The Great Horror Hoax – How to REALLY Harness A Readers Fear

horror hoaxI’m terrified of spiders. I know. So cliched. If it helps, I am also terrified of boats – although the reasoning behind that is a little foggier given I swim like a fish – I must have drowned in a past life.

I had a date night recently and we happened to watch a film: London has Fallen. It gave me somewhat of an epiphany watching it. Horror in its most basic ‘blood and gore’ sense, is changing.

As a kid, I thought sword fights and giant spiders were terrifying. Granted kids find a lot of things scary but it wasn’t that long ago that adults cowered behind the sofa over the Blob, which barely caused me to raise an eyebrow recently, and only because it was that bad!

So why then, did I find this cheesy American action film only rated 15, so horrifying?

It’s because, horror, like society, is evolving. It’s thrown off its red paint blood shackles and picked up terrorism and child napping instead. We can learn a few lessons from it that can be woven into ANY type of genre.

Photo taken from I am Geek

Photo taken from I am Geek

The films plot in essence was: eye for an eye. America hit somewhere in some middle east country for some inane reason I forgot. A middle eastern guy wanted revenge cause the hit killed his daughter and maimed his family. To do it he (and his remaining family) orchestrated the murdered of the Prime Minster to get a state funeral. Then blew shit up in London whilst the American president was at the funeral. Apparently killing the British PM is easy, but the President is impossible…?!

Pretty trite for an action plot if you ask me. The only interesting thing was that it was based in London, (not something I’d seen before).

It was more than somewhat unnerving watching iconic British buildings get blown up. If there’s one thing the British are, its proud of their heritage and I can’t think of a recent film that’s blown anything other than the White House up. What I wonder is how American’s feel watching their iconic buildings get blown up? Are you too saturated by similar movies to be unnerved anymore or does it still have that shock and awe impact?

Fear isn’t just fear anymore, someone decided to re-write the manual and create psychological fear instead. It’s different, its more, its worse than normal fear. It makes the things that go bump in night look like fluffy teddy bears sprinkled in love hearts.

‘Psychology’, whether fear related or thrilled up, seems to be the new publishing black. Since Gone Girl went nuts, psychological thrillers are all the rage. Now it’s all The Girl on the Train and Before I Go To Sleep.

Horror has traditionally been about taking violence and gore to the extreme. For example, graphic descriptions like this one from James Howell‘s Guinea Pigs book which I read recently (post live 25th April 16).

Photo taken from Amazon

Photo taken from Amazon

One of the hyenas clamped its mouth over her face and tore out an eyeball. The other animal chewed off her nose and lips. Her leg throbbed, the femoral artery ruptured and her life squirted away in thick red jets.” James Howell, Guinea Pigs, buy it here.

BUT, what makes this sphincter tightening psychological horror, is the context surrounding it. The woman being eaten was not only alive and awake, but had been purposefully paralysed (we also knew that was one of her worst fears) and had to watch herself be eaten alive by the hyenas. Read it again knowing she’s awake and watching her flesh get masticated and tell me it isn’t just that bit more gruesome and horrifying!

But what is it about the fact she was awake whilst having her flesh eaten that made it so psychologically terrifying?

  1. Because we knew she didn’t want/was afraid of being paralysed
  2. Because she couldn’t save herself – she was totally helpless
  3. Because she was vulnerable
  4. Because it had a particularly gruesome gore factor on top of the above

If you think about it, numbers 1 through 3 are states of mind – emotional constructs, and things that we can therefore ‘feel’. They’ve not actually got anything to do with traditional ‘horror’ as we think of it.

It’s only that the gore gives it its horror context.

Psychological horror is about the emotional state the reader is in, the gore you make them see as per the genre is almost irrelevant.

Here’s another example from another book I am reading currently (yes I read several at once, shoot me.)

abomination_scaled_final

“He was standing on the back of a charred sofa bed, swaying a little unsteadily on his short legs, with a makeshift nappy bunched up to one side and sagging to his knees.

“Mattieu!” Jérémy screamed again and scrambled frantically toward the child, one arm outstretched to grab him. A war whoop came from below, followed by the rattle of automatic fire and the screech of bullets ripping along the top of the flimsy barrier. Then came the duller thud that sent Mattieu spinning, spraying blood in a wide arc. Jeremy, still reaching up, caught the next three bullets and the brothers fell together, limp and strangely tumbled, in a light rain of chipboard and pine.” Jane Dougherty, Abomination buy it here.

