Dave's Corner of the Universe

Where strange fact and stranger fiction collide

What makes a story Scary?

What makes a story scary? It is not easy to write a really scary story. It is easier to make a story scary in movies than trying to do it in print. In videos something can literally jump out at you. A novelist has to be more subtle. Here are some, but by no means all, the ways a writer can make a story scary, in any medium.


            The Empathy Factor: The most common technique for a writer to make a story scary is to create an interesting character that the reader associates with and put them in a dangerous situation. If the reader has emotionally invested in the character, they don’t want to see anything happen to them. It is even more so if the reader identifies with the character so much that he think that, if they were someone in the story he would be that character. The character becomes a proxy for the reader, and the fear the read feels for the character is in some ways fear for himself.

            There is a correlated trope ‘The child in danger.’ Personally this one bothers me, or it can bother me. Sure if pays off if it is done correctly. The finial battle between Ripley and the Queen in Aliens is an example of it done right, but I absolutely hate writers putting children in danger just for its own sake and if there is no story written around it.

            Keeping it real: If something is possible, it is scarier, than something that we just can’t accept as ever happening. Norman Bates is scary because he is loosely based on several real people. It doesn’t have to be probable just possible. Jaws is scary because we all know that people can be killed by sharks. So when it the shark goes from eating drunken swimmers to crashing holes into boats, and picking of the boats crewmen, it may not be likely, but we have had enough groundwork laid that we are willing to accept it. But when the shark eats a helicopter in Jaws II, it goes form scary to silly.

            This includes things that we know are not real, but might be sometime in the futuer. One of the things that makes the original Alien movie so scary (Besides the premises that a monster is impregnating men with violent baby monsters), is that the ship and crew look realistic. The crew wears work-shirts, tee-shirts, jeans and caps with company logs on it. Not metallic smocks and day-glow leotards like in Buck Rodgers. The Nostromo doesn’t have warp coils and  oscillating over-thrusters. It looks like what we think a spaceship full of ‘space-truckers’ might look like. Now there are some fantastic sci-fi stories that can be scary. A few episodes of Star Trek and Dr. Who stand out, but they overcome the fantastic setting by putting characters we have deep invested emotionally in, in danger.

            Cosmic Horror: If not invented by H.P. Lovecraft, he and his infamous writing circle it was definitely popularized by them. The central idea behind cosmic horror is that the universe doesn’t give a darn about you. That the near godlike beings out there Cuthulhu/Crom/Ithaquha are so beyond us, that we hardly register on their peripheral vision. If we get in their way they will stamp on us like ants, but other than that they don’t care about us.

            This concept is true, at least to some degree. If I were to die, sure my friends and family would be sad. But it would have no effect on the cosmos as a whole. The sun would still burn, the moon would still shine, and the tides will still rise and fall.  The universe honestly doesn’t care one iota about me.

            There is also the implication that there is no benign deity that will help and save us. No personal god means  faith is a wasted effort. For my money the greatest cosmic horror story is Katherine Anne Porter’s The Jilting of Granny Weatherall.  For those of you who may have missed it in eleventh grade English, it is the story of an old women who is dying and she remembers when she was young and was stood up at the alter. Then when she does die, there is nothing not eternal reward, no loving God’s embrace just darkness. I read that when I was sixteen and at that time that was the scariest thing I ever read.

            Fear of the Unknown: One of Lovecraft’s most famous quotes is “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” Heck I even have that on a tee-shirt, but it is right. If you are walking down a dark ally all you hear mysterious and ominous footsteps behind you it is scary. But if you know it is just Joe going to get something, he left in his car then it not scary at all.

            Movies were once forced into this ‘less is more’ mentality, by the nature of their props, mechanical sharks that sank when filming, and alien costumes that looked silly if the camera lingered on them for to long.  Now with CGI, and improved special effects movies can jump right in to the menace, this I think makes movies less scary not more scarier.

            Fear of the Unnatural: Every culture I have ever studied has a dreadful fear of the corporeal dead, that returns to wreck devastation on the living. Spiritual undead may be benign or more than likely, appeased, but the dead that return in the flesh always come back for blood and vengeance. Why is this? My guess is because after thousands of years at looking at dead people, we as a race got that if they ever did wake up after they were truly dead it would be pretty unnatural and that had to be bad.

            Before all the zombie hype I had a friend tell me that, zombies really creeped her out. I asked he if she was bothered by vampires, and she said no. Vampires could at least hide their unnaturalness, where zombies couldn’t.  A vampire’s normalness may be an illusion but they only become really scary when they are menacing a favorite character or they drop the mask humanity.

            Fear of Technology: We live in a high tech society, but deep down we don’t trust all this techno crap we have surrounded ourselves with. This isn’t a new concept either.  I listened to a collection of old sci-fi nineteen fifties programs going to work. Of the twenty stories three were about nuclear, two were about robots that started killing humans, one was a scientist making giant insects that trapped his wife and a delivery boy in their house, and one was about the human race so mutated in the future by radiation and pollution that they no longer looked like humans. A full thirty-five percent of the stories were about technology turned against us.

            My fear of technology is so great; I won’t even read Stephen King’s Cell. Not since I bought a mobile phone anyways. The original Night of the Living Dead’s zombie apocalypse was brought on by a falling radioactive satellite. We are as a race and a generation a short sighted collective of beings. To me at least, it seems to get worse and worse. I really do wonder sometimes if our ability to make things as outpaced or wisdom to use it them safely.


4 comments on “What makes a story Scary?

  1. gpcox
    December 3, 2013

    “Cell” was a good book, come on now – take that giant leap….

  2. davekheath
    December 3, 2013

    I read the first chapter in a magazine….and it was classic King at his best, maybe I will have to get over being a chicken….Then again maybe I need a good scare.

  3. Cat o' Nine Fails
    January 9, 2014

    I find that dystopian fiction inspires more fear in me than most horror stories. Something like Nineteen Eighty-Four is horror fiction for me. I guess it depends on what we’re afraid of.

    I think special effects are ruining horror. Jaws and Alien were scary specifically because their directors avoided showing their prop/costume because it wasn’t good enough to sustain the illusion. Now horror movies can have vast armies of Xenomorphs riding killer white sharks, and so they do, and nothing is left to the imagination.

    • davekheath
      January 9, 2014

      Good points I think dystopian fiction is scary because we can see it at least a little bit in our lives and future.

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This entry was posted on November 1, 2013 by in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , .
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