthing House" by Christopher Ransom. I don't know what it was about it that terrified me, except that the scary thing is a house, but the house doesnt actually do anything scary. You just realise part way through that its been manipulating things you never imagined, and the fact that you just don't know what the damn thing is doing without your knowledge is the scary thing.

    I agree that what you don't see is scary, for example in the film The Village, it's really scary until you see the "monsters".
     
  17. Sarah's Mom
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    Sarah's Mom Member

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    I'm thinking it's about expectation. Humor is often about surprise, the unanticipated turn in a joke. Or it's about the expected, but delayed, You keep thinking he's gonna drop the tray, but he keeps not doing it until it's safe, and then he does in some unexpected way.

    I think scary is similar. Stephen King has scared the crap out of me a few times, never by describing a monster. There was one book where this woman ends up handcufffed to a bed when her sex partner drops dead and she can't reach the key. Alone in a cabin in the woods. So she is helpless, and her voice is exasperated and wry, rather than frightened, but at one point, she is looking at a shadowy corner she has looked at before (because it's real boring being handcuffed to a bed) all alone in that cabin for a day and he does that Kingian thing..

    There was someone standing there.

    I'm thinking of a story (not King) where the guy is trying to save his child from whatever is in the house that stabbed his wife to death while she was napping and then slashed her up. All manner of odd things keep happening while he is just trying to get himself and his five-year-old son out of the house. Finally they get out, get to the car and are driving away when the kid turns and pulls the bloody knife out of his stuffed animal and smiles. You don't have to see him kill the father, the smile was so creepy and weird.

    So you keep expecting to see the monster, but it comes in an unexpected moment in an unexpected way.

    So it's tension and surprise, I think. For me, that is.

    Scariest book I ever read was The Exorcist.
     
  18. yuriicide
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    yuriicide Member

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    For me, I think, it would have to have a seemingly believable "realistic" feel to it. Something that could change your way of thinking after reading it. For any of you out there that haven't read Mort Castle's "Moon on the water" yet, please do.
     
  19. MetalRenard
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    MetalRenard Member

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    What I find scariest is human perversion, a humans ability to do horribly sick and twisted things. This scares me all the more so if they believe in their ideals so much that you can't reason with them (the religious sect in Silent Hill for example).

    Another thing that works is to play on common phobias (The Descent (film) is all about being claustrophobic and trapped in a cave with zombie-like creatures... I **** my pants). Phobias work really well.
     
  20. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    Set up the reader's expectations really well, then satisfy them with something even creepier.

    Example: let's say the MC is a kid alone in a creepy old house and thinks there's something scary in the closet.

    Do a really good job setting up tension to make the readers know what's in the closet.

    Once the kid opens the closet, don't just reveal a monster..that'd be cheesy...but maybe the kid finds some creepy residue, or some scratch marks, or parts of something that had been eaten and torn apart.

    Then set up tension as to what might have been the root of that...

    and continue the cycle. :)
     
  21. HorusEye
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    HorusEye Contributing Member Contributor

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    One thing to add to what's been said already is the surreal, paranoia-enducing, twisting of reality. The insane. What immediately comes to mind is David Firth's short films (Salad Fingers, Toast Boy, and especially the black & white ones). They can all be found on youtube if you don't know them already. Maybe I'm weird, but they're probably some of the scariest stuff I've seen.
     
  22. goldhawk
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    goldhawk Senior Member

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    The scariest thing you'll ever meet is Carl Jung's archetype, the Shadow. The Shadow is the first archetype to appear in our dreams, at about age two. It is the bogeyman, the monster in the closet, the thing under the bed. It is simply Fear.

    One of the best examples of this is the movie Silence of the Lambs. It's character, Hannibal Lecter, is rated as one of the scariest characters ever because you never really know what's he thinking. And the first rule about the Shadow is to never put the spotlight on him. If you do, the fear will instantly vanish. That's what happen in the prequel, Hannibal. The file was a flop at the box office. The reason is that the spotlight is always on the protagonist, so he never created the fear that he did in the first movie.

    If you want to create a scary story, just hint that there is something out there that is always one step ahead of your protagonist. It can anticipate what the protagonist will do and be ready and waiting. But don't do more than hint. If you do, your story will flop.
     
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  23. Newfable
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    Newfable Senior Member

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    Something that gets the reader's imagination going, and then, like a parent teaching a child how to ride a bike, letting go. You'd be surprised how quickly a reader's imagination can explode. Mystery always helps with this.

    Despite the lack of good effects and such, The Evil Dead will always be a pretty terrifying film for me. The evil's never really explained, and there's no clear way to overcome it. On top of that, the evil force in those movies usually just screw around with Ash and the other characters; whereas in most other horror movies the goal is to overcome the oppressive force, there it's more about holding onto your sanity and your life for as long as you can, knowing you're going to lose it sometime sooner or later.

    What also gets me is religious mysteries; it doesn't matter what religion it is. The Exorcism of Emily Rose terrified me, but so do most possessions and the like.
     
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  24. Midnight Pete
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    Midnight Pete Member

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    Lovecraft does provide some physical description of the scary monster toward the end of "The Dunwhich Horror", but only through the eyes of some poor slob who's just been driven insane by the sight of it. Brilliant! :cool: The characters used some sort of chemical spray to render the invisible creature (partially) visible, and the omniscient narrator never directly states what the final monster actually is. Other horible things are left unexplained by Lovecraft.

    Lovecraft is a perfect literary foil to C.S. Lewis.
     
  25. Midnight Pete
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    Midnight Pete Member

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    I agree! David Firth is a kind of genius. A dark, twisted, genius. What's even more frightening than the Flash animations themselves is trying to ponder the mind of the individual responsible for them. I love anything that blurs the distinction between Funny Ha-Ha and Funny Strange. :D
     

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