This is perhaps only horrifying to anyone that’s a parent. But I actually had to pop the book down momentarily. Dead kids is hard and horrifying, at least to me anyway. But especially in the context of the book, where basically the whole world is coming to an end!

But what of the film, and how is this relevant to other genres? London has Fallen is psychologically horrifying because its was SO real, and so possible. Being that close to the truth in a society whose major broadcasts are fuelled by terrorism made me feel vulnerable. Sure, I know it was just a film, I know I’m perfectly safe in London, but it still sowed a seed of doubt. I could open my whole conspiracy can of worms now and talk about New World Order and how the film industry is brainwashing society to accept whats to come, but I won’t…or maybe I just did.

Moving on.

How does this apply to other genres?

Horror, fear, and terror aren’t reserved only for lovers of the night fan club. Characters in my fantasy novel need to be scared, REALLY scared, characters in romances need to be scared of losing their loves etc etc what better way to make it realistic than through psychological horror.

Making characters vulnerable and helpless/hopelessness, as well as playing on their fears and finally sprinkling with a little context fits in any genre, in any story.

Thoughts? Do you think horror is changing? How do you harness a readers fear? What are you afraid of?


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85 comments

  1. I think horror has not always to do with being brutal and having rivers of blood everywhere. That is only …. urgh…. real horror to me is when I get caught in my inner fears. Fears, I did not even know were there. Or (as I recently discussed with Hugh) when innocent things/beings get evil, like little children, pets, dolls. Or as you said, when you feel helpless and have no chance to defend yourself. Wow, that post really got me… 😱 😱

      1. Sigmund Freud wrote an entire essay on that, called ‘The Uncanny’. It’s partly about the feeling that arises when something familiar becomes unfamiliar, or when you’re not sure if inanimate objects (like dolls) are actually alive.

    1. I’m super-late in responding to this fascinating blog post and comments, but here goes. Yes, definitely, thankfully, there are so many sub-genres to horror—not just the extreme horror. I was reading, as an impressionable teenager, Barker’s Books of Blood, not knowing that there was a genre forming (usually called splatterpunk or ‘extreme horror,’ today anyway) around it. I became, or felt I did, desensitized to a degree while reading horror that gory, so I gave it up ultimately, at that time. That said, I feel it’s somewhat easier to write the gross-out horror than it is the psychological or uncanny stuff (for me). With writing horror, I had to get over the barrier that I didn’t have to write about my fears in particular, but simply a fear (or fears). So, although I’m not freaked out by ants or ghosts, I’ve written a horror-inspired (but probably classified as slipstream) story around ants and several around the paranormal/ghosts. Now again, as a parent, I find that I’m more affected by plot lines involving children; those really get to me psychologically.

      1. Don’t worry, I leave post comments open, because I am always up for a discussion 😀 Agree – like any genre I guess – we need sub genres to please everyones needs.

        I have to agree on your second point too – I think it actually IS easier to write gore than psychological horror. Because psychological horror is all about insinuation and what you’re saying by NOT saying something! definitely a harder skill to crack.

        Thanks for commenting 😀

  2. Funny you should mention this film – I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch it as I couldn’t stand to see my beloved London go up in flames! I also find disaster movies tricky to stomach – they make me so anxious. Blood and gore seem very tame by comparison.

  3. Fantastic post, Sacha. I’m a fan of horror books and films, but there’s only one film that freaked me out and that’s The Entity (1982) – based on a true story so I guess it got me on the psychological level! I remember watching Carrie with my dad when I was 13 and then recently telling my kids how terrifying it was – they didn’t blink when they watched it! 🙂

  4. I’ll be honest, I disagree with you. London Has Fallen is a thriller, not a horror. And horror isn’t changing per se because it’s always been a cyclical genre. It was all about defeating the monster in some long lost historical period until the 1960s came along and horror started happening in the here and now – and most importantly, the monster often survived to perpetuate its evil elsewhere. By the 1980s that was partly a marketing move (sequels) and partly a comment on society. For a while it was all about torture porn, and now the supernatural is making a comeback. But it’s never been about terrorism because that actually happens. Psychological horror relies on a fear of what might happen – sadly terrorism is all too real.

