Let’s play a word association game. I say something and you tell me the first thing that pops into your head.
Most people first think of a monster, or of a violent, gruesome, possibly totally unrealistic death. But that isn’t what makes horror, horror.
The moment that the character is stabbed is not the moment horror is born. Horror walks the line of supsense keeping the entire world of the story contain within a tightly coiled spring. The moment the monster appears, attacks, maims, etc. that’s the moment the spring comes undone and then (if it’s not the climax) the spring begins to coil back down, ready to spring again.
The scare doesn’t come from violence. The scare comes from a delicate rhythm of tension, and release, of the unknown threat, or unseen danger finally being realized. In horror, sometimes the most powerful jolts are based on the things you don’t see, or don’t expect. It’s jarring.
But that jolt alone does not a horror story make. The best analogy I heard is that one spark does not start a fire unless there’s something surrounding it to catch flame. A single moment won’t set the way for a horror story unless you’ve done the work and set the rest of the scene. For example:
Bill and Ted were having coffee. It was Tuesday and a good day.
Stan walked over to Bill and stabbed him, ripping his belly button open and pulling out his insides.
Shocking? Maybe. Horror? Eh…..
The scene doesn’t set up anything. So rather than tension being released, you instead get a blank stare of ‘…wait, what?’ it lends itself more to confusion than to fear. There is no build-up, no tension, no fear, just blood. This is like a lighter going off in a vaccum. There’s nothing to set fire so nothing can spread.
For horror, the devil is in the details. You can’t have a scary story without tension. Think of the oldest horror cliche in the world. The woman alone in a dark house with a killer. Why is it scary? Because you know something is going to happen. You see it everywhere. Something runs down the hall? Here he comes… oh, just her dog. Phew. Wait? Her dog’s bleeding! And so it continues onwards until the tension finally snaps into action.
So, here’s a challenge for you. Write your own revised version of Ted, Bill and Stan’s Tuesday morning and share it with me!