Fear: how to use it in your writing

Although I don’t write full-on horror, there are aspects of it that creep into my stories–but hopefully not my dreams! Whether it’s a frightening monster or the prospect of succumbing to dark magic, the bits of horror that one could find in fantasy (especially dark fantasy) could add an interesting layer to the story.

So what scares us? Why?

The answer can vary with each person, however there are a few common things that lay the basis for what scares the bejeezus out of people:

  1. The Unknown–we are afraid of what (and sometimes who) we don’t know. One of the reasons we’re afraid of death is because we don’t know what it’s like until we experience it–and that’s a one way ticket. Humans are naturally inquisitive, and we like to know and understand, and if we can help it, categorize and define. Anything that doesn’t fit this model is suspect at best, and utterly frightening at worst. The first time my daughter saw a bug, she freaked out and yelled, “Mommy, I see something!” She didn’t know what it was or what to call it, but once I explained it to her and after a few more run-ins with these critters, she was no longer afraid (spiders are a different matter, though).
  2. The Unnatural or Grotesque–when something clearly defies or twists the natural or moral order of things, that is friggin’ scary. Don’t believe me? Read Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Also, there’s a reason why ghouls and demons are generally depicted in art the way they are–the further something deviates from the Beautiful, the more fear it can evoke.
  3. The Supernatural (of the non-friendly persuasion)–we have a natural fear of danger, especially if that danger could kill us. But how does one fend against moral or spiritual danger? That’s why H.P. Lovecraft‘s stories are so damned scary (and so damned good). We see characters starting off wanting to know or understand, yet their direct experience with forces that they shouldn’t be tampering with ends up destroying them or ripping apart their sanity. The Exorcist wasn’t scary because the priests ended up dead–it’s what transpired during the exorcism that caught our imaginations.

This list is by no means complete. Just think of the fear of “the darkness within,” or being alone, or going insane. When these things are weaved into a story, it can heighten tension, engage the reader, and fuel the imagination. Horror isn’t about the “shock factor,” but rather it explores our hopes and fears, and may even teach us something about ourselves.

Share your thoughts!