    I do agree that it’s important to make a character scared but there is a difference between the forms of fear. In horror, there’s the fear of pain, or death, but it’s often on an individual basis. That’s not the same as being scared you’ll lose the love of your life, or your job, or that your empire will be overrun by orcs. To me, horror is about fear (that blood curdling sensation that can provoke a scream or keep you awake at night) and other genres play on anxiety – which in a way is even worse! It’s far more insidious, and can be far more long-lasting and debilitating. Like when you watch a film and you’re physically exhausted by the tension! I don’t know, maybe that’s just me.

    1. Ah I think you misunderstood or I didn’t writer clearly. I know that film is a thriller, I wouldn’t have gone to see it if it was a horror film as I get scared too easily. The point I was trying to make was that I found elements of the film ‘horrifying’ (at least they were to me) to me it wasn’t fear inducing I didn’t sit in there and wish I had a pillow to cover my eyes like I would have done in say a film like insidious. Instead I sat in there wide eyed with my brain in overdrive horrified at the prospect of that really happening… what if it did happen, it basically already did once because of 7/7 on the tubes.

      So for me it is psychologically scary because after I saw the film I had to go into London 4 times that month and I really questioned whether I wanted to because…what if…. Sure it’s a personal thing. But I was like scarred from having watched it – if that’s not horrifying then I don’t know what is

      I guess the point of the post was more about the lessons I learnt from the techniques they used which I feel apply elsewhere and that was the point I was trying to make. I know your an expert on horror, I know nothing about horror other than what I find terrifying…. So totally happy to be challenged on everything except the fact that I knew it wasn’t a horror film! Way to much of a wimp to watch a horror film in the first place! 😂😂😂

      1. Ah right, I get you. Sounds like the filmmakers did a good job of making you anxious though! Funny what we’ll spend our money on as ‘entertainment’, isn’t it?!

          1. I bruised my hip and split my knee open but other than that I was fine! Creep is about a woman who misses the last tube and gets stuck in Charing Cross station with this guy – I can’t remember if he’s a monster or just nuts but he gets a bit torture-y.

          2. Blimey, I thought you were guna say no, you were fine. Ok, totes not watching that! I can just about read scary things, but I am WAY to visual, I would totally get nightmares!

  5. I’m so embarrassed for this movie and honestly thought (hoped and prayed) it would not be released in the UK. I wrote a paper in college about horror films (in the traditional knife-wielding stabber flicks like Halloween) and how the emotional pacing of such films are a substitute for sex, thus popular with teens. My biggest horror is the loss of intelligence within my country. It doesn’t get much stupider than Trump. But great save by turning to an epiphany for writing.

    1. That is so true about trump. Lol.
      The film was spectacularly bad I have to say. But even with bad films there’s an opportunity to learn, always an opportunity to learn.

      Love the sound of your essay btw

  6. Your post has completely changed my perspective on what we perceive as horror. We have surely come a long way from considering individual flesh-eating brutalities as horror to stuff like you rightly said, terrorism. I never thought our perception of horror would be so dynamic.. It had always seemed so static, but your post set me thinking. What I take from this is that horror is a reflection of the psyche – our individual as well as collective psyches! Thank you for introducing me to that concept.

    1. What a lovely comment to receive. Thank you for reading my post. I completely agree – I think horror is a reflection of our own psyches. I hope you have a lovely week.

  7. Gosh loved this post .. The film gave me the willy”s ( not literally) after seeing it I walked through London kings cross surrounded by gun welding policeman …its London are they costumes then I remembered Europe on alert after Paris and the atrocity in Belgium ..
    Scary is the touching on reality , seen my fare share of boy films… It’s the ones that send the boys home limbless and leave children parentless that mess with my head .. And the what ifs , Sacha you are so right the British establishment would be devistated if London was to be hit again (not so long ago from the wars our grandparents experienced ) .
    I must add though Sacha. “The Blob ” for me , was one of the films as I am a great lover of B movies that gave me an interest in films , ok so it was obviously filmed through a jelly but seriously what a film … In fact must watch it again sometime..
    Thanks again Sacha fabulous post as it got the grey matter buzzing .

  8. I’m terrified of everything. Honestly, I’ve never thought about writing horror or trying to capture fear or anything. But this is a great post!

    1. Thanks Rachel, I didn’t till I watched the film and then I realised fear isn’t just for horror – even facing the bad guy in my YA fiction the fear needs to be real. 😊

  9. I used to be a huge fan of horror films. I wrote a whole research paper on how horror films evolve to reflect the fears of society back in high school. For example, radioactive beasts were kings during the cold war. The original Halloween shocked audiences by being shot from the killer’s perspective and was released only a year after the Son of Sam killings made headlines and people were now afraid of their neighbors. But horror movies started to lose me when gore-porn became all the rage. Gratuitous violence – blah. I still will watch them on occasion, but definitely not as often as I used to.

