Let’s begin with Math
In 2004, researchers came up with the perfect formula for what elements makes a horror movie scary:
(ES + U + CS + T) 2 + S + (TL + F)/2 + (A + DR + FS)/N + sin(x) – 1 
ES = Escalating Music; U = Unknown, CS = Chase Scenes, T = Trapped (being or feeling), S = Shock, TL = True Life, F = Fantasy (Why /2? To avoid using too much of either), A = Alone, DR = Dark Room, FS = Film Setting (Effect decreases with increase in number of characters N), sin(x) = Gore (sine can be + or – so too much can mess up your story and so can too little), -1 = Stereotypes (these can kill your story)
If you’re still with me,
Let’s scare someone today.
The word ‘horror’ means ‘an intense feeling of fear, shock or disgust’. The word comes from the Latin horrere, meaning ‘to tremble or shudder’. . It is often used in conjunction with ‘terror’. However, according to an essay by Ann Radcliffe in the essay “On the Supernatural in Poetry”. Terror is characterized by “obscurity” or indeterminacy in its treatment of potentially horrible events; it is this indeterminacy which leads to the sublime. She says in the essay that it “expands the soul and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life”. Horror, in contrast, “freezes and nearly annihilates them” with its unambiguous displays of atrocity . Let’s concentrate on creating fear today.
What does fear do to you? It creates a change in metabolism. There is an adrenaline rush, the breathing rate goes up, heart beats faster, pupils dilate, sensitivity to sound & touch shoots up, perception of time changes, you get into the fight or flight mode or you just freeze.
What are the elements of a good scary story?
- Characters : Make the reader care for the protagonist or admire the antagonist
- Setting: Create a concrete sense of where the action is happening. Reflect the fear of the character in the surroundings.
- Words: Use the right words. Adjectives, adverbs that add a scare element
- Realism: The reader shouldn’t feel “Nobody would do that!”
- Gore: Use it wisely. There is always a line.
And of course Pain, Tragedy, Mystery, Surprise, Shock and Fear
There are few good horror writers. The names I came across are Stephen King, Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Clive Barker, Bram Stoker, Neil Gaiman, Chuck Palahniuk, John Lindqvis.
Expert Advice & Prompts
- At the end, there are only three things that can freak someone out
“The 3 types of terror: The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it’s when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm. The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it’s when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worse one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It’s when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there…” – Stephen King
- Use your own fear
“I have always loved to use fear, to take it and comprehend it and make it work and consolidate a situation where I was afraid and take it whole and work from there.” – Shirley Jackson
- Get inside your narrator’s head
“There’s no formula. I think you have to create a very close point of view. You have to be in the eyes of the narrator. Everything that happens, all the smells, all the sounds; then your reader starts to identify with that character and that’s what makes something really scary.” – R. L. Stine
- Don’t worry about being “legitimate”
“…I’d had it drummed into my head in creative writing workshop courses that one could not expect to be a respected writer when writing commercial or genre books. Legitimacy has always been very important to me… Finally, though, I said the heck with all of it. I wasn’t going to try to be Toni Morrison or Joyce Carol Oates, I was just going to be me, and I was going to write about the people I know…” – Tananrive Due
- Take your ghosts and goblins seriously. They represent the fear of the unknown.
“I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.” – Ray Bradbury
- Go where the pain is. Something you can’t get over. That’s where the true horror lies.
“Writers write about what obsesses them. You draw those cards. I lost my mother when I was 14. My daughter died at the age of 6. I lost my faith as a Catholic. When I’m writing, the darkness is always there. I go where the pain is.” – Ann Rice
- The scariest thing is feeling out of control. Everyday life is right on the edge of dissolving into chaos.
“Horror fiction has traditionally dealt in taboo. It speaks of death, madness and transgression of moral and physical boundaries. It raises the dead to life and slaughters infants in their cribs; it makes monsters of household pets and begs our affection for psychos. It shows us that the control we believe we have is purely illusory, and that every moment we teeter on chaos and oblivion.” – Clive Barker
- Tell your own story. Make your own monsters.
“I tend to prioritize emotional realism above the known laws of time and space, and when you do that, it’s inevitable that strange things happen. Which can be quite enjoyable, I think.” – Helen Oyeyemi
What we do today:
Tweet a story in 126 characters or less that has one of the following words :
Aghast, Terrified, Trembling, Blood – curdling, Severed
We will all write (1) one thing we fear most (2) one place/setting/space-time that, in our imagination, creeps us out. The chits will all be jumbled and each person gets one fear and one setting.
The task is to create a scary story in a clear setting with 1-3 characters that is centered around one key fear.
Exercise 1 (Duration: 30 mins)
Build up a situation in the setting you received that invokes terror in the mind of the reader. Introduce your characters here. Set the stage for the main act.
Exercise 2 (Duration: 30 mins)
Let your character encounter the fear and face it or run from it. Introduce and play on the horror now.