I read a thread on Quora recently: What is the best horror story you can come up with in two sentences?
While I don’t want to offend anyone who has replied, I found myself being “afraid” from only one story – the first one.
“I begin tucking him into bed and he tells me, “Daddy, check the monsters under my bed.”
I look underneath for his amusement and I see him, another him, under the bed, staring
back at me quivering and whispering, “Daddy, there’s somebody on my bed.””
Horror, like any other genre (and writing anything in itself anyway) is subjective. Horror is more subjective than any other genre for me personally, and for many others I believe, because different things make different people afraid. I have an intense phobia of ventriloquist dolls, so anything about this would terrify me, whilst some people may not feel this fear at all intently, even if the story is meant to incite this fear.
In equal measure, the responses from Quora subscribers failed to make me feel “fear,” despite their best efforts. It is no detriment to them however – some people may feel fear from sentences about ghosts or stalkers or violence. I don’t feel fear when I read these kind of horror stories, because I don’t believe ghosts are real, I’d confront the stalker and because I’m immune to reading violence – I’m dead inside, don’t worry, I’m not a psycho (yet ;)).
Some examples of writing I don’t really feel immense fear from are James Herbert novels. I like them well enough, but they don’t make me want to read them during the day surrounded by lots of people. I can read them on my own, in the dark (with a reading light obviously – I’m not Riddick) and at night without feeling like I have to watch or read something funny or “light” just so I can go to sleep without having horrible visions of child-abusing ghosts or psychotic dogs.
There are a number of reasons I found the above paragraph chilling. First, the sentence starts off with something regular, normal, usual: A son asks his father to check for monsters. We’ve all been there, so most of us can identify with this idea. “I look underneath for his amusement:” amusement – so we know the father isn’t expecting to find any monsters under the bed. It’s safe – the adult knows there’s nothing to fear. This is all a game.
Then something happens. His son – playful, afraid of something we all were afraid of at some point in our childhood – is not his real son? Which son is real? Both? Neither? Is the one on the bed an imposter, or the one under the bed? Is the imposter real or imaginary? A ghost; a shadow; a figment of the father’s imagination? Is the imposter dangerous or wishing to cause harm? The sentence invites you to play along: to check with the father if there is a monster under the bed. He finds something – but is it a monster? Even if the imposter, the “other son,” is harmless, the situation is chilling nevertheless.
The reason I found this sentence so haunting is its surprise. It gives you something you didn’t expect. We expect him to find something; after all why, then, is the sentence there? But to find another son? The very same with whom he just spoke?
The reason I didn’t find any other sentences in the replies to this thread is that there was no surprise there:
“Then she picked up the knife.”
“Then the small hand of her dead sister reached out.”
“But May has been dead for 30 years.”
(That last one, a total Friends steal) None of these are direct examples, but are very similar to responses to this thread. Danger, threat and “ghost” appearances aren’t plausible horrors for me – and this horror shouldn’t be plausible for the characters either. A character shouldn’t necessarily be terrorized by a person simply picking up a knife, otherwise we’d all be horrified every time someone chops onions or eats a meal with cutlery. What I want to know is: why is the character afraid of someone picking up a knife? What has happened prior to this? Has there been a conflict or danger present beforehand? Is the knife-holder a child or an intelligent animal, such as a monkey? Is the knife moving on its own? Is the person afraid of the knife actually the person holding it?
This sort of “horror-induced” sentence forgets one thing: it is not the knife we are afraid of, but the significance of its presence. A soft toy is just a toy, but when it is used as a method of suffocation in a story, that soft toy becomes ominous and “creepy” – coupled with using the soft toy as it is intended – i.e. used by a child – the toy’s significance is vastly increased.
Why are ghost stories no longer scary (for me at least)? They’ve been done to death (hah, see what I did there!) – so the dead sister came back to life; so the child who died in the attic appears in the mirror when you’re brushing your teeth; so, what? What else is new? Again, I think the trick is significance and element of surprise. Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger is such a haunting novel, and no characters actually see any ghosts.
*SPOILER ALERT FOR THE FILM THE OTHERS*
Why is The Others such a harrowing film? Because the main characters that we’ve begun to understand and have empathy for, characters where we feel afraid with them, are actually the very thing they were always afraid of: ghosts. They are the goddamn ghosts.
It’s not exactly “scary” but hauntingly surprising. Films like Insidious and Paranormal Activity are insatiably creepy, and the former film plays off music cues and jump-scare tactics (while I think it’s actually a really good film) but it is those rare gems of brilliance and surprise that makes the most horrifying tales take flight.
Horror is subjective – it’s whatever you are afraid of most and I honestly believe it is not exactly possible to leave a chilling, lasting effect on the reader by writing a few short sentences. Like fear itself, writing horror is a gradual force – when reading, the fear should set in like a deep, dark shadow, stretching from the depths of your imagination. The fear is neither forcibly present nor obvious. A true horror story should make you set the book down: you feel fine. But then you’re on your own in the dark and you remember and you quiver. Then you turn on the light, looking for your fear in the closet and behind curtains. Checking under the bed for monsters. Shaking with adrenaline that tells you: will I find something there?