    On a totally different note, as an American I can that find scenes in which the White House or Statue of Liberty are destroyed pretty cliche.

    1. I love that you wrote a paper on it. I wish my school had been that cool! someone else mentioned the gore-porn thing too. I’m not really out for that either I’ll be honest. Interesting about the cliche, I wonder how you felt the first time you saw it…

      1. It probably wasn’t the first time, but the most memorable time was in Independence Day.

        Still, I don’t particularly have a deep-seated attachment to the White House. It’s just a building with a fence and a big lawn, so even in Independence Day it was more of a ‘wow, those are some pretty impressive effects’ than a ‘no! not our history’. Destroying Mount Rushmore, while certainly a less strategic target, would have the bigger impact on me emotionally because it is art and also sends a message that your history’s greats are nothing.

  10. Perhaps one person’s horror is another person’s mild fear, we’re all different and some story ideas work better than others. Recently I read a Stephen King short story in Full Dark No Stars, this particular story was a grueling one about a woman being raped by a giant of a man, who raped and killed his victims. There’s a lot more to the story of course which I can’t mention in detail but she kept on thinking about her kitty, (she lived alone and this seemed to be her one driving force to keep on going, to survive)… dark humour, I know, but yes somehow that worked for me. The terror of the moment seemed even more appalling, and shocking as this woman (who happened to be a writer,) was clinging to the image of her much loved cat waiting for her to return home and feed it. Sounds silly I know but believe me it worked. Sorry for the spoilers if you haven’t read it yet!

    1. 100% agree. What I find scary, some people will think is a cuddly toy and vice a versa. That story you just read though sounds proper haunting, like I’d be scarred psychologically reading it! way too close to home! :p

      1. Yes it was pretty tough reading… I have to say. But Stephen King is such an incredible writer he manages to carry it off. Very few writers can write about such harrowing topics, it takes a rare breed I reckon.

    2. That is interesting, Marje. Have you read (King’s) Doctor Sleep novel yet? My comment is about a different angle, not a survivor, but an antagonist depicted . . . I was struck by how King humanized one of the minor characters in it, a previously villainous type, by having that character concerned about the dog he left back at home (who would feed and love the dog, when he was gone?). This sounds like a good story; is it in a recent King short story collection or one of the older ones like (?I think) Skeleton Crew or Night Shift (if I’m remembering the titles correctly)?

  11. I’ve never been a fan of horror, it’s just too…horrible. And the more reality-based, the scarier. You’re right about that. I think helplessness and randomness are key. The idea of having no control whatsoever, and the idea that it can just happen to anyone. That’s why terrorism is so frightening. And yes, good to keep those in mind if trying to make our writing scary!

    Of course, the American president doesn’t die, Sacha, and the American buildings don’t get blown up either. That would be silly (very tongue in cheek here, hope you know). We’d have to rethink our big-stick approach to the world, and there’s no way we’re going to do that! (More sarcasm, just so you know). I’ll stop there 🙂

    1. I agree, and thats the thing, helplessness and randomness aren’t resigned to JUST the horror genre. PHAHAHAAH your sarcasm nearly made me choke on my water! you’re hilarious

  12. I’ve never liked gory horror. Honestly, I find it annoying. What’s the point? I like story with my gore. And even then, I’d prefer it not be there. The psychological thriller is my thing. Some consider it horror, others don’t. But that’s what keeps me up at night… Fears… The description of the girl paralyzed…thanks for that image! 😱

    I saw some iconic buildings get blown up on TV as it happened for real in 2001. I won’t get over that anytime soon.

    1. neither do I!! Mostly, I just like a story with my story full stop. I can handle gore, if its done with a story like you say… and like the paralysed girl! Was a fucking good book though to be fair! Yeah, my nan was in NYC at the time, we were pretty scared, she took photos… they are haunting.

  13. I think horror has changed over the years. I remember watching the movie Friday the 13th for the first time at the cinema. At the end, everyone got up to leave thinking the movie had finished and an usherette told everyone to sit back down because the movie had not finished. What came was the biggest shock everyone in that cinema got and it went on to make future horror movies all come with similar endings.
    What some find horrifying, others don’t. For me, watching horror scares me far more than reading it in a book. I can’t do the ‘blood and guts’ movies anymore because they have come to make me really turn away or turn off the movie. What I find more horrifying now are those stories and movies that put the ‘fear of god’ into you.
    As Erika mentioned, it’s the everyday objects we think could never be villains that can be the most terrifying.

    1. Now Friday the 13th I have seen. But it wasn’t at the cinema! But I don’t remember that shock ending… remind me… I agree. I find horror in films far more scary than in a book. Possibly because I am so visual and its like a live feed so it brings it home a bit more.

      1. *Spoiler Alert* The last survivor is laying in a boat after everyone else (including Jason) are killed. Hooray! she has survived the gory death that Jason has inflicted on everyone else. Lovely music and her hand is touching the top of the water. Then, he jumps out of the water and grabs her and drags her underwater with him (after a horrible struggle of course).
        It gave everyone in the cinema the fright of their lives. Then she wakes up! Yep, the classic dream shock ending (but at least in those days it was a new way of ending a movie).

  14. I won’t see the film becasue it’s rated as shit but your point is so very true. I walk the streets in part as a defiance after 7/7. No sodding goon is stoping me enjoying MY city and recording it and loving it. Photographing around Parliament I get both cross and upset seeing sub machine gun toting cops. I want them away. That’s my horror, the combination of fanaticism and political weedy-williness reducing access place. You used t be able to walk up to No 10 and blow raspberries at the front door but courtesy of the IRA and its mortar attack we can’t. Sod it. I’ll go where I damn well like and let them blow away. You’ve just given me an idea for a novel…

    1. Have I actually? If you wrote a novel about blowing raspberries at number 10 it would shoot to the top of my list!! I love your defiance Geoffle. I like defiance in anyone. It’s an honourable trait.

      1. I read a definition of resilience about accepting whatever you reality is even if it’s worse than before and working from it to improve. I think resilience is my trait of the day

  15. Excellent post, Sacha. Yes, I think horror is changing. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0099582/fullcredits/ Flatliners was made in 1990 and by the time I got to see it on dvd, it scared the bejesus out of me. Reason? It dealt with where we go after we die. The next big thing to scare me was Twenty Eight Days Later and the zombie resurrection. Why? I saw Night of the living dead too young? well yes, but also because it is possible. A virus these days can easily be stolen and used as a terror weapon. I watched Saw and rolled my eyes at the gore and couldn`t really put myself in the characters shoes. I saw Insidious and didn`t sleep for a week. Again the belief that it could happen was what gave it that fear factor for me. The Blob, loved it as a classic and it didn`t scare me one bit either. lol

    1. oooooh twenty eight days later is a bit scary – you know its based on the book Day of the Triffids – thats one of the books that got me into writing. I think you’re right though. Society seems to be on the brink of something, killing ourselves! Whether that be through weaponised viruses or artificial intelligence, the outlook isn’t great! which is what makes all these films so horrifying – the reminder of our own mortality

  16. I think the horror genre changes more than any other because what frightens us changes from generation to generation. My grandchildren think bats are cute.

  17. I enjoyed reading this Sacha (I think we all know by now I love my horrors ha). It’s interesting though because yes I do think horror has changed, all genres are starting to really. But I always think of horror as blood,gore, and anything creepy. While stories likes Gone Girl, Before I go to sleep, has thrillers. Maybe it’s just a subconscious thought as horror & thrillers tend to cross over, and most horrors have a bit of a thriller in them but I wouldn’t think thrillers usually have the horror aspect in them.

    1. hey Bre, sorry for the delay, the bloggers bash has been crazy! it’s a good point and I guess it depends on what your definition of horror is. To me, the prospect of terrorism demolishing all our national treasures and making London a city of rubble is kind of scary.

  18. Great post Sacha.
    For me horror still includes gore, lots of gore. It also needs suspense and surprise. The difficult part, as one becomes used to traditional build-ups (desensitized), is providing the surprise. The search for shocking or appalling kill scenes can lead to a somewhat comic portrayals, but occasionally one can achieve awe.
    What do I fear most?
    I fear that a reader might not find a little shock and awe in my writing. 😉
    So I keep working, honing…tweaking.

    1. Thanks Robert and thanks for the share too.

      I agree on the surprise and suspense. I think suspense is key for horror. Gore is probably a personal preference. I guess in its truest form horror has gore, but I don’t think its an essential any more. Perhaps because the genre has diversified so much, as many genres have.

      Keep writing! Just KEEEEEEP writing 😀

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